Sunday, June 23, 2024

City Manage Yi-An Huang returns Monday from a walk through Central Square with the police department’s Family and Social Justice Section. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A “recommended path forward” on issues around unhoused populations and substance use in Cambridge will be presented in early 2023, according to a Tuesday presentation by city staff at a hearing of the City Council’s committee on human services.

Rather than “reinventing the wheel,” the ideas will lean on work done by an Ad Hoc Working Group on Homelessness led last year by councillor Marc McGovern and a Substance Use Advisory Committee that completed its work with recommendations, City Manager Yi-An Huang said.

“There’s a need for us to be thinking about how we coordinate,” Huang said, referring to services working with the unhoused that include the departments of human services, public health and public works, police and the Central Square Business Improvement District. “There’s a lot of willingness for the city to continue to make investments and think about what we should differently.”

The committee looked at issues throughout Cambridge but with an emphasis on Central Square, which has seen “an outsized proportion” of the city’s increases in overdoses, street robberies and aggravated assaults, according to the presentation.

It is unclear whether this is directly connected to an uptick in the area’s unhoused population. “Anecdotally, there has been a change,” Huang said. “We need to do a bit more analysis.”

While counts show no substantial changes in the number of people on Cambridge streets over time – 2018 was an official peak, with a count of 562 – “these counts are also not entirely accurate,” Huang said. “The latest count [of 500] is from January, and that was 11 months ago. And there has been a lot of things that have happened since then, in particular a lot of the actions at Mass and Cass that happened right around the time this count was happening.”

Mass and Cass was an encampment of the unhoused that Boston cleared aggressively.

There are “new faces,” McGovern said before the hearing, and “it’s probably a little bit more than a coincidence that when Boston started doing sweeps, we started to see an increase.”

Cambridge residents have expressed concern for their safety, and some did so again Tuesday. Debra Morris, a tenant leader at the Manning Street public housing tower for elderly and disabled residents, reminded officials during public comment of problems at Manning over the past year.

“The residents have signed a petition requesting that the City of Cambridge assist the Cambridge Housing Authority with security,” Morris said. “We have security from 7 in the evening till 3 in the morning. When the security leaves, [unhoused people] are getting into our building. They’re roaming. They’re doing what they want.”

Unhoused Neighbors

A resident visits the Unhoused Neighbors Project display in Cambridge’s City Hall on Tuesday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Others objected to the assumption that safety issues were driven by unhoused people, saying it reflected a societal stigma associating poverty with crime – in fact, much of the spike in crimes reflect those committed on the homeless, not by them, police have said.

“We assume that if a person is defecating in an alley, they must be a homeless person,” McGovern said. “They probably are, but they could be a drunk college student.”

Before the hearing, McGovern introduced in City Hall the Unhoused Neighbors Project, placards introducing – with short biographies, photos by Eva Tine and details such as favorite books and childhood heroes – some of the residents he feared were dehumanized by their homelessness. “A statement that often gets made is that on any given night, Cambridge has approximately 500 people on our streets or in our shelters. And when that statement is made, what I’ve noticed is that what people focus on is the ‘500’ and don’t focus as much on the word ‘people,’” McGovern said. “That’s what really drove this project.”

The placards will move to the Main Library and other locations to be seen by more people. “Hopefully this will help bring the community a little bit closer together as we struggle with how to solve this incredibly huge problem, which plagues every city in the country,” McGovern said.

Losing beds

Cambridge’s part of the problem may be worsening.

There are “significant” potential declines in homeless shelter capacity coming in the next six to 12 months, staff warned, with local space expected to decrease by nearly one-third with the possible closing of the Salvation Army Emergency Shelter and its 35 beds and the loss of leased space at Spaulding Hospital that held 58 beds.

That 93-bed loss could be eased at 116 Norfolk St., where the Cambridge Housing Authority and Eliot Community Human Services will dedicate 62 studio apartments to chronically unhoused people, up from 37 before renovations.

Human-services staff is working with partners on more options and will report back in early 2023, officials said.

Other services

Cambridge city councillor Marc McGovern introduces the Unhoused Neighbors Project on Tuesday with Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and photographer Eva Tine. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The city also continues to provide a wide range of community services, including emergency housing vouchers and food aid, and is exploring a recommendation by McGovern’s working group for, among other things, a low-threshold 24/7 drop-in center with temporary shelter and basic amenities with no requirement to enter treatment for substance use.

“Increasingly, because they’re being surveilled and coerced into treatment, we’re seeing community members spend time in Quincy and Braintree and the North Shore and Malden, where we know they’re less safe and at greater risk for overdose,” said Cassie Hurd, director of the Material Aid and Advocacy Program.

Other city projects come from police, who operate projects such as a hybrid patrol and outreach unit in Central and Harvard squares and a clinical support unit that provides psychological and social work services, including a Second Chance program. Several meeting attendees characterized police officers as compassionate and helpful; others said they likely made some Cambridge residents feel unsafe or unwelcome. “Having an army of occupation with flashing lights – we’ve seen what that does down at Mass and Cass,” said Jim Stewart, director of the First Church Shelter in Harvard Square. “It drives people away from services [while creating] the illusion of public action and public service.”

Public Works collaborates with the BID, a nonprofit organization funded by businesses’ taxes, to keep Central Square clean, which staff said created a more welcoming environment for everyone. “Think of the broken-window syndrome,” DPW deputy commissioner John Nardone said, referring to a theory that links disorder to serious crime. “When we can fix it quickly, it doesn’t get broken again. That’s really been what we’ve been trying to do for the last number of years. And I think we’ve seen a positive change in Central Square.”

Councillors want more

Public Health staff aims to reduce overdoses by leading prevention training sessions and distributing Naloxone, a street treatment against overdose. The primary tactic was to educate about the harm of substance use, Chief Public Health Officer Derrick Neal said

That’s insufficient, councillor Alanna Mallon said.

“In all other major cities, the Department of Public Health is a major player at the table. Those who have mental illness, substance abuse, chronic illness, physical disabilities, developmental disabilities and HIV/AIDS are a huge part of our unhoused. DPH is not, in my opinion, being as big of a partner and playing as big of a role as they could and should be,” Mallon said.

Councillor Dennis Carlone also had a critique that the city was “not looking at the real problems and realizing that we have to act.” His suggestion was to stop leasing space such as at Spaulding and instead buy property the city can control long term to fill public needs.