Saturday, July 20, 2024

The Central House building in Cambridge’s Central Square on May 7, 2020. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Maintenance crises at two Cambridge institutions that help prevent homelessness converged in complaints to city officials Monday. They were big and small, old and new: The 128-unit facility in Central Square serving lower-income men and “overnight guests” since 1896, according to an archival news story provided by the city’s historical commission, and a just-opened shelter for families in North Cambridge.

The problems offered a chance for officials to check in the job of property managers and city policies about homelessness, which have evolved since the pandemic.

At the new Hildebrand Family Self-Help Center at 2222 Massachusetts Ave., use by a dozen families strained the pipes in a 1910 home and sent human sewage onto the property of its neighbor, A Cambridge House Inn at Porter, manager Greg Kaplan told city councillors Monday.

“This is an extreme health concern,” Kaplan said, complaining that the shelter’s sole resident manager didn’t know what to during the emergency and didn’t have keys to get to the home’s plumbing, and that it took hours for authorities to show up.

A sewage leak from a family shelter in North Cambridge briefly affected an inn next door. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The resident families – some local and some recently arrived refugees from other countries – stayed one night in a hotel while repairs were made, assistant city manager for human services Ellen Semonoff said. Now better communications have been established as well, she said.

The management problem in North Cambridge seems like the result of growing pains for a brand-new facility, as Hildebrand runs other other family shelters in Cambridge “and they do very well,” said city councillor Marc McGovern, head of a recent Ad Hoc Working Group on Homelessness. “They’ve been around a long time and very good at maintaining those buildings and responding.”

Conditions in Central Square units

Meanwhile, sometimes horrific living conditions were described in a letter to councillors from 19 residents of the Central House single-resident-occupancy housing for men at 820 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, run since 2011 by Caritas Communities in a YMCA building.

The building is “infested with cockroaches and mice. An exterminator came and fumigated part of the building, but the problem is not solved. Residents have called ISD before, and we understand that the city has told Caritas to address the problem,” the letter said, referring to the city’s Inspectional Services Department. “The mice and cockroaches are still here. Imagine opening your drawer to get some clothes and a bunch of roaches run out. That’s how bad things are – it is disgusting.”

McGovern joined councillor Quinton Zondervan in visiting the building – just steps from City Hall – and found an impressive new manager there “willing and open to working with the city” to address the issues, McGovern said.

Additional issues in the building center around a lack of access to healthy food. “We are grateful to be provided with microwaves and refrigerators in our rooms, but many of them do not work correctly and a few of them have even caught on fire,” the residents said. “Even when it does work, a microwave alone is not enough to prepare healthy, nutritious meals.”

Covid added to debt

Residents suggested that Caritas replace the broken appliances and either create a communal kitchen area like at the nearby YWCA or provide residents with meals seven days a week. “Meals are only provided to some of us on one or two days each week,” the letter said. “This is unacceptable. Food is very expensive, and we need help with this.”

The councillors planned to bring forward a policy order to address some issues, including the lack of money to improve the situation from tenants who couldn’t pay rent, exacerbating limited resources and the fact there’s only one housing caseworker for more than 100 residents. “Residents will be more likely to pay their rent on time if their immediate basic needs are met,” Zondervan said.,

Many such homes rely on rent to do upkeep, and Covid pandemic brought lockdowns that kept the men from working and an eviction moratorium during which they stopped paying rent. With the end of the moratorium and arrival of piled-up rent bills, many “are $10,000-plus in debt and can’t make that up. So that program is seeing a significant revenue loss,” McGovern said.

It’s important that the city step in and try to figure out a solution, McGovern said.

Family homelessness rises

There was more the city could be doing elsewhere too, said Zondervan, noting that suggestions from McGovern’s ad hoc committee from 2018 had seen “little or no progress” and that the family use of the shelter in North Cambridge seemed to be the result of thriftiness after first being proposed for unhoused individuals – because the city could tap outside funding for families instead. “It’s very troubling that this decision was made essentially based on the desire not to spend additional city funds to help our homeless population. And the move toward refugee housing was made because funding was available from the state,” Zondervan said. “State and federal governments are not keeping up with the deep structural and injustices in our society, and the people who are sleeping on the streets cannot wait for us to figure that out. So we have to do more.”

Some saw more positives in the family-shelter reuse for the historic R.H. Farwell House, which has served as offices for the Weston Jesuit Community and as a high school hockey dorm. Homeless families are among the hardest to accommodate, and now “several children are now going to be in a place where they have shelter,” councillor Patty Nolan said.

McGovern said that while it’s “disappointing that I still can’t walk through Central Square without being stopped a half-dozen times by unhoused folks asking me to help them,” it’s useful to address a recent sharp increase in family homelessness.

Supplementing spending

City managers noted the “deeply regional issue” couldn’t be solved in Cambridge even with recent efforts such as maintaining the Spaulding Wellness Center shelter through June 2025, contributing to 62 units of permanent housing at 160 Norfolk St., keeping the Salvation Army shelter near Central Square open and adding another $2.7 million in funding around the unhoused in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. The city is using affordable-housing dollars as well as federal Covid-relief dollars for permanent supportive housing for the homeless, “which has not necessarily been the focus of our affordable-housing dollars in the past,” Semonoff said.

The pandemic also changed how sheltering works, because “we spread people out more to keep them safe” and learned that with that “more humane, dignified and healthy way to treat people who we are housing, it’s easier to deliver services and people do better,” City Manager Yi-An Huang said.

“Nobody wants to go back to much more crowded scenarios,” but it cost as much as 30 percent of Cambridge’s shelter capacity, and the city is focused on first ensuring that day-to-day operations are running and capacity is preserved, Huang said.

It will be “exciting to pick that report up and figure out where do we go from here,” Huang said, referring to the findings by McGovern’s committee. But using city dollars to leverage state and federal funding to address regional homelessness is a “wise” approach, and exactly what Cambridge already does to build affordable housing.

This post was updated May 17, 2023, with revised information from the historical commission. It was updated May 18, 2023, to emphasize the responsibility of Caritas over housing in Central Square.