Sunday, June 16, 2024

The scene Wednesday on Brattle Plaza in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. John, 23, is seen toward the right, shirtless. (Photo: Sue Reinert)

Tensions are rising among police, businesses and homeless people and their advocates about people living on the street in Harvard Square. Police commissioner Christine Elow said Wednesday “a recent influx” has resulted in crime, flamboyant sexual behavior, trash and human waste that officers must deal with, while some homeless people and advocates say police are harassing the homeless and taking away their belongings.

And in Central Square, police are trying to prevent unhoused people from sleeping in a specific place: around the Cambridge Public Library Central Square branch. Police took that step because of “multiple complaints from the neighborhood,” particularly from residents of the Manning Apartments public housing development, which borders a small park between the library and their building, police superintendent Frederick Cabral said.

Cabral said police never order people to leave, contradicting the account of one homeless man and City Council candidate Dan Totten. Cabral said officers assign the department’s homeless outreach team “to that location, and they will work with the people there to connect them to the appropriate services.” Police eventually found a shelter bed for the man, but he stayed only one night and is now living on the street in Harvard Square.

There are few options for someone who wants a place to sleep inside that very night. Unoccupied shelter beds are difficult or impossible to get right now, especially on short notice. Operators of shelters in Cambridge contacted by Cambridge Day said they had no available beds; when there are beds, applicants must often enter a lottery to get one. Two shelters with a total of 40 beds are closed for the summer and most others offer long-term stays for many occupants.

Shopping carts with the belongings of the unhoused by the Cambridge Public Library Central Square branch in 2022. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

City spokesperson Jeremy Warnick said the city has almost 300 year-round emergency shelter beds and 100 seasonal beds, including housing for families. “Like most cities, current demand for beds is generally outweighing availability,” he said. Case managers at the city’s Multi-Service Center can refer people to shelters or help them apply for beds elsewhere. A guide to comprehensive services for the homeless in Cambridge, handed out to people living on the street, shows that most shelters have many permanent beds, which aren’t available to someone trying to find a place to sleep on short notice.

No one agency keeps track of all available beds, so city workers and homeless people must call each shelter.

Billy, by the Central Square library

Last month a homeless man who calls himself Billy, 50, had unrolled his sleeping bag under the overhang at the Central Square library when police officers arrived and told him to leave, he said. Billy called city councillor Quinton Zondervan; his then aide, Totten, came to the scene and persuaded police to let Billy stay.

Four or five nights later, more police showed up and summoned a garbage truck to take Billy’s belongings, he said. Totten again came to the scene and intervened. The next day, Totten said, Zondervan called commissioner Elow, who said Billy could stay under an overhang at police headquarters in East Cambridge. Billy turned that down because it was too far from Central Square, where he sells newspapers for income to supplement his disability payments, Billy said. He also said his experience at the library left him distrustful of police.

“We were left with the impression that staying [at the Central Square library] would be okay,” Totten said. It wasn’t. Police returned that night and again said Billy must leave, both men said. Officers also said they were enforcing a recent rule barring anyone from sleeping outside in Central Square, Totten said.

Asked about that, Cabral said there was no such policy, but police were trying to prevent unhoused people from sleeping around the library. Residents of Manning Apartments, the low-income public housing project for seniors and younger disabled people, have complained that nonresidents were getting into the building and taking drugs and in some cases threatening residents.

Moved to Harvard Square streets

Billy, an unhoused man, says Wednesday that he moved to Harvard Square from Central Square. (Photo: Sue Reinert)

The area where Billy tried to sleep is on the other side of the library from Manning, on Pearl Street. Cabral said neighborhood residents had complained about the behavior of homeless people sleeping there.

Billy said workers at the library and people passing by had been friendly, with some giving him food and money. Though Cabral said the effort to prevent homeless people from sleeping outside the library dated back to May 2022, Billy said he arrived in the area from Bangor, Maine, in June and had slept under the overhang for a week and a half before police showed up last month.

After the third incident, police found a bed for Billy at the city’s transitional shelter in the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital building on Cambridge Street. That shelter is meant for people on a path to permanent housing.

Billy, who said he was a veteran and former postal worker, said he left after one night because employees there said he would have to undergo a “body cavity search.” “That’s unconstitutional,” he said. (A city spokesperson clarified Thursday after publication that this is not the practice at shelters in Cambridge, where employees will use a wand only outside a clothing and check bags for safety purposes, ensuring there are no weapons.) Since then, he has slept under an extension in front of the Bank of America branch in Harvard Square, he said. He said he soon must make up his mind whether to stay in Cambridge this winter. He would like to buy a trailer in Florida and move there, but needs more money to finance that, he said.

Councillor calls harassment

Elow’s remarks about the situation in Harvard Square came in a response to a strongly worded email from Zondervan on Tuesday headed: “Ongoing harassment of homeless people.” Zondervan said police and public works employees had taken away a homeless man’s belongings that morning. “Please get it back to him tonight and please stop harassing these people?! This is unconscionable and despicable and it needs to stop,” the message said.

Elow replied, pointing to conditions at One Brattle Square: “There is food, trash, human excrement, rats, blankets, clothing and other items littered across One Brattle Square.

“We are receiving daily complaints from the business community about people sleeping in doorways, property being damaged, crime including robbery, people coupling in public and trash that is having a negative impact on their ability to do business.”

She said officers went into the square every morning to clean up, and asked homeless people to move while they cleaned, “trying to set expectations and boundaries so we can all coexist.”

Exchanging accusations

Meanwhile, the commissioner said, Zondervan’s former aide and now council candidate, Totten, was following officers, harassing, filming and cursing them as they cleaned up. Elow accused Totten of “aggravating an already complex and challenging situation.”

Totten responded, “I am certainly not following around the police or harassing them, and in fact, in a twist of irony, it is actually the police officers who are following and harassing the unhoused residents of our city.”

Totten acknowledged that “there are issues” at One Brattle Square, but said police had removed a neatly packed cart that could have been wheeled to the side while the area was cleaned. The owner of the cart was not taking drugs or causing trouble, he said.

Totten said he spoke to an officer at the scene “who cited the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing in saying that they were trying to address the visible signs of neglect in hopes that it would lead to less crime and drug use. I think this is a misguided approach, and clearly not a balanced one. From what I have seen, officers are not coming into those situations with a compassionate, person-first approach.”

Arrivals unsettle

Totten said the way to address business concerns was to expand shelter capacity and services for homeless people. “There will be fewer people on the streets if we expand shelter capacity and provide housing options that make people feel safe, comfortable and supported,” he said.

Councillor Marc McGovern, a social worker with experience and contacts in the homeless community, joined the discussion, suggesting that police may be taking the belongings of people suspected of committing crimes. “I certainly don’t want to criminalize homelessness, but criminal activity is different,” McGovern said.

Some “old Cambridge” homeless people are frightened of some newer arrivals who are “more violent,” McGovern said. “We have to find some kind of balance. We shouldn’t be bothering innocent people, but we can’t just let people be unsafe.”

Praise for police

Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, confirmed Elow’s statements about business owners’ complaints, although she did not mention One Brattle Square.

“Over the past few months, we have seen an uptick in petty theft, drug dealing, human defecation and urination in doorways, smashed windows, graffiti and homeless encampments in Cambridge Common and Flagstaff Park,” Jillson said in an email. The situation has “a direct negative effect on the business community” as Harvard Square businesses recover from the pandemic.

Jillson praised police, saying “officers do an outstanding job as they maneuver through a difficult system, fulfilling the needs of our businesses and offering a variety of services to those in need in partnership with the many outstanding social service agencies located in the square.”

“I witness CPD officers’ integrity, compassion, intelligence, patience and empathy every single day. Anyone who speaks badly of them should spend a few shifts walking the squares and witnessing for themselves the challenges our officers face and the manner in which they deal with them,” she said.

John, on Brattle Plaza

On Wednesday around 10:30 a.m., across the street from One Brattle Square, a sleeping bag, blanket, jumble of varied textiles and clothes, suitcase, duffel, a backpack, empty plastic bottle and a few pieces of paper trash lay on the concrete. The wall between a lower level next to shops and a street-level sidewalk creates a bench of sorts where homeless people have been staying.

Two police officers were standing on the upper level. A shirtless young man strode up and down, cursing and taunting them, saying they were harassing the homeless by taking away their belongings. The man said he had been convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and armed robbery and had five adult convictions and five “juvie” convictions. He invited police to arrest him. They walked away.

A woman sat silently on the concrete edge next to the street-level sidewalk, wrapped in a sleeping bag.

The shirtless man, who gave his name as John and said he is 23, said he had been in various “programs” from the age of 7 and had been on his own since 18. He said he had been living on the street in Harvard Square for three years. Five months ago he and his partner – the silent woman – had moved into an apartment after their daughter was born.

Then the authorities took the child away, he said. “I lost everything,” he said. They moved back onto the street.

“You’re going to be stuck with me”

The man said homeless people living in the area took turns watching each other’s possessions to guard them from police. Nevertheless, he said, his possessions were taken the night before he was to start a job at a local supermarket. He lost the chance for the job because his identification documents were taken, he said.

The man said his partner had a Section 8 rent-assistance voucher but could not find an apartment because rents were higher than the maximum allowed under the federal program. He himself was not eligible because of his criminal convictions, he said.

“I wish I had my own place,” he said at one point while taunting the police officers. “I can’t get help for the next seven years,” he said, blaming his convictions. “You’re going to be stuck with me for the next seven years.”


This post was update Thursday with clarification from a city spokesperson about the rumor of “body cavity searches” at shelters.