Saturday, June 22, 2024

A homeless encampment at a Davis Square, Somerville, church on Dec. 4, 2020. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Somerville is facing a rapidly growing homelessness crisis, the City Council said in an order approved Aug. 24, calling on Mayor Katjana Ballantyne to declare a state of emergency. It was one of many orders councilor Matt McLaughlin put forth on the issue, calling East Somerville the most under-served area.

“I’m talking about compassion as well as accountability,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve all long advocated for a place in East Somerville for unhoused people to seek shelter, get resources and to prevent them from dying out in the elements. This has gone back for two administrations now, several years, and nothing has happened. Now that we’ve reached this emergency phase, we’re in crisis mode because we never address this problem. My biggest ask is a physical location for the unhoused population in East Somerville, to make sure we don’t lose any more lives and so that those who want their lives back have the option to do so.”

Other orders the council approved included a call for data on homelessness rates, updates on the installation of safe-consumption sites for drugs, public toilets and additional shelter spaces, as well as calls for enforcement of liquor-sale laws and storefront upkeep.

“There are a lot of problems in East Somerville in particular that are unacceptable by any standard of civilization,” McLaughlin said, citing public defecation, knife fights, street brawls, public intoxication, theft, trespassing and litter. 

Belongings strewn on stairs in Somerville. (Photo: Ryan DiLello)

Neighboring Cambridge faces some of the same challenges, particularly in its Harvard and Central squares, according to business and law enforcement officials there.

“I don’t want to paint unhoused people with a broad brush. We probably have hundreds of them in this community. I’m talking about less than 10 people allowed to do things like this,” McLaughlin said, assuring the council he had received complaints about behaviors among some unhoused people from residents of all backgrounds. “We are all neighbors regardless of whether we have a home. We have to treat each other with respect.”

Mayor’s response

In a statement sent Aug. 25, Ballantyne said she would take the resolution for a state of emergency “under advisement.”

“We are paying close attention to community reports and understand the urgency residents feel about addressing this situation,” Ballantyne said.

A week after the council motion, no further word was heard from the mayor’s office.

Jordan Harris, pastor of Connexion Church in East Somerville – on the front lines supporting the unhoused population in that neighborhood – said he was skeptical of the city’s efforts.

“I don’t think they have a sense of urgency,” Harris said. “During the pandemic, we had tents open for folks to get testing within days. I’ve seen the city move quickly to prioritize climate change too. Here, we’re often met with insurance questions that pose some logistical challenges. That should push the city to try harder,” not drag their feet, Harris said.

Distribution of resources

In her statement, Ballantyne noted the city has allocated more than $9 million in federal Covid relief funds known as American Rescue Plan grants to local nonprofits; partnered on initiatives including the city’s first daytime engagement and overnight warming centers for unsheltered residents; and founded the first emergency shelter fund.

“Our strategy is constantly evolving as we learn new ways the city can provide additional supportive services and solutions for the unhoused community,” Ballantyne said.

But the city faces a challenge in distributing resources, which are concentrated in West Somerville. The Somerville Homeless Coalition operates out of Davis Square and does not have the capacity to serve the city’s east side sufficiently. A coalition spokesperson did not make themselves available over the past week.

“We need to have some sort of resource center in East Somerville,” said Nicole Eigbrett, director of community organizing at the Community Action Agency of Somerville. “We know that the city has funneled American Rescue Plan funds into Davis Square, and the Homeless Coalition is doing tremendously critical work in the West. But the types of conditions and people who have been living in the streets of East Somerville are really different. We need something that’s hyperlocal to the neighborhood.”

McLaughlin agreed. “Folks in my area don’t travel to that side of town at all. It’s important to have services in East Somerville. That’s been my request for several years.” McLaughlin put forth an order for the city to look into seizing 118 Broadway, the abandoned East End Grill building, for the purpose of providing homelessness services. It’s been closed since the fall of 2016; a 22-home apartment building with ground-floor retail was approved in 2017 to replace it, but progress has been lacking – the Bldup real estate platform shows no action until a permit approval in July to cut and cap water and sewer lines, preparing the site for construction. McLaughlin also read off a list of other potential sites for the city to consider repurposing.

Nongovernmental efforts

Connexion Church took the initiative to serve as a makeshift warming center for the unhoused when the city was slow to move, Harris said. When the city did open emergency shelters, they were in the west side of the city. “And they didn’t announce it until the day-of. Unless you were in the know, you weren’t even aware of their availability,” Harris said.

The city’s Inspectional Services Department called Harris at the beginning of the year to demand that he dispose of the “trash” in front of the Connexion building. “But really they were referencing the folks sleeping in front and their belongings,” Harris said. “I had a pretty tenuous back and forth with them. They threatened to fine us. That got the attention of some of our elected officials. We met with the city in February to help resolve this issue, but also to let them know we’re noticing an increase in unhoused folks, especially with mental illness and alcohol addiction. Health and Human Services came to the table and promised to have a follow-up at City Hall.”

“We didn’t have that second meeting until August,” Harris said.

Eigbrett, of the Community Action Agency of Somerville, acknowledged the issue as “incredibly complicated.”

It needs to be addressed on multiple levels, Eigbrett said, but the political effort “will hopefully produce policy that tackles the root causes of these issues. There needs to be continued education and narrative-shifting for the community at large, too. I’m hearing from some neighbors who feel like they can’t access parks and see litter everywhere – but people also have nowhere to call home. In the face of such dehumanization, I hope Somerville can unite on a solution, as opposed to sweeping people away.”

Reassurance of urgency

A solution is going to require governmental action, Eigbrett said, as “grassroots organizations don’t have the power to intervene fully anymore. Government officials need to meet them somewhere in the process.”

Still, throughout the year, Connexion has held community meetings to discuss the crisis and raise awareness among residents.

It’s important to maintain a productive narrative, Harris said.

“We keep holding these meetings because I’m worried we’re going to lose the good will of the community. I think a lot of folks are finding it difficult to cohabitate. A state of emergency gives the community some reassurance that the city views this as an urgent issue. The same holds true for our unhoused population – to see and hear that. I know there are more political, city-oriented resolutions that come from the declaration, but for me I think it’s about calling it a crisis, recognizing it’s growing rapidly in one of the densest cities in New England.”

version of this story appeared originally on the Somerville Wire.