Thursday, June 13, 2024

Homelessness is a national problem that is testing the capacity and compassion of some of the most progressive cities in America. Somerville is no different, and East Somerville in particular is dealing with an increase in homelessness.

I submitted a resolution at the Aug. 21 meeting of the City Council that the city declare a public health emergency regarding homelessness in Somerville, following Gov. Maura Healey’s declaration a week prior. I also submitted a list of tangible goals to address homelessness in Ward 1 that can be found here. They boil down to two resources we have yet to fully provide: money and effort. My goal is to push the city to finally treat homelessness as an emergency and use compassion as well as accountability to help people while upholding basic community standards.

This is an issue close to my heart. I see it as I walk the streets as well as in my day job, where I help homeless veterans find employment. People I grew up with, and now their children are living on the streets. I’ve lost count of how many friends died from substance abuse. I’ve also been robbed and assaulted by people close to me. The hard lesson I’ve learned is you must always assist those seeking help, but some are not ready to accept help and boundaries must be set for your own safety.

I’ve passed numerous orders and resolutions over the years regarding homelessness and substance abuse prevention. The very first substantive order I placed was to have the police and fire departments carry Narcan, which saved hundreds of lives, including many people I know. I’ve advocated for housing, shelters, warming and cooling stations, public restrooms and more. This year I advocated successfully to increase staffing for the Community Outreach, Help and Recovery team working directly with homeless residents and overdose victims.

While we must always uphold our compassionate ideals, we must also have accountability around basic standards of decency in the community. In the past few months alone East Somerville has seen public defecation, knife fights, street brawls, indecent exposure, public intoxication, theft, destruction of property, trespassing and litter. I’ve heard about this from many residents, from families to immigrant-owned businesses to unhoused residents themselves. These incidents are not a blanket description of all homeless residents. It is a very small group that is reducing the quality of life for everyone, including other homeless people. No shelter, church, nonprofit organization or mental health institution would tolerate this behavior. Public parks and streets should be no different.

Numerous studies show that exposure to violence, crime and even litter has a negative mental impact on community members. Ignoring these problems is not compassion; rather it dehumanizes the homeless and ensures they will never escape the streets. We must offer all the resources possible to house and treat the symptoms of homelessness. If people are not ready or willing to accept those resources, however, the alternative cannot be to enable them to continue harming themselves and the community.

Accountability does not necessarily mean arrest, although violent crime and indecent behavior should be addressed. It does mean that everyone, housed and unhoused alike, buy into the same set of basic community standards. I’ve requested the city increase enforcement on liquor stores over-serving customers, which they have aggressively pursued. I’ve also asked that alcohol consumed in public spaces be confiscated, a basic standard we expect from all residents. I’ve suggested work programs and community cleanups that include homeless residents to have everyone buy into our shared responsibility.

Compassion and accountability are not contradicting concepts. They are basic elements of society. Compassion without accountability can lead to progressive-minded people becoming resentful of the victims of our economic system and the resources cities provide. This dynamic is playing out all over America where cities are resorting to force to push out unhoused populations. Accountability with no compassion, however, does not address the root causes of homelessness and leads to the authoritarian responses people fear.

Somerville cannot solve homelessness alone, but we do have the resources and compassion necessary to help people in crisis while not ignoring the problems everyone can see in plain sight. I will continue to push the city to address this national issue on a neighborhood level with the resources they must provide.

Matthew McLaughlin is the Ward 1 city councilor for Somerville.