Thursday, July 18, 2024

Street traffic passes by an unhoused person Thursday in Somerville. (Photo: Marc Levy)

As the weather gets colder, Somerville is allocating $200,000 in federal Covid relief funds to open a warming center for the homeless that will operate seven days a week from January through March. It’s a priority for the city, director of Health and Human Services Karin Carroll said.

It just needs a location.

The warming center could be in East Somerville, an underserved area experiencing more homelessness, but Carroll did not provide specifics. Contracting the center will require a request for proposals to vendors, which the city has yet to release.

“We’re making this more complicated than it has to be,” city councilor Matthew McLaughlin said. “We created a warming center at the library last year. I don’t need something very elaborate. Other cities have moved quickly on this. I mean, what if the contract we engage in isn’t ready by the winter?”

Carroll attended a Sept. 11 meeting to provide updates on orders McLaughlin filed in August, which called immediate attention to the homelessness crisis in East Somerville. McLaughlin also filed for a state of emergency that Mayor Katjana Ballantyne said she would “take under advisement,” but has not issued a more recent statement.

Focused on the long term

In response to McLaughlin’s August orders, Carroll outlined existing services, noted incremental changes to them and seemed focused on the long term. McLaughlin and councilor Charlotte Kelly were appreciative of the strategic thinking, but demanded more in the short term.

“Of course it’s critical to get the harm reduction, wraparound services and warmth in the wintertime, but I think a lot of [McLaughlin’s orders] were spurred on by the urgency that folks were bringing us councilors around East Somerville,” Kelly told Carroll. “What’s been done to date to ensure these folks get what they need?”

Carroll referred again to the networks in place. “A lot of the most immediate work happens through the homeless coalition, who are outreach workers who go and meet people on the street and work with them on finding housing,” she said. “HHS is more focused on work preventing folks from becoming homeless.”

Without a center of its own, East Somerville relies on visits from surrounding nonprofits and transportation to Somerville Homeless Coalition services in West Somerville. The coalition’s daytime engagement center will be “expanded and replicated” with the $200,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds funds, Carroll said, but plans are still in early stages. In the meantime, the center is becoming more self-sufficient, with a new grant that will allow visitors to enroll in Medicaid or MassHealth onsite.

Addressing liquor sales

Alcohol is the primary substance abuse in East Somerville. For that, Bay Cove’s Addiction Recovery Services team – Caspar, or Cambridge and Somerville Programs for Addiction – travels around Somerville and Cambridge daily from 2 to 10 p.m. And Boston-based Fenway Health has increased its harm-reduction service visits to weekly in East Somerville and offers referrals for alcohol abuse. The city is also intending to begin work on substance abuse prevention once it hires a community health worker in the fall or winter, Carroll said.

The Somerville Police Department’s in-house program, Community Outreach, Help and Recovery, does “minimal outreach” to East Somerville, director Patty Contente said.

“Over the years we’ve gotten to know the folks in East Somerville. We follow up on calls that have a behavioral health component, and in that way we’re involved. We do some direct outreach since adding staff, but our capacity is still limited,” Contente said. The police program also teams up with other nonprofits, including the Somerville Homeless Coalition.

As McLaughlin requested, police have made rounds to liquor stores ensuring they are not selling to drunken people. “We’ve gotten a good response from liquor stores. One liquor store on the corner of Broadway and Franklin told us they are no longer serving a certain group of people on account of disruptive behavior outside the establishment,” Capt. James Donovan said.

Balance of support is needed

But McLaughlin, who has championed a balance of compassion and accountability on the issue, is frustrated that police are the only department mobilizing.

“Don’t get me wrong, [the police] are doing a great job. But whenever I talk to the city about addressing basic concerns from the neighborhood, they’re always talking to me about compassion. I haven’t asked to make arrests or anything, but there needs to be a balance of support, a greater source of help,” McLaughlin said.

Contente said the department’s program navigates that balance in real time. “People often have a negative association with enforcement. No one’s being arrested, but you can’t just drink in public,” she said. “We’re really focused on reinforcing options, ensuring that people know there are pathways to improve their quality of life. But sometimes that’s difficult. Many people don’t want to travel to the other side of town for help, and oftentimes it’s not to receive the immediate help they need,” she said, noting growing waitlists for housing.

“It seems like we have a point B, but not point A or C,” McLaughlin said – meaning plenty of paperwork being filed, but not enough people coming into contact with social workers on the front end or getting the resources they need on the back end.

“The situation on the ground – in the streets – has not changed and it’s those issues that matter,” McLaughlin said.

version of this story appeared originally on the Somerville Wire.