Saturday, July 20, 2024

Affordable and transitional housing is under development Aug. 7 at 116 Norfolk St. in The Port neighborhood in Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge has the highest per-capita number of emergency shelter beds for homeless people in the state, with 2.29 shelter beds per 100 residents, city councillors learned at a Monday roundtable. But the city isn’t resting at trying to add services to handle its unhoused population.

The roundtable was an update on the square in general, but discussion of the homeless was prominent in reports from nonprofits, police, city managers and staff – who gave qualifiers about Cambridge’s achievement: Boston has vastly more emergency shelter beds in numbers, but its larger population shrinks the per-capita rate to 2.03. (Neighboring Somerville has 0.48 emergency individual shelter beds per 100 residents, according to a staff chart.) Cambridge’s numbers don’t take onto account beds serving families or households with children.

City officials said they are expanding homelessness support by ensuring no emergency shelter beds are lost and adding support services and longer-term housing for the more than 500 members of the Cambridge community with no home cited in a 2022 report.

There are 334 emergency shelter beds in Cambridge, with around 100 of them preserved this year from risk of closing. The city extended leases at shelters with help from the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package to aid public health and economic recovery from the Covid pandemic.

The homeless shelter at the Salvation Army in Central Square was on the brink of closing in March before city officials stepped in. The Cambridge Corps Community Center provides emergency assistance and a drop-in day shelter with accessible medical and mental health care.

“The city was able to step in with a significant investment to ensure that those 40 emergency shelter beds remained, along with the critical daytime services at the site,” said Liz Mengers, planning and development manager of the Department of Human Service Programs.

City staff was also able to extend leases at the Transitional Wellness Center, an emergency shelter at the Spaulding Hospital and The Warming Center, a drop-in shelter for homeless adults to find safety from harsh winter weather. These renewals promise access to 58 beds, a safe space to rest and access to food, water and bathrooms.

The funding to keep those 98 beds is expected to stay into 2025.

Revitalizing 116 Norfolk St.

Construction of housing at 116 Norfolk St. in The Port neighborhood also began this year, a Cambridge Housing Authority revitalization project converting the single-room occupancy building for 38 occupants to 62 studio apartments prioritized for people who have experienced chronic homelessness, the elderly and those living with disabilities. The Affordable Housing Trust Fund provided more than $10 million in support of the project.

“[We are] grateful for the trust’s investment and for the housing authorities’ commitment to working with us, to prioritize chronically homeless individuals for placement into that site,” Mengers said.

The city is also expanding on coordinated entry, a system that prioritizes services for unhoused people, and has taken steps to continue indoor shower services and meal sites.

“Silver linings of Covid”

Covid’s social-distancing regulations limited shelter capacities, which led to a decline in access to beds over the past couple of years. On the other hand, city officials recognized that something positive did come out of the pandemic: housing vouchers.

“It was one of the silver linings of Covid-19, where we had this incredible opportunity to rehouse a large number of high-service-need individuals, families and folks at risk of homelessness or fleeing domestic violence,” Mengers said. “It was a really challenging but fruitful opportunity.”

Cambridge Housing Authority also created an emergency housing voucher program in 2021. The DHSP signed a memorandum of understanding with the authority in July 2021 to implement the vouchers, used as a tool to provide permanent housing for low-income or unhoused people.

The vouchers did not originally come with additional services, but federal Covid funding allowed the city to hire housing navigators and stabilization workers to streamline the process of helping individuals gain access to housing and stabilize once they move in.

“Through that, we’re able to pair the vouchers with services to have the successful utilization that we see here and hope to continue those stable tendencies,” Mengers said.

In early 2021, about 70,000 vouchers were announced as part of this program. Public housing authorities and agencies partnered with Continuum of Care, a group of organizations and individuals who coordinate homeless efforts. The vouchers, last issued on Sept. 30, had a 96.8 percent use rate.

Mental illness and substances

There was also a demonstrated need to provide support for homeless individuals struggling with mental illness and drug addiction. The Public Health Department has worked with Bay Cove Human Services’s outreach program, Caspar FirstStep, to provide resources for addiction recovery and mental health support.

According to Anne Jarvis, clinical director of housing and homeless services at Bay Cove, Caspar FirstStep has successfully overcome a “huge barrier” of employees only working a 2 p.m. to midnight shift. This limited the organization’s ability to commit to extensive outreach. Now, providers work Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to coordinate community outreach. The extra shifts have also made it possible to collaborate with other homeless services in Cambridge.

“We have already had multiple successes with individuals moving forward with their housing, due to housing teams [engaging in] outreach with us, as well as introductions to mental health providers who can assess individuals and help support our relationships with these individuals,” Jarvis said.

Compassionate accountability

Complaints about how the presence of substance abuse affects the square for visitors have prompted more police visits in an approach police commissioner Christine Elow called “compassionate accountability.”

“We can’t allow certain behavior to continue – the public drinking, the public drug use, the personal items being spread across our city streets, that is not okay,” Elow said.

Police are working to reduce that in collaboration with service partners and Public Works, by building relationships with unhoused people – connecting with as many as 100 a week – and trying to figure out a place where people who are unhoused can store their belongings, Elow said.

“Since the beginning of the year, we’ve done over 7,000 of what we call park-and-walks, where officers go into the square and do outreach,” Elow said – a project that has expanded to visiting homeless encampments far from city squares to remove anything unsafe, such as propane tanks.

A fire at a 10-person homeless camp under the BU Bridge shut down traffic for hours n Oct. 8.