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Belongings strewn on stairs in Somerville. Photo by Ryan DiLello. Copyright 2023 Ryan DiLello.
Belongings strewn on stairs in Somerville. Photo by Ryan DiLello. Copyright 2023 Ryan DiLello.

Despite millions in federal grants, Somerville is struggling to support its unhoused population

(Somerville Wire) – Somerville is facing a rapidly growing homelessness crisis. The City Council approved an order on Thursday, 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, noting East Somerville is 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 anymore 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, Portland Loos and additional shelter spaces, and 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. “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 … We are all neighbors regardless of whether we have a home. We have to treat each other with respect,” McLaughlin said, and assured the council he had received complaints from residents of all backgrounds. 

In a statement sent to Somerville Wire on Friday, Mayor 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. 

Jordan Harris, pastor of Connexion Church in East Somerville is on the front lines, supporting the unhoused population in that neighborhood. 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,” Harris said, not drag their feet.

In her statement, Ballantyne noted the city has allocated over $9 million in 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 sufficiently serve the city’s east side. SHC was not available for an interview this 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 [East Somerville] don’t travel to that [West] 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 the option of seizing 118 Broadway, the abandoned East End Grill building, for the purpose of providing homelessness services. McLaughlin also read off a list of other potential sites for the city to consider repurposing.

A beacon for the East Somerville community, Connexion Church took the initiative to serve as a makeshift warming center when the City was slow to move, Harris explained. When the City did open emergency shelters, they were located in the West side of the city, Harris said. “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 added.

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 clarified. “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.

“Most of us recognize that this is an incredibly complicated issue. It needs to be addressed on multiple levels—there’s the political will—that’s where CAAS is looking to,” Eigbrett said. “That 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.”

Eigbrett believes that a solution is ultimately going to require governmental action, “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 homelessness crisis and to raise awareness in the community. Harris explained why it’s important to maintain a productive narrative.

“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.”

This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service—a project of the IRS 501(c)(3) tax-deductible nonprofit Somerville Media Fund.

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Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire

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