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An engagement center and self-cleaning bathrooms are on the City’s list for development.

(Somerville Wire) – The city of Somerville’s Public Health and Public Safety Committee discussed the need for improving conditions for the homeless at a meeting held on May 3. The coronavirus—which has left many without jobs and ways of paying their rent—has intensified the homelessness problem in Somerville, according to Michael Libby, executive director of the Somerville Homeless Coalition.

Libby said that before the pandemic, the organization probably interacted with about 15 individuals a week around the city, while now, that number has doubled to about 30 people who are regularly outreached to: “In the last year, since COVID hit, we’re seeing growth in several areas, the first being the street population that we work with. … There was a lot of depopulation within shelters across the state, because of COVID. In these homeless shelters, you don’t have a lot of space to begin with, so once the pandemic hit, it exacerbated that situation. The state was down about 500 beds at one point, during the year. We’ve seen that population, just in Union Square alone, burgeon over the past year or so. I think COVID had something to do with it, but even pre-COVID, there was a significant issue with people out on the street, not enough shelters, and not enough housing that’s affordable.”

An initiative that the City is working on in partnership with the SHC is an engagement center. While this project is still in the early stages of planning, the space, according to Libby, would be a building where outreach workers could invite in homeless individuals “out of the cold, out of the heat, any kind of elements. It’s really difficult to be outside on a laptop, trying to get a hotspot, filling out housing applications… [We’re] trying to find a location within Somerville that’s close to where the population tends to congregate. It would give them a chance to get out of the elements, have a snack, have a meeting, or go to the bathroom.”

“One of the areas that we keep talking about is an engagement center or service center, where people can actually access a variety of services but also some basic needs that they might have, whether that’s around getting groceries, getting a place to have a shower, get mail, or other types of services,” said Director of Health and Human Services for the City of Somerville Doug Kress. “… I’m hoping that they might actually have beds available as well, on an emergency basis, whenever we might need that. It’s a warming shelter; it’s a cooling shelter in the summer. There’s a variety of things that we would utilize this center for.”

At the meeting, Kress also discussed the importance of finding a larger, more sustainable location for Project Soup, the SHC’s food pantry, which is currently housed at 165 Broadway. The City has been working with Healthcare for the Homeless to develop testing and vaccination opportunities for unhoused people. Kress said that he still has observed hesitancy around getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The City is also looking to address addiction and mental health challenges, as well as working on first-aid trainings and trauma response trainings.

Kress also said that Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen had brought forward the idea of looking at the Portland Loos, some of which can be found in Cambridge. A Portland Loo is a self-contained public bathroom that cleans itself, and Kress proposed having several installed in Davis Square and Union Square. The City is still looking for funding for this. Councilor Lance Davis, however, called attention to the problems that plague homeless people, such as not being able to find bathroom spaces, and asked, what can be done now, in the immediate future?

“Before we get the fancy, self-washing Portland Loo, before we have a warming, cooling, daytime engagement center where folks can get services, can we just help these people with some basic services?” asked Davis. “Can we get some port-a-potties out there? …There is evidence that there is a lack of facilities in Ward 6, Davis Square, and I’m sure elsewhere, in the city. What can we do? What can we do, next week, tomorrow, to help folks?”

Kress responded that in addition to having Portland Loos, the City is hoping to bring the port-a-potties back out at some point soon, adding that it would also be important to have hand sinks.

“It does take time,” said Kress. “It takes staffing to make sure that we are being able to wand clean them, check on them, and make sure that they do stay safe. We can certainly bring that up with the Department of Public Works, making sure that’s an option for us, to look at some of those.” He added, “This is part of what living in an urban setting is about. We need to make sure that we are able to stand tall and say, yes, they [the unhoused population] are part of our community, and that’s a good thing.”

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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.

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