Interview with Somerville Homeless Coalition Executive Director Michael Libby
(Somerville Wire) – Following several city council orders, including a call for a state of emergency, to address Somerville’s growing homelessness crisis, the Wire spoke to Somerville Homeless Coalition Executive Director Michael Libby about his organization’s work on the issue.
Many councilors and social workers have observed a spike in homelessness in the past month alone. What might be driving that?
I’ve been talking to my staff on the ground; we’re a bit perplexed. There’s an area under Interstate 93 where folks have often tried to seek shelter in the past. Whether they left or were cleared out, they are not there anymore [and may be finding new areas]. I’ve also been in meetings with the City regarding family homelessness. That’s a growing situation, especially now with the September rent cycle hitting. Governor [Maura] Healey just placed a state of emergency amidst the increase in family migration to Massachusetts. We have over 6,000 people in its emergency shelters, many of whom are migrants. It’s still a kind of mystery why things have spiked so quickly, but I’m sure we’ll start to hear things.
Councilor Matt McLaughlin argued during the last council meeting that East Somerville needs more support resources for its unhoused population. As an organization headquartered in West Somerville, how is SHC equipped to serve East Somerville?
We do a lot of work in East Somerville. Our food pantry, Project Soup, is on a cross street on Broadway and that provides a foothold for us. It’s our main pantry that serves hundreds of families every month. Before COVID, we did about 19,000 bags of food, but this year we approached 70,000 bags. The pandemic caused a spike and it’s just become worse with inflation. We were also doing home deliveries, pre-COVID, to folks with ambulatory issues. Back then we were averaging about 20 deliveries per month; we’re now up to 250. We also have weekly meals at Connexion Church and an outreach team that travels from Davis to neighborhoods across the city, meeting folks where they are.
Are the unhoused populations different between East and West Somerville?
Generally speaking, yes. In West Somerville—Davis Square mainly—we have folks coming in who have severe mental illness, addiction issues, and sometimes trauma. In East Somerville, there are a lot of migrants and alcohol tends to be the main addiction, not opioids. But our organization is not really geographically focused on either side of town.
How is SHC preparing to meet the crisis across Somerville?
We’re going to spend a lot of time in East Somerville and focus on meeting people where they are. We’re always looking for resources, considering how we can do things differently—it’s a very complex issue and multi-pronged solutions are needed. Hiring is also a challenge for a volunteer-driven organization. But developing relationships and funneling folks to the right places for support is key.
Leveraging partnerships is also crucial. We’re working with Health Care for the Homeless, Cambridge Health Alliance, and Somerville city government to take advantage of funding and resources. For example, we’re sending doctors traveling around with our workers to engage with people and ensure they have access to medications.
City councilors and social workers have criticized the City’s progress on homelessness, saying the administration lacks urgency. It’s a complex issue, but do you feel supported at that level?
We feel supported by the City and sometimes it does take time. But based on our relationship, I feel the City is committed [to the cause]. Mayor Ballantyne said she would take the call for a state of emergency under advisement. I’m interested to know what that would mean in practice. It could be symbolic, but it could also lead to more resources.
The City worked with us to fund the engagement center [which opened in May]. There, folks can get coffee and build relationships with our staff. We have phone charging stations, private document storage, locks for bikes, a clothing closet where we can give out everything from tents to water. And we have computer stations to apply for housing, benefits, jobs, and to send personal emails.
They’re also helping with a new shower van, which we’re building with grant money, to be completed in the fall. We were very conscious of making it mobile. We do our best to bring services to the people and avoid them traveling. We think that’s crucial to building relationships and trust.
Nicole Eigbrett at CAAS noted in our previous piece that the city must meet nonprofits somewhere in this process. How do you envision that handoff?
The people on the ground—other nonprofits and anyone that’s part of the solution—those are the experts. It’s best when the government can identify resources and quickly direct them through the nonprofits.
This is hard work and we want to recruit really passionate, highly trained and resourceful people. But the fact of the matter is, [SHC employees] need a livable wage to even keep their own housing, and that’s a growing challenge.
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Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire