PSNA Meeting May 19, 2022
- Meeting with members of Cambridge Police Department and other groups that work with folks who live and/or use drugs in public spaces to learn more about what can be done in Porter Square to help this population and to reclaim the spaces where they tend to use drugs.
Ruth Ryals set the context. She’s been working with Lesley University and the City to see what can be done to expand and enliven the very small amount of outdoor public space in Porter Square. When events are held in the MBTA park, it’s necessary to do a sweep for needles first. The cleanup day last September brought the problem to light; Ruth witnessed young folks actively shooting up in the middle of the day.
If you read no farther than this point, finish this sentence: When you see needles on the street, call the nonemergency line for the Cambridge Police at 617-349-3300. Trained officers will come to pick them up and dispose of them properly. Do not touch or attempt to dispose of them yourself. They are dangerous.
Representatives from City departments that work on this issue attended:
- Police Commissioner Christine Elow noted that this a citywide problem. The City’s approach is to collaborate with service providers and focus on harm reduction.
- Superintendent Rob Lowe, Operations Division reported that there has been an increased presence in Porter Square, with both outreach officers and street cops; he is also working closely with Transit police.
- Deputy Superintendent John Boyle, night patrol operations. Deputy Anthony Macone, night patrol operations
- Deputy Superintendent Stephen Magalhaes, family and social justice, which includes clinical support
- Deputy Superintendent Dan Wagner, Crime data analysis; monthly report on patterns etc.
- Sean Norton. Crime analysis unit
- Jeremy Warnick, Director of Communications & Media Relations for CPD. Liaison with officers and community.
- John Fitzgerald from Department of Public Works
Who keeps any eye on this community and what have they been doing and seeing recently?
Cambridge Police Department
Three outreach officers—Thomas Watson, Ken Mui, and Anji Guera—work with directly with the unhoused, active addicts, at risk groups (e.g., elders), and businesses to come up with effective responses. Officers identify who is in the area, the kind of services they need, and work to get those services provided—like drug treatment. They look for creative solutions that keep folks from getting caught up in the criminal justice system; although laws are being broken, the lawbreakers are not criminals; they’re just trying to survive.
Officer Mui reported that the team began investigating the problems in Porter Square on May 5. He found needles and picked up a lot of needles; he noted that the dismantling of the encampment at Mass & Cass in Boston has contributed to the increase in the population in other parts of the Boston/Cambridge/Somerville area.
Officer Watson reported on what they’ve done so far.
- They identified the areas where this population likes to gather: the MBTA park and areas round the Commonwealth Lock building. The area looks run down, and people treat it that way. Five of the nine lights in the park are broken; there’s a lot of graffiti, trash cans are often full to overflowing. They have met with MBTA to put in work orders to replace the lights, address the graffiti, and do a general clean up.
They are also working with Commonwealth Lock and Lesley to deal with litter and problems in front of Shaking Crab and ATM.
The Cambridge DPW has provided assistance in picking up abandoned property.
- One week after they began their work (May 13), they checked in on progress. They noticed a lot more needles and started picking them up. All outreach cruisers have sharps containers to dispose of needles properly.
The MBTA won’t have dispensers for sharps container on the walls. The dispensers are usually made of plastic and break off easily, which becomes a liability. The Central Square Business Improvement Association pays for metal containers, which are stronger and are emptied by a private company for proper disposal. The outreach officers are looking to get the MTBA and local businesses to do the same thing here to mitigate risk.
- They continue to perform that task and check in on conditions in the park.
First Step is out in the community to meet basic needs (food, shelter, clothing, transport to shelters after 6 pm, and other services) of the unhoused populations in Cambridge, many, but not all of whom, are addicted. First Step staff builds relationships with these folks and helps them take that first step toward housing and/or treatment when they are ready to do so.
Alexis Grandberg, Director of First Step, described the organization’s operations. First Step vans are out on daily shifts from 2 pm to midnight, visiting areas where these populations gather multiple times daily. Grandberg has noticed a significant increase in folks in Porter Square compared to 6 months ago; some of this reflects the Mass & Cass dismantlement. She noted that most who congregate in Porter Square are outside sleepers who don’t use shelters and don’t want to.
Who do you call when you see someone on the street who needs care? Grandberg said that it depends on what you understand the problem to be. If the person seems dangerous, call the Cambridge Police or 911. If the person is cold or hungry or has a medical problem, call the First Step outreach team at 617-592-6895 or the Cambridge Police Department nonemergency line at 617-349-3300. The CPD will contact First Step. Note that a doctor rides on the First Step van 3 days/week, usually Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.
Grandberg discourages giving money voluntarily or when asked for it. Instead, call First Step.
She also reported that First Step staff make sure that the bathrooms at the T station are checked regularly to keep tabs on folks and their status. They have worked with MBTA transit police on this successfully in the past. Unfortunately, the officer they had developed a good relationship with has been moved from the Cambridge to the Boston side of the Red Line, and this has ruptured the connection to coordinate care for people over the last few months. First Step staff have been checking the bathrooms themselves for the last few months and have found conditions to be troubling and dangerous. It would be very easy to for someone overdose there now. Outreach Officer Ken Mui noted that his conversations with MBTA staff at the station revealed that the cleaning crews in the station don’t go into the areas where there are needles because of safety concerns.
More information about First Step is available here:
St. James and the Outdoor Church
Matt Stewart, pastor at St. James’s Episcopal Church, noted that the church allows unhoused to sleep overnight on church porches. He and his congregation wrestle daily to be as welcoming as they can and respond to the vagrant behaviors that they can tolerate, which range from cleaning up human waste, disposing of needles and trash, repairing damage to property, and occasionally, dealing with violence.
Lisa Loughlin, minister of Outdoor Church, has held Sunday morning services throughout the pandemic. The MBTA allowed them to move their moved to the entry to T station when weather was bad. She feeds around 25 people, and around 15 stay for worship.
She observed that folks try to be on their best behavior, yet she has witnessed fights. Her policy is not to call police, but let people be who they are. She does not give money to her congregants, but sometimes has gift cards to local businesses (CVS in particular) that offer items they need so that they don’t have to steal them.
City task force on the homeless
Councilor Marc McGovern, who serves with Commissioner Elow on the City’s task force on this population, spoke about its recommendations.
One of the many complexities here is that in many parts of the country the cities of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville would be a single jurisdiction. Because each city offers services that the entire population uses, effective responses require that many contiguous cities and towns offer the same services at the same time so that one city does not become a magnet and to distribute the responsibility.
He noted that the task force approached the problem as a mental health issue, not criminal issue, and based its recommendations on that perspective. These recommendations are under discussion, and more information about them will be coming over the next few months:
- Setting up a daytime drop-in center to provide barbers, showers, laundry, protection from weather; also to serve as another touch point to get people into housing or treatment.
- Focus on harm reduction—how to keep people alive. Safe consumption sites for drug are getting a lot of attention. In visiting cities that have them, McGovern notes that the ancillary effects reported by residents and businesses in the surrounding area are a significant reduction of many nuisance problems and deaths.
McGovern also noted that he secured budget approval (as of June 1) to fund a Community Safety Department staffed 24/7 with mental health professionals and social workers who can respond to the nonviolent situations that don’t require police assistance. This department is not part of the. Cambridge Police Department.
Reclaiming and programming public spaces
Ruth Ryals has been working with representatives of the City and of Lesley University to see what might be done to enliven the Shapiro Plaza and the park next to the T station. Because the problematic population tends to camp out in these very small patches of public space in Porter Square, it has historically been difficult to use or program them.
Ruth has been meeting with these folks to see what kinds of events can be held there and in the area in Shapiro Plaza. Would it be best to have trees there, or tables and chairs?
The area in the worst shape is the park the MBTA controls. Given its significant operational and budgetary challenges and its culture, the T tends to resist any sense of stewardship over the public spaces. It can be prodded into making repairs and cleaning up, but these efforts are rarely sustained. Kathleen Hornby on Representative Decker’s staff reported that they are trying to set up a meeting with the MBTA about these operational and maintenance issues; they are currently looking for a mutually convenient time for an initial conversation.
Katherine Shozawa is Director of Community Engagement at Lesley. She chairs the dean’s community advisory council, which works to bring talks and events and exhibition to the community. PSNA is on the council. She has begun work with a couple of graduate students on range of uses in the park., one of which was recent public history project in conjunction with the Cambridge Arts Council.
Daniel Wolf, on the City CCD staff, works with neighborhoods to come up with ways to make city spaces serve the community better. The focus is on events and amenities that are neither expensive nor permanent so that different ideas can be tried out until a successful formula emerges. He suggested that a few new amenities—such as tables and chairs that can be moved around or public piano—might help enliven Shapiro Plaza. He suspects that getting something off the ground there would bolster any conversations with the T on this subject because there would be something to point to and ideally, extend.
Susan Hunziker provided a bit of history from her experience of working on these issues 15 years ago when the MBTA was hoping to sell the air rights for a development over the commuter rail tracks next to the T station. Noting the lack of interest the MBTA has in dealing much with anything on its property beyond transportation operations, she concluded that just keeping the park clean could be a big win. One suggestion at the time was to have the City assume responsibility for that. Councilor McGovern said that there’s precedent for this in a desolate state “park” near McGrath Highway that the City now cleans. Wolf that having city workers attend to such areas when they are working nearby on City property is not out of the question.
Annual review of bylaws
This review should have been conducted in April. The officers (Ruth Ryals and Susan Hunziker) acknowledged that the only problem with the bylaws at the moment was their inconsistent observance of the meeting notification guidelines and promised John Klensin, who keeps an eye on these matters, that they would try to do better.