Homelessness in Porter Square
Our list of roundtable participants:
Mardi Moran, x-Tags owner & member St. James Church
Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern
Ellen Semonoff, Asst. Mngr., Human Services, Cambridge
Mark McGovern, Exec. Dir., CHA Healthcare for the Homeless,
Mark Alston-Follansbee, Exec. Dir., Somerville Homeless Coalition
Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard, Jr.
Officers Eric Helberg and Matt Price, CPD Homeless Outreach Officers
Sean Peterson, CPD Neighborhood Officer, Neighborhood Nine
Jedediah Mannis, Harvard Divinity School, The Outdoor Church
Members, St. James Episcopal Church
Merchants from Porter Square and Mass (none sat on the panel)
Spare Change representatives (none sat on the panel)
Alexis Grandberg, Supervisor, First Step Outreach Program, CASPAR
Doug Kress, Director, Health & Human Services, City of Somerville
We had about 40 people in the audience, and a large panel of folks working with the homeless. To a person, they were respectful of the homeless (and near homeless) people they work with and thoughtful about the causes and the possible ameliorations, if not solutions.
Mardi Moran opened the meeting with a brief description of a handful of people she had encountered over the years that she was at Tags and St. James Church, working to feed the homeless, and where possible to find housing solutions, and in some cases hire some of them. She was careful to point out their personalities, their histories and their situations, ending with the central point that they were/are all people, who find themselves in a bad situation.
Then Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern (who trained as a social worker) addressed the problem, starting by asking how many of us had ever encountered any 10-year-old, who when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, would say “homeless”. He went on to say the single biggest cause of homelessness is the lack of housing, and that there are many more near homeless. He pointed out that he, and the city, spend every day fighting to find or keep these folks in housing, and every time they “win” one, another person takes the last one’s place. To him, the one thing we can all do is advocate for more affordable, and very affordable housing solutions, as the homeless cannot advocate for themselves.
Ellen Seminoff (Cambridge) and Doug Kress (Somerville) described many of the services they their respective cities provide to the homeless and the time spent trying to find them “homes”. A list of Cambridge resources can be found at http://www.cambridgema.gov/~/media/Files/DHSP/MSC/ResDirectory.pdf
MarkAlston-Follansbee was a marvelous commentator throughout the evening on the current state and many causes of homelessness, as well as the many ways in which folks can actually help. Find out more at
The Cambridge Police Departments Homeless Outreach Officers described the many ways they intervene with the homeless and the services they work with to find them assistance (including two social workers on staff), and it was clear in the cross discussion that many of the social service providers and the police have a great deal of respect for each other and work together well. Find out more at https://www.cambridgema.gov/cpd/communityresources/homelessoutreachprogram
I want to thank our new Police Commissioner for coming, even though he had an emergency tooth extraction earlier in the day, and could hardly speak. Despite that, he stayed and tried to answer questions as people sought out individual panelists at the end of the meeting. In addition to two Homeless Outreach Officers (Eric Helberg and Matt Price), we also had the Neighborhood Officer for Cambridge Neighborhood Nine (Sean Peterson), one of the many neighborhoods adjacent to Porter Square, on the panel.
Alexis Grandberg of CASPAR’s First Step Outreach is a social worker who spends her days checking on the homeless to make sure they are OK, that they are getting the various kinds of help they need, if they want it. She was very descriptive of her days in the field and she asked if we see someone who needs help, please contact http://casparinc.org/first-step.html
No discussion of the homeless would be complete without talking about why so many people are homeless, and our panelist pointed out that most are either addicted or mentally ill or both. Jed Mannis also pointed out that the average homeless person’s life expectancy is 25 years less than yours or mine.
Unfortunately, Mark McGovern (no, not the Mayor, Marc), of CHA Healthcare for the Homeless was unable to come at the last moment, but many of the other panelists spoke warmly of working with him for 30 years. He is the one who told me that when he walks through the Square, he only sees the homeless, unlike the rest of us who often try not to see them. Learn more at https://www.challiance.org/community/healthcare-for-the-homeless
Nancy McArdle of St. James Church talked about the church’s food pantry, aimed to assist the food and housing insecure. The pantry is housed currently in Rindge Towers, as the church parish house and community center is being demolished for new construction. Check out the food pantry at http://www.stjames-cambridge.org/helping-hand-food-pantry/
Jed Mannis, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and one of the founders of The Outdoor Church, talked about his “congregation”, their needs, the Sunday service in Porter Square at 9 AM, under the “Gift of the Wind”, and their favorite, the coffee hour, the basics they hand out, and again their poor health. Any of you are welcome to show up, join in, bring some juice, etc. You will find it to be a heartwarming, as well as troubling, experience. You can check out the Outdoor Church at http://outdoorchurch.org/
Among the things discussed at the meeting, was the need for a warming shelter and an accessible bathroom in Porter square.
It is important to note that this program was not in response to a big increase in the number of homeless in the Square, or from complaints from merchants or shoppers. Instead, the program was an attempt to focus on yet another part of the Square as we all encounter it. Many of our programs are focused on the latest proposal for a new development, new business or hotel, or a traffic issue. Some of our programs, like this one, will try to take a thoughtful look at some aspect of the Square we may be taking for granted. Upcoming programs will focus, for example, on the history of the Square; and, hopefully, we will look again at the many murals and art pieces around our Square and the many artists living amongst us. These are among the many things which enrich our lives, which need attention occasionally, perhaps even updating like the Davenport Mural, or renewing like the kinetic sculpture “Gift of the Wind” at the Porter Square T, which desperately needs a paint job.
There will be time, between these timely issues and the thoughtful attention to our environ, for us to sit together, look at a very large map and ask ourselves “what is Porter Square?”, or perhaps more importantly, “who’s Porter Square?”. And to talk about our members, those who attend the meetings, and those who participate online.
As we left the meeting that night, several people asked how they could help the homeless, and we committed to putting a list of volunteer and other resources on the website and on the list serve. So, watch this space!
Please do volunteer or contribute – send us information or contact some of the sources listed to see how you can help!
Here are just a few ways:
*A simple thing, but Jed Mannis suggested carrying a small value gift card or two, from Dunkin Donuts or Panera, to hand out, and/or carry sandwiches to hand out. The Outdoor Church gives out sandwiches, coffee and socks!!
*Community Cooks organizes “Friday” teams to prepare dishes at home for the homeless who eat at the Friday Café at the Congregational Church on Garden Street. Neighbors prepare or buy a dish to contribute once a month. Dishes can be deposited on Thursday evening or Friday morning at the collection point.
Contact Rosalind on Hurlbut Street about Third Friday group ~~ 617-491-3239 ~ or ~ firstname.lastname@example.org
*St. James Episcopal Church members assist the Outdoor Church on the Fourth Sunday of every month by making egg salad sandwiches to be distributed to Outdoor Church parishioners after their services. Contact Rev. Jed Mannis email@example.com for details.
*There is a section on homelessness, pp. 16-18, if you click on DOWNLOAD THE VOLUNTEER GUIDE.
We will list more ways to help as we find them. Tell us know what you may know about.