PSNA Meeting, September 20, 2022
Concerns about the impact of the population that is using drugs in and around the T station on the community have been growing. Encounters with folks who are in various stages of the experience and the abundance of discarded needles (a biohazard) are not what anyone wants to experience while they are in the neighborhood. These conditions also work against our efforts to program and animate the very small patches of public space in Porter Square, two of which are MBTA property.
We worked with Representative Decker’s office to arrange for someone from the MBTA to respond to questions about its efforts to deal with the various impact of the drug use, its process for getting clearance to hold events of any sort on the property, and the status of some of its operations.
The representative from the MBTA was Adam Kamoune, legislative and external affairs specialist. We learned about halfway through the meeting that he’s a Cambridge kid whose father ran a snack stand in the Harvard Square station for years. Thus, he has observed and dealt with many of the people and issues that concern many of us about the stations for probably longer than anyone else in attendance.
Most of the meeting was devoted to responding to questions. Many officers from the Cambridge Police Department attended, which proved to be very helpful in understanding how these issues are taken care of and how CPD coordinates with the transit police.
The gist of that portion of the meeting is provided here.
1. Does T security personnel have jurisdiction to police the area around the station? To what extent do they collaborate with the CPD to prevent unsafe behavior on the surface (street level) property, including the park and the property on the west side at the stairs going down to the commuter rail?
MBTA does have jurisdiction. Because it serves 175 municipalities, it cannot field a separate police force for each of its properties, and thus relies heavily on local police. Kamoune noted that CPD community policing model is one of the best in the area, and that the collaboration with transit police is good.
CPD Commissioner Elow observed that the MBTA has a lot on its plate right now, and getting a response has been challenging. She encouraged anyone who encounters a situation at the station that make them feel unsafe to contact the CPD first, either by calling 911 or the nonemergency line 617-349-3300.
She also reminded us that CPD has done a series of cleanup operations in the area over the last few months. The CPD outreach team provided some details about actions taken re: removing needles and handling complaints.
2. How many persons have been killed on the tracks, on trains, and in stations along the tracks between Harvard and Alewife since March 2020? Are there statistics? Do we know why? Are there preventative measures being taken?
Kamoune was gathering statistics on this question, and planned to send the data he’s gathering to Rep. Decker’s office when it’s assembled. He did note that there’s lots of trespassing on the right of way, which does lead to death, intentionally or not. Each incident is investigated by MBTA safety personnel and transit police. He also observed that the commuter rail is actually more dangerous than the T tracks.
Sadly, suicide, is a primary motivation for the trespassing. Good Samaritan signs with a nearby phone are installed in most stations to try to reach people who are in extremis and contemplating suicide.
Jeremy Warnick, Director of Communications and Media Relations for CPD, stated that all suicides and attempts are communicated by the MBTA and transit police to CPD, but are not typically released publicly because of the sensitivity of the information.
3. What instructions are inspectors given for clearing and closing stations? What monitoring, if any, is there to their conduct in doing so? Why are they allowed to verbally assault and harass paying T riders customers to take busses and trains when the T is operating late at night?
Kamoune was concerned about this question, and asked if there would be a way to get more information privately to investigate the incident that prompted it.
He also explained the process for closing stations. There’s an inspector on the last train that closes each station on the last run, looking to ensure that folks are not sleeping there. Busses will wait until this last train arrives to allow passengers to make these connections.
In response to a question about what happens when folks do not leave the station because they are sheltering in the tunnel. Kamoune said that inspectors are usually successful in getting them to comply with respectful requests to leave. When someone becomes aggressive, they call in the transit police. He acknowledged that stations with commuter rail stops present problems because they do not have a gated entrance. enter the station. He also promised to look into this and clarify details about the MBTA process with respect to clearing people from the tunnels.
4. Can T employees not respect the public even while having to do the difficult job of clearing the stations, which has admittedly been dumped on them by the systemic neglect and lack of options for housing people who are homeless?
This question was posed by the same person who asked the previous one. Kamoune was concerned and again asked whether he could get the details about specific incidents to investigate.
5. We have been working with CDD to program events in the Porter Square area to engage the public, to make those spaces open and inviting. We’d like to do small events in the MBTA park, but the response to requests is delayed and fees required are very high; the T clearly doesn’t want us there.
Kamoune believes that it’s possible for the MBTA to do better here. He said that submitting the complex document that he called the “application canvas” is required, but adjustment of fees is something that can be worked on. He suggested that getting Rep. Decker’s office involved to assist in sheparding the application would help. He also offered to assist when specific applications from the City or Lesley were submitted.
6. What can you do to make the public feel safe when going down into the station and waiting on the commuter rail, especially at night?
Kamoune said that he can work with the engineering and maintenance team re: lighting; also coordinate with transit ambassadors (MBTA folks who work in the stations (they are wearing the red shirts)) to do rounds in the stations.
Groups of people often sit on the stairs over the commuter rail on the (west side/southbound of the station. These groups block access and makes some feel unsafe because that they are not sure wheter a request to move over to allow passage would turn into something else. Commissioner Elow said to call the CPD in those situations.
7. Why are we told that cleaning crews refuse to go deep into the tunnel between the Red Line and the commuter rail for fear of injury from needles and other unsanitary things? Is this a problem you are aware of?
Kamoune was not aware of this. He promised to bring it up with the engineering and maintenance team. He said that cleaning crews cannot dispose of the needles; they must notify the MBTA police, who are trained and authorized to do so. He observed that it might be a training issue for the clean crews, who are contract employees, to ensure that the proper action is taken, e.g., notifying the transit police.
A fair amount of the discussion and information repeated what was offered in the May 2022 meeting, and we refer you to those for details.
8. What are CPD instructions for making arrests of homeless people who won’t move on or are aggressive? This is a big problem at CVS at night.
Superintendent Cabral said that CPB does not have orders to not arrest people who are disruptive. That said some offenses are not worth making an arrest, e.g., loitering, possession of drugs, drinking in public, disruptive behavior (often because of mental illness)—because an arrest does not take a person out of circulation. The objective is to try to keep people out of the criminal justice system by using the community courts set up to handle these kinds of offenses. Individuals are assigned an attorney and social workers from the available agencies to help solve their real problem. And, legal charges are counterproductive; people who get housing vouchers are not able to use them if they have charges.
9. How does MBTA deal with homeless who ride and/or live on the trains whose mental illness is the worst thing going on with them? Also, those of this population who are aggressive?
Kamoune recognizes the problem and has contacted Commissioner Sullivan about it. He observed that one challenge here is the siloing of conversations, e.g., CPD police talk to MBTA police; Cambridge planners talk to MBTA planners. The MBTA community relations department hopes to get more cross-pollination/communication going. And, they’re a transportation agency, not a social service agency.
10. Issues for local businesses
Commonwealth Lock is having problems with the encampment behind its building; lots of trash. The portable toilet has been removed because it was creating problems. The one on Somerville Ave is still there. John Nardone noted that they have been having problems with the contractor who installs and services them; they are short-handed. He reminded us that they were installed in the early stages of the pandemic because so many of the other options were not available.
11. Has the drug unit been disbanded?
Drug dealing has shifted from the model in the 1990s, where dealers were part of an organization that served neighborhoods and worked out in public. Now, much of the action has moved online, and most dealers on the street are dealing to feed their own habit. Detectives are assigned to other agencies that are working to take out large supplies of drugs that are arriving in the area.
Fentanyl is everywhere. Crystal meth is also making an appearance, coming in from the West Coast. The behavior of someone who is high on it mirrors that of someone who is psychotic—paranoia, days without any sleep. Also, in May and June, a tainted heroin supply caused 9 OD deaths in Cambridge within a few weeks; it affected many other communities
CPD clinician follows up with close call ODs; this often a time when users seek treatment. Clinician works with families, also.
12. What can/will the MBTA do re: maintenance and cleaning of the park to boost its appeal?
There were a list of issues:
- Repainting/repairing the Gift of the Wind sculpture
Kamoune offered to pursue this with MBTA real estate team
- Caring for trees, specifically removing dead trees or the limbs of those that are struggling.
Re: the current status, Kamoune’s understanding was some trees had been cut down, but stumps remain; there’s still a large tree that needs to come down. To confirm this for himself, Kamoune said he would personally take photos of current conditions. Ruth Ryals offered send him her own photos.
- Washing the windows that form the entrance to the station regularly; cleaning in general
The T sweeps and removes trash at the park daily; employees of the contractor that empties trash have reported not feeling safe for the same reasons that residents don’t—the presence and behavior of the population that uses drugs and disposes of used needles.
Kamoune noted that they try to do thorough cleanings of stations twice a year, in the spring and fall. Although a monthly schedule is highly desirable, it is not possible because of the scope of the transportation operations—100 stations that serve 175 municipalities. He noted that if something gets bad and needs attention between these biannual efforts, they take care of it.
The possibility of longer shutdowns of stations between Harvard and Alewife to make progress on track repairs, which abounded in the local media as the Orange Line reopened, presents opportunities to do deeper cleanings. Kamoune said he would pursue this.
John Nardone, Cambridge DPW Commissioner, spoke up at this point. He’s been seeking a contact with MBTA to pursue possibility of taking over some this cleaning and snow removal, which DPW does in the area already. The large gorilla involved here is liability, and discussions and agreements about scope need to be in place before this work could be done. He also encouraged Kamoune to instruct MBTA contractors to contact CPD when they are not feeling safe while cleaning the area; this is what DPW workers do.
- Programming events
Daniel Wolf of CDD reported that in the conversations he was having within the City and with Lesley about enlivening the public spaces in Porter Square, two of three spaces mentioned were on MBTA property. He pointed out that a huge barrier to programming anything on them was the lengthy and expensive application process that the MBTA requires; few organizations have the funds and to focus to pull off a 3-hour event that must be scheduled months in advance. Given the effort required to put such events together, Wolf pushed for some change in policy that could ensure successful approval faster and cheaper. Kamoune acknowledged the problem, and offered to assist the City or Lesley in shepherding specific applications through MBTA review and approval.
Ruth Ryals asked for a list of the kinds of events that receive approval and a list of contacts. Kamoune suggested that such requests, and also reports of issues at the stations, should be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org. This account is monitored by the public engagement team, which ensures continuity despite staff turnover (of which there has been quite a lot lately). This account also allows the team to see patterns across the system and to take issues to the right teams within the MBTA.
Ryals also said she was looking for efficient ways to coordinate efforts of cleaning and maintenance and also general problem solving in Porter Square with the shopping center, the MBTA, the City, and Lesley University. She is also interested some small plan from the MBTA to improve planting and lighting in the park; Lesley would like to be involved in that work also.
Ruth wants a map of the city/private/MBTA properties. Daniel Wolf offered to get her one.
Daniel Wolf asked attendees to submit ideas to about how the various spaces might be programmed. He also offered to procure a map for Ryals of the Porter Square area that clearly indicated which properties are owned by the MBTA, the City, and the shopping center. The boundary lines are not easy to identify.
13. Dangerous behavior of cyclists around the station
How the City handles the fairly chronic problem of cyclist behavior in the various pedestrian crossing areas the around the station and at the intersection of Mass Ave and Upland Road was raised. Reports thereof via Commonwealth Connect appear to be referred to the police department without acknowledgement: specifically, nothing appears to happen. A request for serious enforcement of traffic regulations was made. The concern is that larger patterns are at work and that more attention is needed to warranted.
Warnick explained that the CPD traffic unit receives all traffic-related complaints submitted via Commonwealth Connect. A new supervisor of this unit is on the job, and new officers are being added; these report helps them deploy resources. Commissioner Elow said that greater police presence is possible, and she asked for periods of the day that are most troublesome.