A Dorm on Harvard Yard. Photo by greger.ravik.
A Dorm on Harvard Yard. Photo by greger.ravik.

City Council, Gov. Baker have the power to force universities—Harvard, MIT, and Lesley—and hotels to provide better alternatives

Cambridge is disappointing me again. Last week, I was noting how few people were covering their faces in public here—even after President Trump managed to find it within himself to tell Americans to wear some kind of mask when outside their homes to further slow the spread of COVID-19.

This week, I find myself comparing Boston’s fairly decent response to the serious public health problem of finding housing for the growing number of homeless people for the duration of the pandemic to Cambridge’s more anemic response.

For example, according to Business Insider and my colleague Nate Homan at DigBoston, Boston city government worked with Suffolk University to get an entire dorm building devoted to housing homeless folks in 172 separate rooms—to ensure that each person could stay isolated from the others, thus allowing for reasonable social distancing. Yet Cambridge, for its part, looks to be letting its universities off the hook. As usual.

MIT is housing first responders in a couple of dorms and Harvard is housing other first responders in a hotel, but neither vast wealthy college is offering any of its thousands of empty dorm rooms to house homeless folks during the coronavirus crisis. Instead, the elite institutions of higher learning have donated $250,000 each to Cambridge city government to warehouse local homeless people in the War Memorial Recreation Center and Fieldhouse—a public facility. Smaller sibling institution Lesley University has done nothing to ameliorate the homeless problem during the pandemic as yet. Nor have independent and chain hotels.

In a five-minute video released yesterday, Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and City Manager Louis DePasquale explained that the War Memorial site will convert a gym into housing—cots—for the general homeless population, and a garage level into sort of an isolation ward for homeless people infected with coronavirus.

What’s immediately evident when watching the video is that the general housing area doesn’t really keep people separated from each other at all. Its cots are six feet apart, but everyone’s out in the open. So if even one infected person makes it into the new shelter, many other people could easily be infected.

Which is why Cambridge City Councilors Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler and Quinton Zondervan are pushing their colleagues to pass a policy order that would limit the use of the facility to just “a COVID-19 testing and temporary quarantine site for unhoused individuals awaiting their test results.”

In the order, they point out that “[r]ecent testing of unhoused individuals in Boston revealed that several hundred individuals tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus even though they were not exhibiting symptoms at the time the test was taken,” and go on to say that “[i]t was explained during discussion at the March 30, 2020 City Council meeting that Cambridge’s emergency shelter does not intend to test clients during intake except for those who are visibly displaying symptoms.”

Sobrinho-Wheeler and Zondervan add that “[a]s of April 8, 2020, The Johns Hopkins ABX Guide reports that infected individuals who aren’t yet displaying symptoms may transmit 25-50% of total infections.”

Which translates to a public health disaster in the making.

As such, they seek to force the city manager—who controls the budget and day to day affairs in the so-called “People’s Republic”— to only use the new shelter for testing and quarantining the unhoused.

Interestingly, they also seek to enjoin the city manager to “work with Harvard, MIT, Lesley and local hotel operators to procure sufficient rooms to individually house people who lack access to a safe, transmission-free place to shelter.” And “put forward any necessary appropriations to fund this level of response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Connolly (D-Cambridge) tweeted that Gov. Charlie Baker “has ‘all authority over property necessary’ to respond to the #COVID19 emergency. @Harvard + @MIT are two of our state’s wealthiest institutions. Many are doing all they can to protect unhoused people, but those with the most power and resources have already failed.”

He later added in a subsequent tweet, “The Civil Defense Act gives @MassGovernor ‘any and all authority over property necessary or expedient for meeting a state of emergency.’ Gov. Baker should have made hotel rooms available to unhoused people weeks ago.”

One way or the other, the governor, the legislature, and local governments around the Commonwealth have to do better than quickly shoving homeless people out of sight and out of mind—allowing the devil, as I’ve said before, to take the hindmost.

It’s bad for public health, and really bad for our democracy, to pretend that the unhoused are anything other than brothers and sisters that need our help.

So I recommend that everyone take the time to stay on top of what’s happening with homeless folks in your area, and call your local and state leaders to demand that everything that can be done to help them is done. Now. Before we all preside over more needless deaths in crowded substandard facilities—as has already been the case in the Bay State’s collapsing nursing home industry. We still have time to do better with our homeless population statewide. But, sadly, the cenocide of hundreds of our grandparents who contracted coronavirus while warehoused and forgotten is already too far along to reverse.

More’s the pity.

This article was syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project. Email pdp@binjonline.org for more information.


Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project. Contact pdp@binjonline.org for more information. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2020 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.