The day before a Cambridge City Council meeting in February, John Chute was preparing his notes.
Chute, who is now 40 years old, has lived in Cambridge his whole life. Until June 2020, he was unhoused for about seven years. As he prepared his notes for the meeting, he thought of the many people he knew who didn’t have a warm place to stay in the harrowing week ahead. Temperatures had dipped in the single digits days prior, as the Boston area experienced its coldest temperatures yet of the winter season. As he himself had survived the New England winters, he planned to speak to the City Council about getting by in such brutal weather without a home, when a bench in an underground T station can save a life.
“This is what homeless people deal with year after year after year, so” — Chute pauses, and lets out a breath — “they know how to get through it. Unfortunately, they have to.”
The docket for the Feb. 1 meeting included Policy Order 13, which called for the city to financially support a non-congregate shelter at the New England School of English after state funding ends in the spring, and to look for “other locations in or near Cambridge to house appropriate members of our unhoused community.” Policy Order 23, which looks into public spaces and whether they restrict unhoused people from resting, was also on the agenda.
Non-congregate shelter spaces are usually defined as hotel rooms, dorm rooms, or other individualized living arrangements, in which people have their own bedrooms and bathrooms. Given the transmission risks of Covid-19, separate living space has taken on a new importance.
Just as Chute was preparing his remarks, Project Right To Housing, a housing advocacy group being piloted in Cambridge, held a “lit drop” — a door-to-door distribution of campaign literature — calling residents to support Policy Order 13 and urge the city to establish new non-congregate shelters. The flyer, decorated with roses, a symbol associated with socialism, provided three easy steps on how to participate in the Monday meeting.
Present at the lit drop were Project Right To Housing members Piper W. Winkler ’21, and Benjamin B. Roberts ’23.
Winkler wore a Bernie Sanders shirt; she was a founding member of Harvard Students for Bernie, which has since become an official chapter of Youth Democratic Socialists of America. Roberts is also an active member of Harvard YDSA. Coming from San Francisco, Roberts was “disheartened” to see in Cambridge the same issue that persists in his hometown: an “enormously rich city” failing to “provide much in the way of housing or affordable housing for its most vulnerable residents.”
Winkler and Roberts made their way from one house to another in West Cambridge, inserting flyers in door jambs where they would not be easily blown by the winter winds. Although Roberts wore gloves, his hands were still freezing.
“It’s not just this is the right thing to do [but] it’s something that we should be doing. It’s a way to protect our neighbors,” Roberts says, warming his hands inside his car.
But the next day, just a few hours before the virtual meeting was supposed to take place, the City Council announced that it would be postponed to Feb. 3, due to a Nor’easter. On Monday night, like always, as many as hundreds of unhoused people slept outside, completely exposed to the elements.
Project Right To Housing reached out to the people they had contacted, making sure they were aware of the time change, and urging them to speak at the Wednesday meeting.
“We would need them to show up on Wednesday with this added urgency where the city had acknowledged the danger of the snow,” Winkler says, “to push the council if they were going to protect themselves and protect people going to that meeting, to also protect the unhoused community members who do not have a secure place to sleep.”
The episode captured how in Cambridge, a city that prides itself on progressive politics, the pandemic has sharpened and made visible the contours of ongoing housing inequality, and revealed the growing political might of a youth-driven, democratic socialist movement.
‘Tearing Encampments Apart’
During a snowstorm that took place the week before the canceled meeting, Massachusetts State Police destroyed an encampment of unhoused people on the Cambridge side of the Boston University Bridge, in what unhoused people and housing advocates refer to as a “sweep.”
Calla M. Walsh, a high schooler who is a member of Project Right to Housing as well as a DSA affiliate, witnessed the sweep firsthand. She found it horrifying. “The state police were tearing [the housing encampment] apart,” she says. “This was in the middle of a snowstorm, and they were throwing out people’s belongings, throwing out people’s tents.” She posted pictures of the sweep online, inspiring public uproar.
“Among service providers, among nonprofits and churches, I would say the very top thing on our list would be to stop the homeless sweeps,” says Rev. Kate Layzer, Minister of Street Outreach at the First Church in Cambridge. According to Layzer, “when a business owner complains,” the Department of Public Works comes and “throws everything into a dumpster, including your paperwork and the tent that a donor purchased that you received and your sleeping bag and your clothing and your personal possessions.”
Layzer’s insight reveals the fraught relationship between businesses and the unhoused community, which boils down to a common belief that having people on the streets is bad for business. Yet many activists say sweeps don’t actually get unhoused people off the streets in a meaningful way, which would require alternative shelter or housing. Rather, sweeps just force unhoused people to different streets, often stripping them of or destroying the very forms of documentation they need to acquire housing.
Cambridge Public Works Commissioner Owen O’Riordan clarified in an email how the department manages sweeps, noting that DPW provides 48 hours notice and any confiscated property is stored at a DPW facility. “This long-standing practice is well-known within the local homeless and provider community, and individuals usually come to collect their belongings within a couple days,” he writes. Regulation 02-01 prohibits storing property in public spaces, he explains.
Jeremy Warnick, a spokesperson for the Cambridge Police Department, declined to comment on the use of sweeps, but emphasized that the department’s “Homeless Outreach Officers” and affiliated social workers are working to connect unhoused residents to necessary city services. He highlighted a recent initiative intended to secure housing vouchers for residents with criminal records, who he notes are “among the longest unhoused in the City.”
A Seven Year Journey
Sweeps speak to a deeper need for affordable and accessible housing in Cambridge. For many unhoused people, even before the pandemic, finding housing was an arduous process.
“As someone who was chronically homeless in Cambridge, I can honestly say that the benches in Central Square and Harvard Square T Stations saved me from freezing to death on many occasions,” Chute told the City Council when it eventually convened to discuss Policy Orders 13 and 23 on February 3.
As Chute tries to tell more of his personal experience on behalf of unhoused people, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui cuts him off. He has reached his maximum two minutes of allotted time to speak.
“Thank you for your testimony,” Siddiqui interrupts. “Feel free to get in touch via email with the remainder.”
Chute was not able to email the Council, but he came back to the next meeting on Feb. 8 to remind them that they need to hear and include unhoused voices.
It took seven years for Chute to get permanent housing through the city. For people like him who have experienced homelessness, he says, being in a temporary shelter does not necessarily offer safety or certainty.
Chute was born in Boston and grew up in Cambridge, graduating from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. His father immigrated from Ireland; Chute calls himself “a first-generation American.”
After high school, Chute began working as a carpenter, and still does so to this day. Back in 2012, while working on a skyscraper in downtown Boston, he experienced an accident that injured his back and required spinal surgery. His doctor prescribed pain medications for the treatment.
“I ended up becoming a full-fledged heroin addict,” Chute says, describing his struggle with substance use after his accident. “And, you know, I just lost everything, I wasn’t able to hold my job, and I ended up going to prison for bank robbery.”
After being incarcerated, Chute had neither a family to lean on nor a place to live.
“The last time I got out of prison, that very night, I went to the homeless shelter in Cambridge,” Chute says. “I had no place to go.”
Chute stayed in various shelters while looking for permanent housing through the city.
“I don’t think the public, when they hear ‘homeless shelter’ — they don’t know what really goes on in there,” Chute says. “It’s a traumatic experience.”
One of the shelters that Chute stayed in was the Cambridge and Somerville Programs for Addiction Recovery (CASPAR) Emergency Services Center. Located at 240 Albany St., CASPAR is one of two shelters in the state that lets in unhoused people dealing with substance use issues. It is operated by Bay Cove Human Services, the same organization that is running Cambridge’s temporary emergency shelter at the Spaulding Hospital.
In Chute’s experience, “there’s chaos 24/7” in 240 Albany St. — to the extent that “you’ll never get a good night’s sleep there.” Before the pandemic, people were packed in together, either sleeping on their own bed or on a mat on the floor, creating an environment where “a fight could break out at any time” and “you’re always on the threat of being robbed.” In one instance, he lost his entire week’s pay when someone stole his wallet in the shelter.
“I didn’t have a bank account at that time, because my backpack that I was carrying all my ID documents in was stolen, so I couldn’t open an account,” Chute says. “I was able to have a friend cash the paycheck for me, but then I was carrying all this cash with me in the shelter. Someone must have [seen] me with it and when I fell asleep, they unzipped my pocket and took it.”
Chute says the shelter reeks of body odor, a stench only worsened by the malfunctioning toilets and urinals that leak urine, feces, and vomit. Before the pandemic, the shelter at 240 Albany St. housed 103 people; its occupancy has since fallen to 50. Last year, several occupants were transferred to the city’s temporary emergency shelter, stationed now in Spaulding, as a way to prevent Covid-19 infections.
Most shelters in Cambridge have a lottery process for allocating beds and sleeping mat spaces. The unhoused people who manage to get a spot at 240 Albany St. are subjected to a thorough search by Bay Cove staff, including a metal detector and bag inspections. The staff are looking for drugs, weapons, and food. The penalty for bringing food inside the shelter, such as a meal from a soup kitchen, is expulsion.
“They have so many rules, so you could be kicked out for almost anything,” Chute says.
Nancy Mahan, Bay Cove’s senior vice president of services, acknowledges the difficulties of shelter life. Responding to criticisms about the experience of living in Bay Cove-operated shelters, she says, “It’s hard for [unhoused] people to be in a tight space when they’re having probably one of the hardest times in their life.”
“Do I think there’s been times when [Bay Cove staff] have misused their authority around having people leave too generously? Yes, I do,” Mahan admits.
Mahan knows that the environment in shelters can be overwhelming for both guests and staff. She emphasizes that staff training involves learning how to de-escalate conflicts, but doesn’t think that shelters are perfect.
Going from shelter to permanent housing is a “very difficult and a long process,” Chute says.
“Without professional guidance and help from somebody that really knows the system, I don’t think I would ever be…” Chute trails off. “I think I’d still be on the street.” He only obtained housing with the help of a staff member from HomeStart, a nonprofit organization that helps unhoused people in the Boston area secure housing vouchers.
Any mistake — a missed deadline or appointment, a small error in paperwork — can bump someone to “the bottom of the list” again.
Assistant City Manager for Human Services, Ellen Semonoff, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the alleged stringency of the process.
In Limbo on the City Manager’s Desk
In April of last year, Chute authored a petition asking for the city “to provide hotel rooms and/or vacant apartments for individuals who need them immediately.” Under the leadership of City Manager Louis A. DePasquale, the city had created a temporary congregate shelter at the War Memorial Recreation Center — a response Chute condemned as cruel and inadequate. His petition garnered 121 signatures from unhoused people.
“The current strategy to use the War Memorial as a temporary shelter is, in our opinion, a disaster in the making,” the petition reads. “Please explain how a concrete parking structure or a gymnasium could ever be described as an ‘ideal’ place for a human being to live.”
Advocacy groups like Project Right To Housing, along with Cambridge City Councilors Quinton Y. Zondervan and Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, supported Chute and the unhoused community in crafting the petition, which was made all the more urgent by the pandemic. Although all but one of the City Councilors voted to keep the petition on file, and the City Manager met with members of the unhoused community who signed the petition, the city did not ultimately create any non-congregate shelter spaces.
Policy Order 13, the request for non-congregate shelter space did pass on Feb. 3, 2021, but has been left in the hands of DePasquale to implement — and he hasn’t yet, nor has he given any indication that he will.
The public face of Cambridge local government is its City Council, comprising nine elected City Councilors who represent the entire Cambridge population. But for all policies the City Council adopts, funding and implementation depend on one person: DePasquale. When the City Council votes on a policy order, DePasquale must determine the feasibility of the plan. According to the City Charter, he can report back to the Council at his leisure, or even not at all.
DePasquale’s unilateral ability to determine what does and does not get city funding has become a flashpoint at times when his priorities have not aligned with the Council’s, and by proxy, the city’s population. Housing advocates worry that housing-related policy orders will make it through the City Council, only to remain perpetually in limbo on his desk.
City Councilors like Zondervan and Sobrinho-Wheeler oppose the powers of the unelected City Manager. “The executive authority under our current charter is all under the City Manager,” Sobrinho-Wheeler says. “Only the City Manager can propose to the Council an appropriation or an expenditure,” Zondervan explains.
Zondervan and Sobrinho-Wheeler, both affiliated with the DSA, are serving their second and first terms on the council, respectively. They are forming a new guard, pushing policies on housing, the environment, and racial and economic justice aligned with democratic socialism.
“If we want justice, we need a city manager who will prioritize those goals. And for years, we’ve had a fiscally conservative regime in place in Cambridge, where we prioritize not spending taxpayer money on these issues, keeping property taxes low for homeowners, and a lot of these injustices are not being addressed,” Zondervan says.
Lower property taxes benefit homeowners, while reducing the amount of funding available for public services and amenities. Activists argue that DePasquale’s focus on satisfying homeowners reflects and reinforces a dynamic where certain voices are prioritized over others.
“This pushes young people and low income people and renters out of the conversation, because there’s an assumption that you have to have a master’s from Harvard in public policy to give your opinion,” Walsh says.” The focus on homeowners is also disproportionate, when more than 60 percent of people living in Cambridge are renters.
Last fall, DePasquale’s contract was extended until July 2022, after which he plans to retire. That contract extension vote was chaotic: It came at 1:08 a.m. after a meeting that lasted longer than eight hours and featured a contract document riddled with typos and messy handwritten modifications. Part of the debate hinged on the manager’s requested salary hike. He already earned more annually than the Mayor of Boston; with the approved increase, he now earns even more.
Only the “new guard” — Zondervan and Sobrinho-Wheeler — voted against the contract extension. “The next City Council has an opportunity to hire a more forward-looking city manager,” Zondervan says. “They better choose carefully,” he adds, chuckling.
DePasquale did not respond to multiple requests for comment in response to criticisms regarding his refusal to take action on non-congregate shelters, and his alleged prioritization of homeowners.
‘Saying The Quiet Part Out Loud’
What Chute was looking forward to discussing with the city council that day was “hostile architecture,” an urban design tactic housing advocates say discourages unhoused community members from resting in public spaces. For instance, in September of 2020, the MBTA added metal bars to their station benches, in effect preventing unhoused people from lying on them.
“What I don’t understand is why of all times to alter the benches to put these things in, why are you doing it in the middle of a pandemic where the choices homeless people have to go chill out and stay warm or maybe lie down and take a rest are so limited?” Chute says.
At its Feb. 8 meeting, the City Council voted on Policy Order 23, which requests the City Manager “to work with the appropriate departments and staff to not use and to remove hostile architecture whenever public spaces are designed or redesigned.” All City Councilors voted in favor of the policy, except for councilors E. Denise Simmons and Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., who voted present.
“The city has had conversations with [the MBTA] about removing that architecture. They say it has nothing to do with not wanting unhoused people to use the benches. The fact is, it does prevent people from lying down,” Councilor Marc C. McGovern says. McGovern clarifies that since Cambridge does not have legal jurisdiction over the MBTA, it cannot directly order the removal of the architecture.
But McGovern also argues that, in the hostile architecture debate, Councilors must balance the interests of the unhoused community with the interests of seniors. “You have some seniors who wouldn’t be using those benches to sleep on, who like the extra support. Those folks shouldn’t be demonized for that.”
Similarly, McGovern also points out that some hostile architecture is beneficial to the disabled community. In fact, MBTA has stated that they added bars to their station benches to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. MBTA deputy press secretary Lisa Battiston said in an email that the bars, which she refers to as “armrests,” offer “structural support for customers with mobility challenges.”
This talking point — that some hostile architecture is beneficial to or even necessary for seniors and disabled community members — infuriates many advocates for the unhoused. Zondervan, who has led the City Council’s efforts to remove hostile architecture, points out that many designs – such as backless benches – offer no such added support; they only function to exclude unhoused people. In March, Zondervan tweeted a photograph of a bench he found which contained a single metal bar across its middle. He captioned it: “Putting a bar across the middle of the bench but not either edge is the architectural equivalent of saying the quiet part out loud.”
Zondervan believes these arguments present a false binary. “I’ve spoken at length with the disabilities commission,” he says. “[There is] no true conflict between the disabled and the unhoused. Many unhoused people are seniors struggling with disabilities and mobility challenges.”
Chute attests that “the real purpose of these bars is [to] keep unhoused people from sleeping and resting on these benches.” At a City Council meeting, he demanded that Cambridge identify and remove every instance of hostile architecture. Although Policy Order 23 has passed, it has yet to be implemented; the Council is waiting on a report from DePasquale’s office.
Ultimately, hostile architecture is a symptom of the broader homelessness stigma: Its existence keeps unhoused people away from public areas, out of sight and out of mind.
‘This Big Warehouse Model’
Even before the pandemic, unhoused individuals like Chute felt unsafe when staying at congregate shelter spaces like 240 Albany St.
“It’s a terrible, terrible way to live. There [is] no privacy, and you know, you’re constantly surrounded by people.,” Chute recounts. “That’s why I’m so glad that there is this effort to change the idea of what a shelter looks like. It should be non-congregate, you know. I don’t know why this big warehouse model got accepted.”
But shelter policy debates have been jammed by semantics: What does and does not constitute a non-congregate shelter is an area of ongoing controversy. For instance, the city funds a temporary emergency homeless shelter which it considers a non-congregate shelter. “You have one to two people per room. It’s not … everyone in the field house,” McGovern explains.
But according to Project Right to Housing and Councilors Zondervan and Sobrinho-Wheeler, it does not qualify as non-congregate.
“I don’t agree that we have any non-congregate shelters,” Zondervan says. “Spaulding is maybe the closest we have, but even there we have some shared rooms. Even there, people are not getting the dignity and respect they deserve.” He gives an anecdote of a pregnant woman and her partner being denied privacy. “The rooms have no doors — they have curtains, and this family had their curtain removed. The staff was using it basically as a way to punish them. It’s awful.”
Mahan and Bay Cove Human Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the alleged lack of privacy and mistreatment of guests at Spaulding.
McGovern puts his characterization of Spaulding as a non-congregate shelter in the context of the relative success of Cambridge in limiting Covid-19 transmission in the unhoused community, compared to other cities.
“The fact is that Cambridge has actually done a very good job,” McGovern says. “It’s a pandemic, it’s terrible, there’s no good news about it. But we also have to take note that there are things we are doing here that are working.”
For Ann Fogler, one of the leaders of Project Right to Housing, that context is irrelevant. To say that the city shelter at Spaulding Hospital is non-congregate constitutes “a misinformation campaign,” Fogler argues. “McGovern has been the City Councilor that has been saying it.”
Part of the debate over building non-congregate shelters in Cambridge comes down to a contested reimbursement option provided to the city by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In an Executive Order released on Jan. 21, 2021, the Biden administration offered aid for a number of public facilities, including schools, child-care centers, healthcare sites, and non-congregate shelters, available at “a 100 percent Federal cost share.”
McGovern explains that the city interprets the order to mean that FEMA will only reimburse non-congregate shelter space for people who test positive for Covid-19; it won’t reimburse non-congregate shelters for the entire unhoused community.
Yet to many advocates, the city’s interpretation is not grounded in the text of the executive order. FEMA’s eligibility guidelines make no explicit Covid-positivity caveat. FEMA representatives did not respond to requests for clarification, and DePasquale declined to elaborate on the city’s interpretation.
“The answer we've gotten so far from the City Manager is: ‘We believe that money is only for people who tested positive.’ I do not understand where they are coming up with that,” Zondervan says.
McGovern makes clear that money is not the obstacle to opening non-congregate shelters for the greater unhoused community. “The city has been willing to pay for things: Just Covid-related alone, we’ve invested $10 million, new money — not budgeted money, new money — to pay for public toilets and hand sanitizer stations and the meals program and renovating Spaulding Hospital and the War Memorial,” he says. “The manager, in my conversations with him, has never said, ‘It’s too expensive; I don’t want to do it.’”
Instead, McGovern argues that there are serious logistical concerns — for one, determining who has the self-sufficiency to live alone, given high addiction and mental illness rates in the unhoused community. “It’s not as simple as walking up to the Marriott with a city of Cambridge credit card,” he jokes.
McGovern says he “supports this kind of thing,” but hedges on its necessity: “We haven’t had the outbreaks we’ve seen in other places,” he repeats. If the goal is not about outbreak management, he adds, “then that’s a different conversation.”
To some housing advocates, this “different conversation” extends beyond the specifics of the Covid-19 crisis and should have been brought to the forefront long ago. “Oh, we have a public bathroom. Oh, we have a warming center, where people can come warm up. They will do anything but give people actual homes,” says Walsh, a Project Right to Housing member. “But it’s not surprising. Cambridge politics is very much about looking good on the surface level when addressing these systemic issues. You see that with policing, with climate, with every issue, especially housing.”
"The democratic socialists see resistance to non-congregate shelters as a desire to avoid setting a precedent for permanent public housing. “They are scared if they show it’s totally possible and affordable to house people in non-congregate shelters in the pandemic, they can do this not during the pandemic, and for all unhoused people,” Walsh says.
McGovern emphasizes that there are different long term approaches to homelessness beyond non-congregate shelters, such as transitional housing. “The City Council has always been supportive of trying to address homelessness,” he argues. But he believes that, despite the Council’s efforts, there are “always going to be people who are unhoused.”
A Vision: Housing for All
For advocates, non-congregate shelters, the removal of hostile architecture, and an end to police sweeps are all pieces of a broader attempt to redefine housing as a human right, not a privilege.
To Project Right to Housing, and democratic socialists more broadly, this transformation would entail an end to reliance on the market. “Our ultimate goal is the decommodification of housing,” Walsh says. She believes that limiting corporate influence in politics is crucial. “So much in Cambridge politics is determined by developers, who make their living on the commodification of housing,” she explains.
Shelters, no matter how humane, will always be a reactive response to the problem of homelessness. People who need shelters have already been failed by housing policy; there’s only so much that homelessness policy can do, she argues. According to Project Right to Housing, that’s where initiatives like rent control, tenant protections, mixed-income public housing, and zoning reform come in.
But beyond policies and politics, housing justice is a battle for dignity. It’s a demand for community members to stop walking by and treating unhoused people in Harvard Square as if they are invisible.
“Once you become conscious of these issues, it’s just so visible when you’re walking around your neighborhood,” Walsh says. “I live right outside of Central Square. I get off at Central Square station, and see anti-homeless architecture at the T station, walk past the library where unhoused people sleep every night in the freezing cold, and then I walk by luxury condos that are being built in place of affordable housing.”
As an end to the pandemic looms on the horizon, housing advocates are pushing against a return to pre-Covid policy.
Zondervan points out that an end to the pandemic could come with a surge in homelessness, as the eviction moratorium expires. “There’s going to be a wave of evictions, of people who couldn’t afford to pay their rent. It’s a horrible disaster waiting to happen,” he says. “[It will] disproportionately impact Black and Brown community members.”
“We can’t go back to normal,” he adds. “We have to [do] better, because normal was unjust.”
—Staff writer Talia Blatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @talia_m_blatt.
—Staff writer Jeromel Dela Rosa Lara can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeromellara.