Homelessness on the rise in Somerville

Homelessness continues to be on the rise in Somerville, an issue pushing city councilors to say the mayor must declare a state of emergency.

Around 21 people slept at Chuckie Harris Park in the East Somerville neighborhood recently, according to city officials. Councilor Matthew McLaughlin said he predicts there are “hundreds” of residents living on the streets.

Of the “unhoused” population, McLaughlin said he believes a small fraction is causing mischief, including public defecation, fighting, thefts, destruction of city property and trespassing. But still, those incidents are becoming too commonplace, he said.

“I’m not talking about a historic trend. This is an escalation in the past month,” McLaughlin said during Thursday’s council meeting. “These are just unacceptable conditions for anyone to live in whether you are homeless or you are housed.”

McLaughlin sponsored various resolutions and orders pertaining to the problem, all of which the council approved Thursday, one calling on Mayor Katjana Ballantyne to declare a state of emergency and others urging officials to provide regular updates on how they’re addressing the issue.

In a statement sent to the Herald Friday evening, Ballantyne said her office will be taking the state-of-emergency resolution under advisement while it determines “the best path forward to advance the full range of our ongoing efforts.”

“A key part of my administration’s approach is not allowing the criminalization of homelessness,” the mayor said. “We are paying close attention to community reports and understand the urgency residents feel about addressing this situation. But we cannot forget that at the heart of this crisis are individuals and families in distress.”

Ballantyne added, “We are focused on a multi-faceted approach that not only provides immediate support for unhoused persons and newcomers but also addresses the underlying factors contributing to homelessness.”

The number of homeless people in East Somerville has doubled, if not tripled, over the past few months, said Jordan Harris, president of the Community Action Agency of Somerville. The biggest driver behind the increase is connected to a lack of physical locations in the neighborhood that provide services to those unhoused, he said.

“This is an emergency that has been ignored and downplayed for far too long,” Harris wrote in a letter to the City Council. “We are experiencing a homelessness crisis in the city of Somerville, and this homelessness crisis is a moral failure on the city’s part to live into their purported values regarding racial and ethnic inclusivity…”

McLaughlin’s biggest wish, he said, is for a center to be created in his district that would solely focus on the homeless and those dealing with substance use disorder. One of the orders approved Thursday is for a city official to investigate whether the shuttered East End Grill on Broadway can be seized by eminent domain for the purpose of providing such services.

Somerville since 1987 has served as one of Massachusetts’ few sanctuary cities, meaning undocumented immigrants are not prosecuted for violating federal immigration laws. That status was reaffirmed in 2016.

City Councilor Lance Davis said he is seeing similar issues in his district of Ward 6 which covers Davis and Powder House squares even after the Somerville Homeless Coalition this spring opened an engagement center to serve unhoused people during the daytime.

“It doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what we need to do,” Davis said. “It is long past time to look at this situation as an emergency.”

Officials allocated $2.16 million of the $77 million American Rescue Plan Act funding toward long-term housing security for the homeless, with $15,000 for emergency short-term hotel stays and over $1 million for the engagement center in Davis Square, Council Vice President Judy Pineda Neufeld said.

“It kind of frustrates me, to my core, that we are often in a situation where we have to react instead of being proactive and plan ahead,” she said.

Ballantyne countered that, saying much more from the city’s federal COVID-relief ARPA allotment has been invested in supporting the homeless. Over $9 million, in total, she said, went to local homeless-focused nonprofits, homelessness and overdose prevention, and related services.

“Our strategy is constantly evolving as we learn new ways the city can provide additional supportive services, and solutions, for the unhoused community,” the mayor said.

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