Each year, as the days grow shorter and the temperatures drop, there is an anxiety that looms among people experiencing homelessness in Greater Boston. Unsurprisingly, this is the most difficult time of year for folks without a safe and permanent home. While many of us are frustrated by the thought of shoveling or commuting on unreliable public transportation, our neighbors without homes worry about their basic safety and survival.
Since early October, my colleagues and I have been pressuring the City of Boston and the state to release the annual ‘Winter Plan’ they develop to meet the increased demand for emergency shelter. There is great concern not only regarding the implementation of the plan but it’s content. Last year’s plan was not released until mid-January, a timeframe that did not serve those most vulnerable in our community as the cold and inclement weather had started months earlier. The plan consisted of “overflow” areas where guests slept on shelter floors or in chairs. The remaining individuals were bused to sleep in the front atriums of partner providers. Overcrowding and poor conditions contributed to an outbreak of meningococcal meningitis that took the lives of two homeless men. As such, we feel a plan similar to last year’s would not only be ineffective, but unconscionable.
As advocates and allies, we feel people experiencing homelessness should be afforded shelter that is dignified, safe, sanitary and secure; provided with cots to sleep on not simply mats on the floor; and have space to store their belongings. Shelter hours should be conducive to a worker’s schedule, from 8pm to 6am, and include access to case management to begin to meet guests’ broader and long-term needs. Lastly, people who are sleeping rough should have increased access to overnight drop-in facilities that include supportive services.
In early October, a group of us met with officials from the state; Linn Torto, Director of the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness; Mary Lou Sudders, Secretary of Health and Human Services; Monica Bharel, Commissioner of Public Health; and Monica Valdes Lupi, Director of the Boston Public Health Commission, and her colleagues to share our concerns around the plan and people’s immediate needs including substance use disorder treatment and harm reduction services. We have since led a 24-hour pre-Thanksgiving Fast in solidarity with our houseless neighbors, with over 50 folks from across the state. We are now in the midst of a call-in campaign initiated by the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee requesting the plan be implemented with our demands immediately.
As I write this, we have just heard from the state officials that our advocacy has been at least a partial success; the plan will be rolled out about a month earlier than last year; overflow areas will consist of cots with linens, instead of floor mats; there will be case management at overflow sites; and there will be increased supportive services including case management and harm reduction services at the night center for people sleeping rough outside. We look forward for the release of the official plan, and if insufficient will continue advocating for our demands.
Meanwhile, you’ll hear holiday music coming from our small space in the basement of the Cambridge Friends Meeting, where we welcome folks in for coffee and treats with the intention of providing some joy and hope to those we serve while they find all the cold weather attire necessary to survive yet another cold New England winter.