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If cruelty's the goal, we're doing a damn good job
Another camp eviction highlights the city's poor homelessness policy
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I followed TJ through the woods up a steep and winding path to a campsite where, two weeks ago, the cops took everything he and his fiancée owned and hauled it away. They weren’t the only ones.
On Aug. 4, the city “cleaned up” a homeless encampment colloquially known as The Mountain, a diffuse collection of campsites around the high tension wires that cut across Providence Street. Most of the camps were in the woods behind the American Legion Hall, and a smaller number were across Providence Street, adjacent to the Xtra Mart. In a statement sent to me, the city claims to have removed a dozen unhoused individuals from the camp. Five people interviewed for this story claim the number was significantly higher, from 20 to as many as 40.
Many, if not most, of the people removed from The Mountain found themselves in that position because they were also removed from the encampment behind Walmart last October. That was the case for the three unhoused individuals I interviewed and they each confirmed that almost everyone at The Mountain came from the Walmart camp.
For more on the Walmart demolition, my post on the matter from last October.
By tearing down the Walmart camp, the city had effectively created a new camp on The Mountain, and now everyone living at The Mountain is either in search of a new encampment or they’ve already found one.
The two camp demolitions followed more or less the same course of events. Police and city workers with the so-called Quality of Life Team began visiting the camp, then warned that the camp would be demolished, then crews were sent in to demolish the camp and throw everything away. TJ and his fiancée lost everything they owned, as did Melissa and Jeff, the two other unhoused people I interviewed. After the Walmart demolition, city officials claimed they held onto people’s personal belongings so that they could collect them. The three people I interviewed said they didn’t know anything about that. In the city’s statement regarding The Mountain, they made no similar claim. I asked the question and it went unanswered.
“American Legion volunteers, National Grid workers, and City-hired contractor collected 500 tons of trash from the site altogether, including flammable materials and unsanitary waste,” the statement read, with no reference to tents or personal belongings, save that they notified people living there that anything they wanted to keep should be taken away before the cleanup.
As we climbed the trail, TJ pointed out several empty plots, tents and their occupants replaced by fresh “no trespassing” signs and small piles of litter city workers had left. His pace was slow and he kept it with noticeable difficulty. COPD and asthma made inclines difficult, he said, and it didn’t help that he lost his inhalers with the rest of the stuff the city hauled away.
Between labored breaths he said matter of factly, “They tore down all our tents, bagged up all our stuff, and threw it out.” Then, after a pause, he said “this hill sucks” and we laughed about that. It certainly did.
After a few more minutes we arrived at the main campsite, presently empty save for spare tent poles and clothes and the remnants of fires in several pits. It seemed enough room for a dozen tents. TJ estimated that there were fifteen to twenty people that had lived in the main site somewhat permanently. On some nights the number would climb to forty, he estimated, though it was hard to say for certain.
Another short climb up the hill and we got to what remained of his spot. A smaller plot and somewhat tucked away, TJ said it was the primo place to pitch a tent. He was one of the people removed from the homeless encampment behind Walmart last October, and he said he made it a point to jet over to this camp, nicknamed “The Mountain” when all that was going down.
“When they were doing the Walmart, me and my fiancée decided to get up here first so we could get the best spot,” he said. “Now they fuckin’ cleared everything out. It's crazy.”
He pointed to the ground and to remnants of rope tied to trees they used to fortify the tent against wind gusts.
“This is where we put our tent right here,” he said, staring at the ground. “It was nice.”
I asked how he felt about the way the city went about clearing the camp.
“I think it's fucked up,” he said. “They could have gone about it a lot differently. They could have been helpful. It was a malicious act. You know what I'm saying? They'll send the quality of living people in to check things out, but that’s just to cover their own ass. They don't care about how we live or the quality of it. They just care about control basically. It's all bullshit.”
Indeed, in the city’s statement, a spokesman reiterated the often-repeated talking point that the Quality of Life Team offers services ahead of camp removals. They offered stays in homeless shelters and to connect those willing with treatment services.
“The Health and Human Services Department is committed to helping homeless
individuals attain the services they need to break the cycle of homelessness,” the statement read.
But those affected by this carrot-before-stick policy paint a far less humanitarian picture. The shelters are overcrowded and dangerous—short term and emergency alternatives at best. Treatment programs are basically jail. Housing vouchers are increasingly useless. Long story short, the city is not providing an alternative to those living in the woods that’s more attractive than the prospect of finding a new place in the woods, so most make the choice to stay in the woods, lying in wait for the next camp removal. TJ’s been through the cycle four times, he said. The alternatives offered by the Quality of Life Team are nothing but a “pain in the ass.”
“They're basically like living under a magnifying glass all the time,” he said. “So on top of normal rules and normal rules of civilization, now you have their rules and their rules rules. It's just.. it's bullshit. They say they do this and that to cover their own ass but really they don't do shit.”
Last time he stayed in a shelter, he said he stayed there for three days and all of his stuff got stolen. There’s just not a good year-round alternative to living in the woods, he said.
“But they’ll still come and kick you out,” he said. “They'll make sure they kick us out but they won't give us any place to go. It's... It's... It's not cool. It's not right. They treat us like less... They don't treat us like normal citizens. They treat us like less than.”
The city said they demolished The Mountain because it was “unsafe and unsanitary” and they had grown increasingly concerned since the winter about the amount of debris. The concern was compounded, the statement read, by a brush fire in the area earlier in the summer. And, of course, the property owners told them they wanted the land cleared.
“Our goal is to have no one living outside, but this particular location had become increasingly unsafe over time and the property owners wanted the land cleared,” said Dr. Matilde Castiel, commissioner of the City’s Health and Human Services Department, as quoted in the statement. “Our staff worked closely with the individuals at the encampment to ensure that they had early notification of the action and that they had support offered to them as they transitioned off the property.”
The property owners wanted the land cleared.
That’s really the rub, isn’t it? If the property owners want the land cleared, the city is going to clear the land.
That the act of clearing will only inevitably lead to another camp somewhere else, where another property owner will inevitably complain, leading to another clearing, does not seem to factor into the calculus. And so the city effectively plays a game of Whack-A-Mole, knocking down camps on a complaint-by-complaint basis. Each time, the people living at those camps are set back from square one to an even worse square zero. Jeff, who I interviewed by phone, said he lost his tent, his backpack, his flashlight, items of sentimental value. He had to start from scratch.
“I just feel like they can do whatever they want and they treat us less than human,” he said.
Melissa, who I interviewed on the median at the nearby Rte. 146 interchange, said she lost everything she owned, including her license and birth certificate, which she’s now working with a case worker to replace.
"I feel like the cops and everyone is just harassing us. No matter where we go, they're trying to kick us out. We have nowhere to go,” she said.
Every time the city clears out a camp at the behest of a property owner, people like TJ, Jeff and Melissa are put in more desperate and vulnerable positions than they were in. Not only do they lose their belongings, but they lose the safety and mutual support of a group, and their location becomes less known to the clinicians, outreach workers and volunteers who would try to help them. The property is cleared to the satisfaction of the owner, but at the expense of support systems for the unhoused, however fragile and tepid they may have been.
The fact that new camps keep emerging speaks to our inability to address the underlying problems that cause camps in the first place. Worcester isn’t remarkable in this regard and it would be silly to place blame solely on the city government. It’s a policy failure at all levels of government that, in the seat of a global empire, homelessness is such a pervasive problem. No one should be made to live in the woods. There should be a viable alternative. Housing should be a guaranteed human right. No one should be made to prove that they deserve it. No one should go without it. The very existence of encampments like The Mountain is an indictment of our society and all its inherent cruelties.
Here in Worcester, we don’t have the power to address the underlying conditions that create homelessness, and it should be very clear by now that anyone who does have that power is uninterested in wielding it. There’s nothing at all to suggest our social safety nets are going to get any stronger, and there’s reams of evidence to suggest the opposite.
What we could do here, and what we’re not doing, is recognizing these underlying conditions. Our policies on the issue do not take into account that, for many people, living in the woods is the only viable option. Until we accept that fact, our policies will go on treating the issue as a nuisance that can be remedied with dumpsters and pick-up trucks, and all we’ll have accomplished is shuffling people around the city while setting them back a tent or a backpack at a time. It is a zero-sum game, achieving nothing but the momentary satisfaction of individual property owners by way of banal cruelty inflicted on invisible people.
Tucked way back in the woods at TJ’s former camp site, he wondered aloud if there wasn’t some sort of compromise. There’s a lot of land back there, he said, and couldn’t they just set some aside and sanction encampments? Regulate them and treat them as a needed point of contact?
“There’s a workaround here where if they’re willing to compromise, so are we,” he said.
It’s a proposal that would undoubtedly get laughed out of City Hall. Completely unthinkable under the current political conditions. And that’s the whole problem, isn’t it?
As we walked back from the encampment toward Xtra Mart where I’d parked, TJ stopped at a trailhead that led to the Legion Hall parking lot and set us on a longer path. He doesn’t like to walk through there if he can help it, he said. Often, cops will sit there and hand out trespassing tickets to people coming out of the woods, he said.
“Simple enough to fight a ticket, just a pain in the ass.”
That’s our strategy in a nutshell right now. Inconvenience the unhoused into oblivion. Nickel and dime them. Get them in front of a judge. Throw away their shit. Shuffle them around the city. Make them uncomfortable any way we can in the hope the path of least resistance will lead them to another municipality.
If cruelty is the goal, we’re doing a damn good job.
Well hello there it’s been a little minute since my last post. Had sort of a roller coaster of a week last week: Went camping, had fun camping, got sick while camping, came back to Worcester, went to urgent care, found out no one at urgent care cared, spent a few days in bed, got a little better, went to New Hampshire, saw Willie Nelson, got actually better. Up and down and up again. And now I’m back, baby. Please consider throwing some dollars toward this newsletter if you can swing it :-)
And check out the Worcester Sucks merch store for t-shirts, sweatshirts, tote bags and more!!
508 Bike Life, who you might know as the Wheelie Kids, is becoming increasingly active in mutual aid for the unhoused. If you want to support their efforts, check out a recently launched GoFundMe!
In Worcester politics news, it looks like former Superintendent Maureen Binienda has found herself another job. Kim Ring in the Telegram today has the scoop: The Quabog School District is offering Binienda the top job over there if she wants it. Apparently, an 11-member search committee was so smitten with Binienda the consensus was near unanimous. Confusing. But if she takes the job, she probably won’t have time to run for mayor. So go, Binienda, go! Congrats!
I finished Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ earlier this week and wow, what a trip. One of the most profound and important novels I’ve read. The philosophy was dense but the prose was arid and smooth and the real-life observations were illuminating. The difference between classical and romantic thinking in the context of the history of Western philosophy should be an impossibly dry subject matter but I was quite affected by the author’s position. Any Pirsig heads on the mailing list? I think I’ll crack into ‘Lila’ next but I’m a little intimidated.
Oh! And mark your calendar folks. Next Monday, State Senate hopefuls Robyn Kennedy and Joe Petty are havin a little rootin tooting showdown. The candidate forum takes place at The Willows at 6:30 and I am currently in the process of figuring out how to stream it for Worcestery Council Theater 3000. More on that as I figure it out! With the Primary coming up on Sept. 6, this is likely the last and most prominent public showdown between Kennedy and Petty, so it’s a good one to pay attention to.
Lastly, I want to direct your attention toward a new report which underscores the wider issues at play in today’s main story. The newest Out of Reach Worcester report finds that most Worcester renters are increasingly unable to pay rent, having to work two jobs to make the rent. Neal McNamara over at the Patch has a good writeup today.
Each year, the Out of Reach study — compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition with research by the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance — looks at the gap between local wages and rental prices. In Worcester, the average two-bedroom apartment costs about $1,500 a month, which would eat nearly three-quarters of the pre-tax earnings of someone earning around $15 per hour.
"The Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,491. In order to afford this rent and utilities without paying more than 30 percent of their income, a household needs to earn $28.67 per hour," the 2022 study says. "However, the average wage of renters in Worcester and surrounding areas is only $14.25 per hour. In order to afford a modest, two-bedroom apartment in Worcester at the minimum wage of $14.25, a renter would need to work 80 hours per week, 52 weeks per year."
Worcester has seen a development boom in recent years, but the city's new residential buildings — whose prices are set by the developers who build them — have not yet created enough supply in the rental market to drive prices down, according to the study.
Woah! Who could have seen this coming????
Anyway expect to hear from me later this week and thank you for reading.