The cruelty machine made visible
“Still to this day nobody thinks ‘what about Jen?’"
Hello! This newsletter would not be possible without the people who volunteer to sustain it. There’s no ads or financiers there’s just you guys and your trust. It allows me to write about this city in a way that no one else does. So hat in hand I just have to ask if you’re not a paid subscriber please consider it? :-)
The cruelty machine made visible
“This is not ‘Protect & Serve.’ This is despicable,” said Jennifer Baez as she stood in front of a line of cops outside the old RMV Wednesday night. She unleashed a torrent of anger at the officers and it was met with patronizing derision.
Baez is a young trans woman and survivor of the sex trade. She has been unhoused for several years. She’s a member of a new group called Project Priceless, which set up the encampment outside the RMV Tuesday night. She did not want to go into the new temporary winter shelter set up at the RMV and she told the cops as much as they chided her that “beds have been made available” (a claim we’ll get to later). Baez had good reason.
“Let’s say I’m sleeping, as a transgender woman. I don’t know who’s touching me,” she said, pointing her protest sign at the line of officers. The sign read “our space,” a simple message betraying a cruel and complex reality.
“What if I get raped? Is the sheriff going to save me? Is the deputy going to save me? They’re going to be like ‘oh I’m sorry.’ What? Offer me ‘clinical services’?”
The sweep—perhaps the swiftest in WPD history, at less than 24 hours since the first tent poles hit ground—caught press attention and prompted a long statement from the city manager. But what continues to be lost in the coverage is Project Priceless itself. This collective of unhoused women who erected the encampment did so for good reason. The desperation of their situation is real. They decided to make that desperation visible. They were punished for it. The punishment was visible. The concerted effort to obscure the punishment—paint them as pointless trouble makers—has also been visible. To make the trouble the story serves that goal. That’s what we’ve seen in the coverage so far, for the most part.
The better story is why they made the trouble. Why it’s even trouble to exist if it’s in a certain place.
One of the real perks of this whole “truly independent” thing is I get to pick the main character. I get to make that moral judgement. I don’t owe the cops or the city manager the leading role. I don’t have to quote the most powerful person first. I don’t have to assign credibility on a scale of social status. Jennifer Baez’s perspective on homelessness is important for understanding how our society produces it. Eric Batista’s perspective is only useful as a small, mundane example of the political reality that prevents us from solving a solvable problem. One has seen how the cruelty machine works, the other is playing his part in it.
This group of unhoused sex trade survivors have been organizing since September, when the women-only LIFT Harbor shelter closed its overnight service. They are activists and despite the way it’s being presented in the discourse, “unhoused” and “activist” are not mutually exclusive labels. You can be both. But in this city we struggle to assign “human” status to people without an apartment. So the failure to grasp the notion that an unhoused person can do politics is understandable.
The encampment was a political demonstration. They set it up to make a statement: Worcester’s over-full shelter system is particularly fraught for women. The new emergency shelter has limited space, and it’s dangerous. The situation has worsened since the LIFT shelter closed. The group’s demand was that they simply be allowed to sleep outside the RMV, in a space created by Project Priceless, for Project Priceless. “Our space,” as Baez’s sign read.
The city did not allow that space to exist.
The cops presented them a choice: sleep in the shelter or get off the property. The latter was the more attractive option for the majority of them,. After the camp was cleared, three of the women took hastily offered beds in the shelter. The rest refused, Baez included. Catching up with her yesterday morning, I asked where she’s been staying since.
“I had to walk the streets of Worcester night after night,” she said.
Baez’s life story needs telling before we dive into any analysis of this sweep. Her descent began the moment she lost her family support.
“Once I openly came out I was forced to leave my home due to transphobia,” she said.
No extended family would take her in either. She quickly became homeless. Still a young teen and lacking a network of support, she couldn’t find a job.
“I was forced to have sex with older men for a place to lay my head at,” she said. On some nights she did so for food.
“I was surviving day-by-day, night-by-night.”
She was in junior high, not yet a Sophomore. She kept the homelessness and the prostitution—“living the life,” she called it—a secret from her peers.
“I was living two lives and younger than I am now and being young and still trying to strive for an education at the same time was hard for me because of being bullied for being a transgender woman and also living a secret life that nobody could know nothin’ about,” she said.
In 10th grade, she dropped out.
“I used to cry behind a big bush of plants on Main South and after each trick because I felt unwanted and disgusted with myself to live a life where my body got used over and over for money with nobody to even think twice—‘what about Jen?’
The bush was a comfort, in a way. It was in the bush she’d self reflect, she said, and find the power to keep living.
For a while, she had a steady bed at LUK, Inc., a local human services agency for youth. But earlier this year her DCF case was closed—a combination of aging out and behavior problems that made her a headache, she said. With the DCF case went funding for the bed. She was back on the street.
“Once again, still to this day, nobody thinks ‘what about Jen?’”
Jen was one of the 20 or so women who set up the camp on Tuesday night. By Wednesday night, their camp was gone. Some 30 police officers arrived at the scene to sweep it. They arrested three people for trespassing and towed a car. The tents were cleared.
As the cops descended on the shelter, videos from the scene capture people saying things like “where are the homeless supposed to go?” and “we need more shelters.”
“They made a couple of attempts to encourage people to go into the shelter but the women kept stating that the demand was not to go into the shelter, it was to sleep where they want to sleep unbothered,” one organizer, who spoke on a condition of anonymity, told me.
Before the RMV emergency shelter was introduced on December 11, the city was projected to have a shortfall of 200-220 shelter beds. The new 60-bed shelter, while a welcome addition, only puts a dent in that shortfall. And it’s temporary. Gone in April. The capacity was recently expanded to 82, but that’s still a dent.
“Folks get turned away from the shelter every single night,” the organizer told me.
The RMV shelter opened with 45 spots for men and 15 for women.
During the lead up, cops and Quality of Life Team members put people on a list for beds. The list quickly became a waiting list.
“They over-signed people up for this list,” said Sathi Patel, a Project Priceless organizer. “There were only 15 beds for women regardless. So signing 60 women up was never practical and was never going to work, but whatever.”
The way the list works, a bed is guaranteed so long as you show up every night. Miss one night and the spot goes to the next person in line.
Project Priceless has about 25 members. For weeks, members were denied access to the shelter—put on the waiting lists, turned away at the door.
“Every day women were slowly moving up the list. Women were like I’m #7 today, I’m #6 today, but still never got in. So the women have nowhere to go,” Patel said.
They decided to do something about it: set up the camp.
“The plan was organically produced,” said Patel. “Back in September we were talking about pitching tents down Oread Street and Main Street and then the idea just became more and more necessary as conditions worsened.”
A video taken at the scene by Worcester Sucks correspondent Dickie Cummings (I’m taking care of Katie post-surgery so I was unable to be there) captures a cop saying “you cannot please stay in the parking lot (sic) per an order from the property owners, SMOC. If you don’t leave here, you’re subject to arrest for trespassing.”
This isn’t true, technically. While SMOC, the organization which runs the shelter, may have asked for the camp eviction, it was ordered by City Manager Eric Batista, according to the police report detailing one of the three arrests.
The cop said there were shelter beds available that night to anyone who wanted them. “We have made them available,” he said. But he didn’t say why, nor that they weren’t available previously.
It must be made clear that the beds the cops offered these women were themselves a product of the demonstration. They were not there prior to Tuesday. Over the course of the day, the amount of beds on offer from SMOC and the cops steadily increased as it became clear Project Priceless had no plans of leaving their camp.
“It sounded like little by little they were conceding. Five more beds, 10 more beds. Then ‘fine, we'll fit everyone in,’” Patel said. “That's not the point. We're staying out here. This was a self-determined solution to a problem you created. We don't want to work with you.”
The notion that available beds negates the issues expressed by the encampment demonstrators, or their demand they be allowed to stay outside, diminishes a more complicated reality.
“Women don't feel safe in co-ed shelters. Period. They're not going to co-ed shelters because they're just men’s shelters at the end of the day,” Patel said. “It's not safe. They don't feel safe. They rotate who gets to sleep and who keeps watch like they sleep as a group of women. They have nowhere to go. So camping together was also transformative.”
In the video the cop says the beds on offer were “better than nothing.” A woman responds “we would rather you do nothing.”
Nothing was not an option. Tolerating encampments is beyond the pale here. A radical idea. No amount of expert testimony on the harmful and regressive effects of routine sweeps leads to a change in policy. The reality is that sweeping camps, when shelters are overfull and there’s hardly any permanent housing units, just creates different camps somewhere else. Another sweep on another day when another property owner complains. Shuffling people around the city. Busy work for the cops. Mundane cruelty toward no practical end. Reams of academic evidence show sweeps actually worsen a city’s homelessness problem. Common sense! But common sense does not override political will. The majority of the council and the city manager remain committed to the practice of endless sweeps.
That commitment manifested itself in the behavior of the cops at the scene. The demand that the women be allowed to simply stay in their tents did not register as a possibility.
“I've never seen such a brutal and clear abstracted unwillingness to listen and just the denial of someone telling you to your face what their experience is. And then repeatedly saying ‘no that's not your experience,’” organizer Addison Turner said.
The city has been marked by a decline in shelter capacity as officials cling to the message that temporary shelters are less preferable to permanent supportive housing sites. In reality, the city has neither and needs both. Behind the “either/or” framework is the grim reality that temporary shelters and permanent units are reliably fought tooth and nail by “the neighborhood” and the city administration feels beholden to that pressure.
You may remember several weeks ago, when Director of Health and Human Services Mattie Castile said the problem wasn’t funding. It was, you know, where to put them.
In Worcester, the routine sweeps usually happen in complete invisibility. The RMV eviction, like the Walmart sweep in 2021, is an outlier in the attention it received. For example, just the other day, a reader told me an encampment in Hadwen Park was swept a few days after Christmas. This was news to me. It certainly did not make the papers. A month ago I got a similar message about a camp cleared behind Holy Cross.
But even by Worcester standards, the sweep of the RMV camp happened with exceptional speed. It was wildly out of step with how officials say they clear encampments. In February 2022, the city offered proposed guidelines for how they go about it (page 7 and 8 here):
Once they have been notified, the appropriate community responders will be contacted regarding the encampment which will begin the seven (7) day period to transition people from the encampment to appropriate sheltering (to include housing, treatment programs etc. as available). The seven-day transition period is a recommended time period to allow for enough time for community partners to engage with individuals and connect them to local shelters and other services; however, it may be reduced at the discretion of the property owner. Additionally, this period would allow for adequate alternative low-barrier emergency shelter options to be secured.
The Quality of Life team will then provide the residents of the encampment on public property with a Notice to Vacate and Remove All Personal Property from the Department of Public Works and Parks on the first (1st) and third (3rd) day of the transition period. Verbal notices will be provided to residents of encampments on private property on the first (1st) and third (3rd) day of the transition period. When the transition period has ended either the private contractor or the Department of Public Works and Parks will then clear the vacant encampment.
Bolded are the things that didn’t happen Wednesday. These proposed guidelines were never officially adopted, and neither were calls at the time from some councilors to extend the seven-day transition period to a 14 days. The proposal fell into the ether of unfinished council business.
But at a January 2023 Human Rights Commission meeting, city officials responded to a question about sweep policy the following way:
This was worked on last year and guidelines were drawn up which are being followed. ... This city’s first effort is to buy time so homeless can be accessed and shelter provided. The Team has been quite successful in creating a smooth transition for everyone.
To catch up: there are proposed guidelines that dictate a week’s notice before a sweep. A city official is on record saying those guidelines, while not official, “are being followed.” Not in this instance!
The camp was cleared some 20 hours after it was set up—well short of seven days. Quality of Life team outreach started at 1:30 p.m., three hours before the sweep. There was no effort to “buy time.” The guidelines were extremely disregarded.
To consider why, it’s worth noting the camp was visible. The site is a few blocks from City Hall, at the corner of a busy intersection, and easy to see for people getting off the highway at Kelley Square and heading up Chandler Street to get west of Park Ave., into the “nice neighborhoods.” The visibility was likely a cause for such swift action.
That’s not the reason Batista offered in a statement Thursday afternoon. With vague language, he blamed the women for their being swept. They were the problem, he said, in a more tortured way:
I am disappointed in the events that unfolded yesterday as occurrences such as these make the existing obstacles around emergency housing even more challenging.
What does this mean? What exactly are “occurrences such as these”? How did tents outside the shelter make “the existing obstacles” “even more challenging”? C’mon man. When you ordered the tents be removed, you removed emergency housing. The existence of the tents did not in any way subtract from the number of available shelter beds. In fact, it was the presence of tents that forced the city into expanding shelter capacity in the first place, as we’ve established. The people you say made the obstacles challenging actually made you do more vis-à-vis the obstacles.
Wishy language like “obstacles” and “occurrences” establishes an antagonist without having to present an argument for why the bad guy is bad. Useful when there’s no compelling case. The next sentence in his statement does the same sort of work for the protagonist.
The City of Worcester, SMOC, and partner agencies place a high priority on the safety, security, and quality of life of those experiencing homelessness and remain committed to finding viable solutions that meet everyone's needs.
But you also remain committed to sweeping encampments without a sufficient alternative, a policy that necessarily forces people into less “viable” situations. Only three of the dozens of women in the camp took beds in the shelter. Those beds were only guaranteed for a night. The rest, like Baez, were sent off to somewhere. Anywhere else.
When Project Priceless set up the encampment, they found a “viable solution.” They just wanted to keep it. You took that from them because you didn’t like where it was. Didn’t want to see it. But you didn’t say that. You called the women an “occurrence” that made “obstacles” more “challenging.” You said you were “disappointed” in the “events.” But you didn’t say why.
Please support Worcester Sucks!
Like I’ve been saying Worcester Sucks is 100 percent reader-funded, and that allows me to write about this city in a way I couldn’t otherwise. I feel like I get to spend every week doing the best work I can possibly do and nothing else. I hope you feel the same! Please consider a paid subscription or a one-time donation in the tip jar: (Venmo / Paypal) !
Katie had her surgery this week and it went extremely well and she is recovering swimmingly! In other Katie news she did this banger illustration for us, capturing one of the finest moments in Worcester history.
That’s supporting local journalism and getting cool stuff. Two birds stoned at once!
A few more things to get to today: a new podcast, City Councilor Donna Colorio’s foolish take on homelessness, the mayor being weird about school committee subcommittee assignments, etc.
Worcester Housing Explained
Related to our main piece today: Friend of the newsletter Grace Dowling, a very bright sociology student at Clark University, has put out an exceptionally digestible and interesting podcast on the city’s housing crisis. It examines the manifestation, the root causes, and the dense web of interrelated social issues. I listened to the whole thing on one long snowy drive back from Maine the other day. It’s good stuff.
When Grace first had the idea for this some months ago, she reached out for advice and direction and I’m not really sure why because she did a better job with this than I would have done! The interviews with Councilor Etel Haxhiaj and Timothy Gilbert of the Worcester Common Ground CDC shed particularly bright light on the insane barriers in this state to getting affordable housing built.
Dear Donna Colorio...
Also extremely related to our main piece: Donna Colorio at the city council meeting Tuesday night was just asking questions about the unhoused presence at the library. Her order read “Request City Manager provide City Council with a report concerning the situation at the Worcester Public Library regarding the homeless population.”
It elicited an appropriate reaction from Wayha Wolfpaw, as you can watch here.
“I was hanging out with the homeless at the library and they have something to say to you: Dear Donna Colorio, fuck you.” Incredible.
Explaining herself on the council floor (25 minutes in), Colorio said “well it seems very clear that one of the common, um, feelings among people that were speaking tonight and people I’ve heard through email was that they’re a little confused on some of the things on the homeless in the library.”
That really clears it up!
She said people can’t find seating, though admitted that was a very anecdotal concern. She also wanted to know “how this is funded” because people sitting down in a public space is of grave financial concern.
“I guess it’s basically the funding source that I’d really like to look at. What it’s costing us as a city and how it’s being allocated.”
This approach backfired on Colorio big time. One after another, Councilors Etel Haxhiaj, Jenny Pacillo, and Khrystian King used Colorio’s order as an opportunity to examine how to do more.
“I’d like to thank Councilor Colorio for highlighting such an important issue facing our city today,” said Pacillo with a dash of sass. “I’ve always felt comfortable at the library but I can only speak for myself and I do recognize other patrons or employees could feel differently. I just think this motion is a really great opportunity to address the needs of the library community. That includes staff, patrons, and the unhoused folks who use the space.”
The executive director of the library, Jason Homer, similarly took the opportunity to negate Colorio’s line of inquiry. In a statement given to the Telegram, Homer said he’d “need to know more about the intent of Colorio’s request.”
"We are proud that we are a safe space for so many and we are constantly working to make sure it is truly a safe space for all," Homer said in a statement. "We have to set clear expectations with those who may be in crisis to ensure everyone’s experience is one rooted in safety and equity."
Whatever Donna was trying to get done, it’s not what got done.
It’s theater of the absurd that this conversation happened a few days before one of the most high profile encampment evictions in recent memory. Where are the homeless supposed to go, Donna?
Joe Petty <3’s Maureen Binienda
As we went over in the last post, the process of assigning chairs of the new school committee’s subcommittees is a mess because Maureen Binienda, Dianna Biancheria, and Kathi Roy have not done their state-mandated school committee training and thus, per school committee rules, cannot chair a subcommittee.
This will become even more interesting when the mayor makes his subcommittee assignments, which is expected to happen soon—probably this week or next. (The council subcommittee assignments are out, as detailed below, but we’re still waiting on the school-side assignments for some reason. Could be related!)
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see whether Mayor Joe Petty honors this rule! And whether Binienda, Biancheria, or Roy intends to comply with it.
Earlier this week Mayor Joe Petty released a memo which basically confirms he intends to make Binienda the chairwoman of one of the two subcommittees. In the Tuesday statement, he said he will “wait to assign committees until all members of the School Committee are eligible for chairpersonship.”
“We expanded our School Committee to include the districts so that we could offer an equitable opportunity for representation, and I want to make sure that these intentions are reflected in our subcommittee leadership,” said Mayor Petty.
The use of “equitable” here is brutal. Petty could have opted to assign chairmanships to any of the six members who did their training. But that wouldn’t be equitable. Instead, he’s going to wait until a former superintendent who was very credibly accused of racial discrimination during her tenure is technically eligible to be a chairperson. Equity in action from your mayor Joe Petty.
The next training is January 20. So I guess we’ll just wait and see after that.
Odds and ends
Thank you for reading! Doozy of a post today. I spent all week on it pretty much. This is a 50-hour post right here.
Big “this just in” for the homelessness issue nationally: the Supreme Court is set to take up Johnson v. Grants Pass, a potentially massive case which will decide “whether cities are allowed to punish people for things like sleeping outside with a pillow or blanket, even when there are no safe shelter options.” Big ramifications for Worcester if so!
My final presentation for the Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program is due next week and I’m going to put together a fun little video about Rewind Video Store for it. Stay tuned for that! The store is going very well. Check out the Patreon page when you can!
And don’t forget about the new stuff up at the merch store. The sweatshirt has been a particularly big seller so far.
Kudos to Councilors Etel Haxhiaj and Thu Nguyen for signing an open letter from local officials across the country calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.
The unfolding Aidan Kearney saga continues to be wild as hell. Has anyone put Turtleboy in the Turtleboy Graveyard yet?
I think that’s all for today. Have a good weekend everyone!