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Student solidarity for the EAW, homeless sweeps, Polar Park boondoggle report
Hello everyone! And a special ‘what’s good’ to all the new readers sent my way by a little shout out in Ryan Broderick’s Garbage Day newsletter. Welcome! As I’ve said before Garbage Day is crucial reading for understanding ~the digital landscape~ on which we all walk a lonely road. The only one that I have ever known, you could say. Don’t know where it goes but it’s home to me and I walk alone, you might even say.
The post is about media and journalism and the internet and the rapidly changing nature of all three. And it includes this paragraph:
Now here, you might say, “um, well, there aren’t any creators doing ACTUAL JOURNALISM.” But, yes, there are. And just to shut up the “what about local journalism” weirdos who usually show up when you have this sort of conversation, I’ll give you two local examples. First, there’s Hell Gate NYC. It’s a worker-owned publication and it’s currently doing the best reporting on the Jordan Neely subway murder. And, second, there’s a newsletter near and dear to my heart called Worcester Sucks and I Love It, which treats Worcester, Massachusetts, as a microcosm for all of America’s ills. It’s great. But there are now dozens of worker-owned, or, you could say, creator-run news publications, hosted on all kinds of platforms and doing all sorts of interesting journalism.
Humbling! Too kind! Now watch me use these nice words as a launching point to debase myself for the internet cash I exchange for shelter and food and the ability to see a doctor…
Please consider a paid subscription!
Though I probably should, I don’t paywall any of my work out of some deeply-held and self-defeating principle. I just ask nicely 🙂
If you already subscribe thank you so much. You put me in the increasingly rare position of having the time and freedom to “do journalism” in a way that feels necessary and important to me personally and as such stands a better-than-average chance of being actually necessary and important. No one bats a thousand but I’ve gotten a lot closer to the goal in here than when I had a daily content quota to hit for the hedge fund that was paying me $14 an hour while carving my publication like shawarma meat on a spit.
Anyway. Time to treat Worcester, Massachusetts, as a microcosm for all America’s ills!!
A three part post today, starting on a cheery note with the student walkout at South High in support of the Education Association of Worcester. Then we’ll hit the recent push for a moratorium on the city’s penchant for routine homeless encampment sweeps and how it’s almost certainly not going to happen. Then we’ll round things out with a recent academic paper on how Polar Park was a cartoonishly bad idea and now stands as an immovable albatross around the city’s neck. Nothing to be done now! Whoops!
For extra effect, throw on this song about Worcester my friend sent me last night. It’s called “Great Worcester Song Ever!” and it’s a treat. Played it for my girlfriend hoping she’d find this Worcester discovery just as revelatory as I did but she said yeah I know this song wait how have you never heard this song? And I said oh and walked away dejected like some idiot some big dumbass as “Great Worcester Song Ever!” played on my phone at full volume. Oh yeah. What a city. It’s got some hills.
One of my little birdies gave me the tip off Wednesday morning that South High students were planning a midday walkout in support of the Education Association of Worcester’s increasingly fraught struggle for a reasonable contract offer. A struggle which is careening toward a full strike, mind you. Last Friday, 97 percent of EAW members voted to declare no confidence in the School Committee and City Council. And they balked at an insufficient offer and request for mediation made by the School Committee on the same day. The situation has not improved since.
The tentative agreement includes a comprehensive wage package with longevity benefits that places Worcester teacher salaries ahead of those of nearby districts and would be retroactive for the first year. It also includes incentives for teachers to further their education and professional development through tuition reimbursement and other items.
We shall see if the membership finds this contract amenable! The news broke after I’d scheduled the post last night.
So I got to South High about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday to find hundreds of students pouring out of the front entrance and gathering in the courtyard. They had signs—”NO PAY, NO SLAY”—and custom T Shirts and they chanted in English and in Spanish and there were a handful of teachers watching the demonstration with big smiles, beaming with pride. It was a joyous display of solidarity and youth activism and the scene was quite affecting.
Should the educators decide to pull the strike trigger, they’ve got the South High students in their corner. That much is clear. It’s very possibly and indeed likely you’ll be seeing similar walkouts at all three other high schools sometime very soon like a little later this very morning. At either 10:50 or 11:30 a.m. depending on the school! There’s a student solidarity movement brewing.
As the walkout came to a close and students trickled back in the building, I pulled aside a few of the kids who appeared to lead the action. They spoke quickly and breathlessly and with the righteous enthusiasm coating the whole moment. Here are their comments unaltered as they gave them:
Aaliya Bethancourt went first.
“My mom works in the Worcester Public Schools and my teachers are probably one of the safest people that I feel most comfortable around and I was tired of them not getting what they wanted. Especially what they deserve,” said Bethancourt. “So we needed to do something and we thought this would bring everyone in the school together so that they know about it. We just really wanted to show our support.”
Victor Martinez, who stood out as master of ceremonies for the whole affair, followed.
“For me I feel like all my teachers work really hard,” said Martinez. “They have to pay for their own materials. So I feel like we need the support from the government. They want to support only the military. But they also have to note we are the young minds and we have to speak up for what we want and what we believe in and I believe my teachers should get payment because they do a lot of things to help us succeed and go on into life. And if we do not have that payment there we cannot be who we truly are.”
Then to Carisa Hochkeppel.
“They’ve been asking for a fair contract for so long and it just got to the point where we were sick of them not getting what they are asking for,” said Hochkeppel. “Like he said, they pay for their own materials. They put in their all to give us a good education and the fact that they’re not getting paid good money for it is just ridiculous.”
And finally Helena McDonald.
“Cost of living has gone up and their salaries haven’t increased and they’re the ticket to our future and they set us up for our whole lives and they deserve to be compensated for that,” said McDonald.
Hochkeppel chimed back in.
“There are so many teachers in this school that have two, three jobs and I’ve seen it myself. I’ve seen teachers outside of school working somewhere else. And that shouldn’t happen. It shouldn’t happen.”
Amen to all of that. No notes.
End the sweeps!
The Council’s Standing Committee on Public Health sent an order to the city manager’s office to consider a moratorium on homeless encampment sweeps and/or designating a sanctioned encampment site. It’s not very likely the city manager is going to do anything with this order given who he is and what he believes and the comments he’s made in the past. But it’s something and something’s better than nothing.
The order was sent after an hour-long conversation on Tuesday afternoon which was in itself pretty interesting and we’ll get to that. But the committee members decided to send it directly to the manager’s office and not to the Council, a decision which initially rubbed me the wrong way until I remembered the Council reliably votes down good ideas like this by either an 8-3 or 7-4 margin. There’s no reason to believe this idea would go any different. In this instance as in most instances the City Council is nothing but a waste of time. An energy sponge. Enthusiasm damper. The dim horizon of imagination. Where good ideas go to die or else get neutered into oblivion.
Please vote on November 7! It doesn’t have to be this bad! But until then let’s all agree to spare ourselves any more embarrassing spectacles if we can avoid it.
Speaking of “please vote” this order partially originated in the form of a petition from at-large council candidate Maydee Morales, who spoke on it Tuesday afternoon. Morales had firsthand experience helping the unhoused at the Seeds of Hope temporary winter shelter. While they were able to get many patrons of the shelter into housing, she recognized the inevitable reality that there are some for whom the only choice was returning to outdoor encampments.
“Many of us staff still stay in touch with one or another shelter guests, and we do what we can for them and with them,” Morales said. “It is absolutely heartbreaking when we hear or see that their things have been taken or broken down and that what little they did have is now gone.”
Little Worcester Sucks reading series on how Worcester does homeless encampment sweeps and the damage it causes:
Morales filed the petition in recognition of something that is apparently hard for a lot of people to understand: we need more housing and we want to get every unhoused person into permanent housing. But in the meantime sweeping encampments is cruel, unproductive and should stop.
One of those people who cannot or will not understand this simple idea is current at-large councilor Moe Bergman, who is among the more vulnerable sitting councilors election-wise and also the most wretched. Let’s compare and contrast Morales’ compassionate comments with Bergman’s characterization of the situation.
“We wouldn't allow somebody to live in a dwelling for a week nevermind indefinitely without running water without sanitary conditions, like sewerage and toilets, and we're talking about letting people live in the woods like that,” Bergman said.
The word “letting” here, when what we’re currently doing “letting” people live outside until the cops randomly show up and throw their shit out and then “letting” them continue to live outside, just somewhere else. Bergman thinks a moratorium would amount to “letting” people live in camps. Ghoulish!
Councilor Sarai Rivera, chair of the subcommittee, represented a sort of “middle position.”
“I just want to be clear, I would support a moratorium if it's with specifications,” she said.
Some of those specifications she bandied about include a carveout for private property and a carveout for public property. Which does not leave a whole lot of property to work with.
Rivera did however recognize something Bergman won’t: sweeps only create new camps.
“The reality is we have 10 people living in one section in a wooded area and we move on where are they going? Where are they going? They're going to end up in another area and someone's storefront in the behind a dumpster in yards in our sheds,” Rivera said. “So the reality is that it's also inhumane to ping pong people around so we, if we don't have an alternative.”
Not quite so ghoulish but not not ghoulish.
Both Bergman, representing the Pure Ghoul Position, and Rivera, representing the Compromise Ghoul Position, hammered away at the “what about the towns” rhetoric. The “towns” line is one of the more pervasive and downright inaccurate (more later) lines thrown around by the old guard of Worcester politicos when it comes to the unhoused.
Rivera: “More and more of who we’re servicing is out of Worcester.”
Bergman: “The other issue is, and chairperson Rivera brought it up, and for the longest time I know a lot of my colleagues have joined in a lot of this conversation. We have no mechanism to take care of the people that are living in Worcester. And if we open this up to a moratorium, I'm sure a lot of people from the towns would be hearing there would be a moratorium in Worcester and they would come.”
The caveats at the start of the Bergman quote above do a particularly nice job of illustrating that this rhetorical position about “the towns” is based on and reinforced by nothing at all. Councilors get away with saying it because all the other councilors say it. “I know a lot of my colleagues have joined in a lot of this conversation,” as Bergman said.
It’s just not true. The Central Mass Housing Alliance has the data to prove it.
But yeah it’s “the towns.”
Fictitious as it may be, the sentiment exists to say two things simultaneously: “woe is me, the big city” and “we need to make sure we’re not doing too much and we’re not too humane to the unhoused.” If we’re too good at housing people we’re going to attract more unhoused people is how the thinking goes. And if every city and town in the state is thinking the same thing which is highly likely then it becomes a real race to the bottom then doesn’t it? The people who repeat this line about “the towns” are comfortable with that race to the bottom.
Director of Health and Human Services Mattie Castiel spoke for several minutes but it amounted to saying “no we’re not going to do a moratorium we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.” She couched it in the rhetoric that people deserve permanent supportive housing, but she danced around the issue at hand, which is that there’s almost no permanent supportive housing and in the interim we are being cruel because it’s just plain easier both politically and practically.
Councilor Etel Haxhiaj though filled in that gap for Castiel quite nicely.
“Thank you, Commissioner Castiel and I appreciate the work that you and your team do,” she said. “You know when I think about this issue, I think what comes to mind for me is the fact that we don't have any of those things that we all want.”
This is of course the reality that Castiel, Bergman and Rivera all chose in their different ways to ignore. This is the reality in which a moratorium on sweeps is necessary. This is why people live in encampments. And it is not going to change any time soon.
Experts and advocates in the field then spoke and they defly illustrated this point, and they all loudly condemned the practice of sweeps in the form of extremely well-supported arguments. To listen to them and at the same time know that City Hall is not going to stop doing these sweeps is enough to make you lose your marbles.
The Central Mass. Housing Alliance gave a powerpoint presentation that’s especially interesting. For people who genuinely want to understand the reality of the unhoused and don’t want to hide behind the bad faith argument that Worcester is a victim of the towns, the presentation is worth a watch. You can find it here and it starts at the 29 minute mark.
The presentation, led by CMHA director Leah Bradley, begins with the sentiment that permanent supportive housing is the goal, but that permanent supportive housing doesn’t really functionally exist yet, and it’s going to take a long time. Proposals for such housing from 2018 have still not come to fruition. They were supposed to be up in early 2020 but now three years later they still aren’t. So we need to keep working on that. But what about the emergency response?
“What happens when someone becomes homeless today?” Bradley asked.
You have to talk about both things, she said. Short term and long term. There are 175 planned permanent supportive housing beds in the works, longterm, according to CHMA data. But there are only 24 will be online by next summer. This is the short term situation most people in Worcester want very badly to ignore.
They also tied homelessness back to the wider affordable housing issue, which is increasingly dire.
CMHA’s Jack Moran made the case many people are reticent to accept. Everyone is in the same boat as the unhoused they’re just the ones made to feel the brunt of it first.
“So the scale of this issue in terms of affordability, you know, we realize that vulnerable populations like folks that have mental health, substance use issues, but those are folks that are always going to be vulnerable because they have lower incomes in general,” he said. “So they're the ones that are affected first when these market forces are pushing everybody to the edge.”
Their data forecasts that Current trends indicate 387 individuals expected on the coldest nights
in the coming winter resulting in a gap of 246 beds for Winter of 2024. That’s hundreds of people who won’t be able to get a bed if they want one. That’s the reality.
Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Centre for Homelessness and Poverty called in to say the majority of cities who’ve faced legal challenges on policies to criminalize homelessness, like Worcester’s routine sweeps, have “found themselves enjoined for violating the basic civil rights due process and against cruel and unusual punishment, and faced millions of dollars in settlements with those whose rights were violated.”
“Municipalities like Worcester from coast to coast have attempted to criminalize homelessness out of existence, but all have learned that this approach does not end homelessness, but in fact prolongs it by putting criminal record binding fee barriers in the way of people exiting homelessness,” said Tars.
But there are just significant barriers here to people simply understanding how cruel and unusual these sweeps really are. In a somewhat surprisingly candid moment at the end of the meeting, Castiel addressed that elephant in the room.
“Think about all the people who are against siting a shelter. That’s been our problem everywhere we go,” she said. “People who are homeless need to be treated with dignity and I think that’s our major problem.”
But while we work up to having the courage and decency to treat unhoused people like people, our failure to overcome such a hurdle allows a routine cruelty to go on unabated. Brian Bickford, of Eliot CHS Homeless Services, shared a story from his time doing direct outreach with the unhoused. It is nightmarish. It is one of hundreds of such situations happening all the time that never make the news. Here it is in full:
On Tuesday, April 18, the UMASS Road to Care on call cell phone received a call reporting that a patient was unresponsive in a tent. Dr. Garcia received the call, gathered information and called 911.
First responders arrived on the scene and were unable to locate the individual despite being yards away from him.
The first Worcester EMS EMT onsite was able to locate my work cell number through UMASS Road to Care and contacted me. He reported that there were Two ambulances, eight WPD squad cars and a ladder truck on the scene and that they are unable to locate any tents or individuals in that area.
We talked through a couple of areas that they could check. I hung up and drove towards the area to see how I could help. As I was arriving I received a call back from the EMT saying that they had located the individual and that he is alive but not in good shape.
Encampment sweeps in this area have become the norm over the past few years. As a result, people are moving further and further out of the public’s site. In this situation, First responders were unable to locate an unresponsive member of our community for approximately 45 minutes. This was not due to a slow response time, or lack of trying, it was as a result of simply not being able to find a human being in dire need of medical attention. For clarification, this was not an overdose or directly related to substance use.
As individuals are continuously moved from one side of the street to the other they become mistrustful and fear that they will be displaced again. Treatment is disrupted, belongings are lost, applications are put on hold, relationship are broken and people literally will hide in the bushes and out of the site of the public as to not be displaced again.
This needs to end.
It won’t end.
Not with the current city manager and the current council, at least.
Would it surprise you to learn this Andrew Zimbalist guy the city paid to tell them that Polar Park would “pay for itself” was wrong? Horribly wrong? That Polar Park is actually going to produce a $40-60 million budget deficit?
That’s what’s alleged in a new report by a pair of economists, Holy Cross’s Robert Baumann and John Charles Bradbury from Kennesaw State University. The report attacks the “pro forma” model of justifying public spending on private sports stadium. Of all the examples they could have picked, they picked Polar Park and another similar project in Cobb County, Georgia as the two exemplar models for highlighting said issues. Hey! At least we’re leading the nation in something.
Now I read the report and I just gotta say on economics I’m a little like Donny—“You’re out of your element.” But the basic gist is that the city was wrong to rely on “ancillary development” like all the luxury condos going up around Polar Park to pay for the construction loans. This, coupled with “diminished consumer demand from the novelty effect” will lead the city necessarily to a $40-60 million budget deficit.
“Commissioned studies often fail to account for the “novelty” or “honeymoon” effect, which is the short-term boost in consumer demand that occurs with new stadiums,” the report reads. “The Worcester pro forma does not account for any novelty effect and assumes stadium revenue collections are projected to grow at a nominal 2% annual rate over the life of the stadium.”
Great! We already can’t pay teachers and we aren’t even close to feeling the full effect on this deficit, which will creep on us slowly over decades, long after the people who made this disastrous decision have retired.
“We conclude that pro forma estimates do not provide credible forecasts of fiscal impacts, and ancillary developments do not improve the fiscal returns of stadium projects,” the study read.
It’s almost like former City Manager Ed Augustus was going to throw all the money he possibly could at this thing with no concern for the costs and with no one to stop him and then hired an economist in Andrew Zimbalist to put together a fancy revenue projection document for him that amounts basically to lying on his behalf. It’s almost like that’s exactly what happened. Go team!!
Odds and ends
Thanks for reading! Just a few more things to get to today. First, please consider a paid subscription!
And I just want to quickly say I’m very sorry to hear of Tim Connolly’s passing and my love goes out to everyone in his family besides his son Shaun. Before I knew Tim as anyone else I knew him as the spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office when I worked for the Milford Daily News and covered all the Milford-area crime stories. Talking to Tim wasn’t like talking to the rest of the flaks. He was sympathetic and funny and never a dickhead. It was like talking to an elder journo and that’s because it was. Most people remember Tim from his long tenure at the Telegram & Gazette. I didn’t know that back then. I was very green in general and he certainly gleaned that right away and instead of being a bully about it like everyone else he was very patient and kind and helpful. Rest in peace. Here’s his obituary with information on a wake set for Sunday and a funeral set for Monday. Also Shaun’s post on the matter in his Bad Advice newsletter made me laugh out loud.
Buying the 12 foot skeleton from Home Depot with LCD lights is not a good replacement either. You can’t replace your dad. He was a one of a kind, larger than life man. He taught how to play sports, how to be kind, generous, thoughtful, he pushed you to be a better person. This skeleton is cool and will be a highlight in the neighborhood, but he is not your dad.
As I was up to my ears in other stuff this week I didn’t get to spend much time on Councilor Thu Nguyen’s recent work on foreclosures and evictions which has been impressive. Check out this post on their Instagram for a truly nightmarish situation. Could you imagine a Kate Toomey or a Moe Bergman or a Candy Mero-Carlson doing what Thu does here? Truly a new model for a what a city councilor is, and sorely needed.
And yes I know there is a good deal of election news to get to but I’m saving it for its own Election Injection post which is coming soon I promise.
Ok, that’s all for now! Bye bye.
Wait one more thing. Watched How To Blow Up A Pipeline last night and that movie kicks all sorts of ass. FFO eco terrorism.
Ok bye for real now.