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Under Batista, the sweeps will never end
Don't even try to stop 'em
Hello again! Starting tonight I’ll be on the road with Worcester’s finest heavy metal maniacs High Command as the “merch guy” (roadie) for the next week or so on this tour:
I’m gunna try to get a post up from the road next week buuuuut this is a great time to remind you that I love to publish guest pieces! And I pay!! Feel free to pitch me at billshaner91 at gmail dot com. The only requirement is that it be about Worcester somehow. Other than that I’m willing to get real weird with it if you are. Why not! Would be really nice if someone could step up with a piece for next week especially!
And please consider a paid subscription so I have the money to pay contributors for their work.
New Power Hour alert!
During the extremely boring City Council budget meeting Tuesday me and the Worcestery Council Theater 3000 guys recorded a surprise episode of The Worcester Sucks Power Hour which is available for listening on Patreon right now! In my post on here from Monday, I introduced the very useful concept of the Lady Uncle to the Worcester political discourse:
Worcester has an aggressive, motivated and growing progressive coalition. And that’s great. But there is this other side. The Donna Colorio side. The Jose Rivera side. These people are best thought of as Uncles and Lady Uncles, as depicted in this hilarious Gilly and Keeves sketch.
And this was the prompt for basically the entire hour of the show. It was a nice conversation on the diffuse cultural reasons why we in this city can’t seem to bring ourselves to treat the unhoused with respect and dignity. Which happens to be the topic of the main segment of this post! Without further ado, let’s get to it…
Let there be sweeps
City Manager Eric Batista is officially and very on record saying routine sweeps of homeless encampments are a good thing to him and won’t stop under his watch.
Last week we touched on a proposed moratorium on said sweeps which hit Batista’s desk after a Council subcommittee meeting that Monday:
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.
As is becoming a pattern, Batista went on the Talk of the Commonwealth radio program earlier this week to say exactly what I predicted he would in the above passage. On Thursday morning, host Hank Stolz asked Batista about the proposed moratorium. The standout quote from his lengthy response:
“At the end of the day it’s a public health issue to have encampments out there like that and folks should not be in those spaces. For their sake and for their safety as well,” Batista said. “So we are going to stay committed to that work.”
And here’s a transcription of his response in full (listen to it here):
We’ve talked about it quite a bit before, Hank. This issue is a tough issue. Folks have different perspectives on how to manage it, how to deal with it. And again everybody is trying to find the best way to address this issue across the city. There’s many fronts. We have people out in the community in these encampments with mental health issues. With substance abuse issues. People who are violent. People who have weapons. People who can hurt themselves or what have you. And so there’s a lot going on in some of these spaces. The encampment that you talked about at Walmart, when the city helped the state remove the encampment, there was a dead person in one of the tents. And so these are things that oftentimes you find and there’s feces everywhere. There’s a lot of challenges with trash, etcetera. So you find these challenges in some of these encampments. And so what we feel is this is a public health issue.
But also at the same time, some of these encampments are on private property. They’re on people’s property. Just recently the chief and I went up on a ride-along. We walked through the woods and we went to an encampment. And there was a fire in that encampment. Probably close to 100 feet of space where the fire was active. You could see the black tar. The black area that was burnt. And when you looked to the right you were probably 200 feet away from a residential home. And so these are the risks they cause to the neighbors in the neighborhoods and our residents and our city. And so we want to make sure that doesn’t happen.
And I know that it’s not very popular for us to be moving people along but we have to do that. We have to do that. We have to do that to make sure that people are safe in these encampments as well and it hasn’t been safe for a lot of these folks living in some of these encampments. And so we want to make sure that we’re there... and it’s not like some of these encampments, you know one of them creates tonight and tomorrow we’re taking it down. We spend a lot of time through a lot of outreach work including the Quality of Life they spend a lot of time. They don’t just go out there and tear down, they spend a lot of time trying to get them to service trying to get them housing vouchers trying to get them connected to detox services or sober homes or whatever it is they’re trying to offer. They do that quite a bit and it takes them quite a while before they go in there and tell them ‘hey you have X amount of days before you have to leave’ and it also takes them a few days to go back and clear out those areas and oftentimes when they’re clearing out the areas... Most of the time when the Quality of Life team is clearing out those areas they’re working with the Parks Department or working with the state or with a private owner, it’s at the request of the private owner who are saying ‘look this is becoming an issue for me we need some help.’
I know there’s been a lot of narratives that the Quality of Life Team is a team that just goes out and doesn’t care about the homeless. That’s completely false. That’s a false narrative. They do care. They work with them. They communicate and provide outreach and provide connection to service to them. And they do everything they can before they work with the private owners to remove these encampments.
But at the end of the day it’s a public health issue to have encampments out there like that and folks should not be in those spaces. For their sake and for their safety as well. So we are going to stay committed to that work. But this is something that’s going to come to the Council floor and the Council has to make a decision on what they think is best. But right now as a city we are currently working on making sure individuals are housed and making sure individuals have the care they need to be able to be successful. And not be in spaces where they could be harmful for them.
Notice how it’s quite rambling! But at the end of the day it amounts to little more than “we’re not going to stop doing sweeps.” This is disappointing for the obvious reasons but it’s also yet another example of the city manager acting unilaterally. The subcommittee voted to send the sweep moratorium directly to the City Manager’s Office, not to the full city council. That was last Monday. So the proposal has been on his desk for almost two weeks and then he decides to let the radio know before anyone else that he’s not going to do anything with it besides send it back to the Council. The city is going to “stay committed” to sweeping homeless encampments, he said, but also offers that council will have the ability to make a decision on “what they think is best.” What he doesn’t say however is whether a council vote would have any real impact on the continuation of the practice. It likely wouldn’t. But it’s also just likely the council vote would vote 8-3 or 7-4 to continue the sweeps anyway. As I wrote last week:
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.
So what’s going on here is the subcommittee opted to send it directly to the city manager to skip this whole dog and pony show of a City Council discussion and now the city manager is apparently saying “nope the show will go on.”
It’s unclear what Batista really means about the Council getting to vote on it, though. The proposal is sort of on the Council agenda for next Tuesday’s meeting, but only as a “chairman’s order,” which is a formality and not an opportunity for such a vote. When there’s a chairman’s order at a subcommittee meeting, it automatically appears on the next council agenda, like so:
Was Batista referring to these chairman’s orders as in a disingenuous way? Suggesting this is the vote when it isn’t? Or does he have some undisclosed plan to properly put it up for a Council decision sometime in the future? He didn’t explain. He wasn’t made to by Stolz. Maybe he will some day. Maybe he won’t.
You also see in his remarks no attempt at all to grapple with the idea that the sweeps themselves are a major contributing factor to the problem. Against so much available evidence and so many people saying so all the time.
Like Greg here, who nailed it with this take. No notes!
At the subcommittee meeting last week, several national policy experts and local advocates all said the same thing: routine sweeps make the problem worse and need to end. Like this:
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.
And then there’s the recent study by experts in the JAMA Network Journal about the deadly effects of sweeps, titled “Population-Level Health Effects of Involuntary Displacement of People Experiencing Unsheltered Homelessness Who Inject Drugs in US Cities.” The experts found they “contribute to between 15.6% and 24.4% of additional deaths among unsheltered people experiencing homelessness who inject drugs over a 10-year period.”
“Involuntary displacement of people experiencing homelessness may substantially increase drug-related morbidity and mortality. These findings have implications for the practice of involuntary displacement, as well as policies such as access to housing and supportive services, that could mitigate these harms.”
The experts are saying sweeps directly lead to people dying in tents. Meanwhile, Batista is citing dead people in tents as a reason to continue the sweeps. The closest Batista gets in his radio appearance to acknowledging the real life deadly consequences of this policy is when he says it’s “unpopular.”
Other people acknowledge it, he concedes. Not me, though.
Otherwise, he sticks to the company line, which goes like this: You say sweeps are necessary to address a “public health problem.” You make vague allusions to fires and trash and shit on the ground. You make even more vague overtures to “weapons” and say the word “dangerous.” You never under any circumstances say that the people in the camps just form new camps after a given sweep. You never mention that you throw people’s stuff in dumpsters. You say you offer the camp residents housing but you do not mention there’s no good housing to offer. That the lack of housing is the very reason people live in camps. If someone asks why there’s no housing, you say you don’t support “adding shelter capacity” because “the focus should be permanent supportive housing.” If someone says “ok where’s all this permanent supportive housing then?” you say “next question please.” Because there isn’t any. And then the kicker is always some version of “the property owner asked us to clear the camp and we have to do what property owners ask us to do.”
Short of a City Council that demands better of him—and that’s not the City Council we have—this is the rhetorical playbook safely employed by Batista and everyone else in his administration. It obscures and maintains the cruelty in the status quo. Allows it to continue unabated.
Meanwhile, the wider townie contingent in the city’s political landscape would have the administration do even less and be even more cruel. If the Uncles and Lady Uncles had their way, the city would be taking much more overt steps to “disappear” the unhoused. For this contingent, the issue is being made to personally see it. Those experiencing homelessness are at best a secondary concern. And even there being such a secondary concern at all is generous.
Ray Mariano used his Telegram column to illustrate this ghoulish mentality quite ghoulishly. In a piece published Friday, titled “Working-class neighborhood struggles to have voice heard,” he offers a description of the unhoused which would work just as well for literal zombies. He presents a vision of a helpless neighborhood of good, hard-working Americans overwhelmed by some invasion of some wretched horde—“people sleeping on the lawn and lost souls screaming at passing cars and harassing anyone who walked by,” he writes.
Lost souls. Like drowned sailors. Like ghosts. The Walking Dead. This is the way Mariano describes living Worcester residents. Lost souls. Not human beings any longer just souls.
No one would listen to the helpless cries of these poor forgotten singe-family homeowners, he writes. Except for Candy Mero-Carlson, of course. The one protagonist in Mariano’s troubling tale.
And then toward the end of the column he tells his audience wait, there’s more! If you thought it couldn’t get any worse, he writes, now they want to build these unhoused people permanent homes:
Now in addition to the hundreds of homeless people who continue to wander through the neighborhood daily, a local nonprofit has approval to transform the Quality Inn into a 90-unit supportive housing complex -one of the largest in the state.
Permanent supportive housing. In the neighborhood. What a travesty!
This is the way Mariano and Mero-Carlson and a whole lot of people around here think. This is an editorial perspective the city’s paper of record enters into said record without issue. Adherents to this perspective just don’t want to see homeless people. The problem ends at the point they’re no longer directly confronted with it. And they definitely don’t want to see homeless people get into homes. Not if those homes can be seen. If homeless people get homes then you really can’t sweep ‘em along to somewhere else. Sweeps are a good thing so long as the sweeping is toward some other place.
This is the constituency Batista very obviously seeks to appease, and over the real concerns of people facing homelessness or anyone who might want to see those concerns alleviated.
This mentality is not shared by everyone, of course. There are plenty of good people who don’t think this way. They just don’t get to define the narrative. They don’t have Telegram columns and City Council seats and they don’t show up to neighborhood meetings to beg for concentration camps.
So let’s acknowledge the good people and end on a positive note. Tomorrow, the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance will put on its annual WALK for the Homeless. Per the Patch:
The 38th Annual WALK for the Homeless will be held on Sunday, May 21st at Elm Park. Registration begins at 1 pm, and the 5K WALK kicks off at 2 pm. The City’s largest “neighborhood party” will welcome participants back to the park at the end of the walk. Entertainment and live music will be provided by the Chuck & Mud and The Hole in the Dam Band.
The proceeds will benefit local organizations who are actually trying to help the real human beings that people like Ray Mariano refuse to acknowledge as such. The lost souls in his imagination.
Ever the crybaby when called on his record, new state Housing Secretary Ed Augustus sought to counter the progressive pushback on his appointment earlier this week with an “announcement” that was dutifully framed in the local press as evidence of Augustus eagerly rolling up his sleeves. Really he just referenced a bunch of projects and state funding commitments around affordable housing which were already in the works. Pretty transparent bit of disingenuous PR work if you ask me. But it got headlines because you gotta just repeat what the powerful people say if you’re a local journalist. That’s the rules. Like the Telegram did here:
Massachusetts' new housing secretary, who doesn’t officially start his job for almost two weeks, is already busy allocating funds to selected projects across the commonwealth, including five in Worcester Count
The state has allocated $246 million in direct subsidies and state and federal housing tax credits to 27 projects located in 20 communities. Two are located in Worcester - the Curtis Apartments and the former Boys Club at Lincoln Square - as well as housing starts in Fitchburg, Westminster and Winchendon.
Augustus said “I look forward to expanding programs like this across the state as housing secretary.” We’ll see! Good to know the cyber bullying worked in any case. We wouldn’t see a follow-up story like this otherwise.
On the other hand, kudos to Jordan Berg Powers for telling the truth about ol’ Ed.
Berg Powers said the Healey administration is too willing to acquiesce to developers without clear guardrails and has been sparing in its investments in affordable housing. He said Augustus's handling of housing as city manager was also generous to developers.
"I think they just let developers do what they wanted and did not push the City Council to create clear guardrails for affordability and not just for single or two-bedrooms, but buildings where families could live," Berg Powers said. "There just wasn't a desire to push hard on developers and I feel like that is indicative of the feeling that we have to beg people to develop in Worcester."
The city is a place where there is already a large interest in development, largely because developers have been priced out of the Boston area, and Berg Powers said Augustus could have made better deals.
Berg Powers said Augustus often met with the Chamber of Commerce but did not have to be accountable to voters as an unelected manager.
Wrote about Augustus’ appointment in some detail earlier this week if you missed it.
Odds and ends
Thanks for reading!
Cafe Neo got the green light from the License Commission for a new Shrewsbury Street location after a protracted battle with the landlord. Pleased to see this story coming to a good conclusion and not a bad one. A Worcester without Cafe Neo is a much worse Worcester.
There’s another wrinkle in the drag show situation in North Brookfield. Organizers of the “Small Town Pride” event secured their right to have a drag show over pushback from local fascists a while back. But now said fascists are opening a new front in their weird little protest. Per MassLive:
A letter dated May 10 was sent to North Brookfield residents calling on them to sign a petition to cancel the drag performance and to recall two North Brookfield officials whom the writers deemed biased and in support of immorality.
A hearty “fuck you” to whoever sent the letter and here’s hoping every resident threw it right in the trash.
While precious few city councilors occupy themselves with real problems in the city, At-Large Councilor Moe Bergman shows us a vision of a councilor who isn’t. It’s not homelessness or evictions or rising rents that Bergman’s worried about... it’s the sign on the front of City Hall.
Bergman said City Hall had historically not needed a sign as the building was the most prominent in the city.
"History in general, Worcester history in particular, is very important to me, and things should be historically correct," Bergman said. "The signage never existed in front of City Hall and there's no purpose for it because most people either know it's City Hall or don't even use the front door."
Ok, dude. Sure. Good luck with that.
Got a nice little nod from a San Francisco guy on Twitter the other day!
Luke went on to Tweet that he’d “pay damn good money for someone to write about SF” the way I write about Worcester. High praise! Thank you. And I hope someone does.
To understand why someone in San Fran would see a need for what I’m doing here, I big time suggest reading a recent piece by Caitlin Schneider in Discourse Blog about local journalism’s ongoing destruction.
Local news has famously been in a sorry state of decline, crisis, and catastrophe for decades. Newspaper newsroom employees have dropped 57 percent since 2004. Thousands of newspapers have shut down at a rate of about two a week, according to one study. As of last year, research suggests that a fifth of the U.S. population lives in a news desert, or in a community that’s on its way to becoming one.
The piece heavily focuses on Gannett, which owns and is actively destroying the Telegram and Worcester Magazine. The piece appropriately paints the company as the collection of grotesques and monsters that it is.
And I also suggest this nightmare story from WGBH about my good friend and Worcester Sucks contributor Chris Robarge. What a disaster situation, and for no reason. Robarge’s story in here about the wanton death and destruction caused by Worcester cops doing high speed car chases is extremely good! Check it out if you haven’t already.
Ok that’s a good place to leave it for today I think. Until next time!