We use our garbage police to police homeless people
And most people think that's fine
Hello everyone! Sunday is just the day now for these posts I think.
I wanna open with this clip from Boston Public Radio this week. “Ellen in Worcester” called in and talked about my last post and when she said the name of this newsletter Jim & Margery laughed out loud in a super genuine way.
Warms my heart! I’ve always loved BPR and this was so nice. Ellen in Worcester please reach out I owe you some free merch.
The main topic today is the Quality of Life Team—what it is, and what they’re trying to say it is. Considerably less heartwarming.
And as always a reminder that paid subscribers are my livelihood and my boss. So if you want to be someone’s boss now’s your chance.
The Garbage Police take out the garbage
Dear friend of the newsletter Chris Robarge put the situation perfectly in a text he sent me this week: “we use our Garbage Police to police homeless people.” That’s easily the most important takeaway from the two hour discussion on homelessness at City Council Tuesday night, and all the subsequent fracas. It’s not well understood, and that’s by design.
Before we get into that discussion, an overview of the Garbage Police is needed—what they actually do, and the recent pains taken to obscure and mischaracterize that role.
In September 2015, then-City Manager Ed Augustus established the Quality of Life Task Force, aka Garbage Police. In a 2016 report recapping its first year, he wrote “...my vision for the QOL Task Force has been for the team of specialists to not only provide direct services to our citizens and respond to Quality of Life issues throughout the city, but to work to identify challenges or gaps in service that they may encounter....”
What is a “quality of life issue,” exactly? And, crucially, whose life? In the typical vague lexicon of city hall, the definition is left for the reader to interpret. It’s a neat way to get out of saying “homeowners and landlords” directly. But let’s not be naive here. That’s who they mean. While officials might use words like “resident” and “citizen,” they mean “property owner.” The QOL team was established to improve life for homeowners. People without homes, on the other hand, are one of several “issues” impacting “quality of life” for said homeowners. They’re in Augustus’ report next to trash and needles.
The “homeless outreach” was such a large part of the QOL workload that they made a separate division for it, Augustus wrote. “Neighborhood response” on one side, encampment sweeps on the other. The QOL, headed by Worcester Police Officer Dan Cahill, is half cops and half city employees from the Department of Public Works and Inspectional Services. From its inception, it has been a unit tasked with ridding the city of various unsightly things, including human beings in tents.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s very important to understand that in the logic of this task force, homeless people are a blight. Inanimate things, on the same list as illegally dumped trash, unregistered vehicles and poorly maintained properties. Augustus’ report breaks down the task force’s response by such issues. Homeless encampments appear on that list between unregistered vehicles and hypodermic needles.
The way Augustus described the approach to encampments back in 2016 holds a funhouse mirror up to the tortured descriptions of the same approach we heard this Tuesday night. It’s worth looking at Augustus’s whole summary:
Removal is the obvious goal here, and “services” are a means toward that end. That’s important, because often times you’ll hear city officials now attempt to portray the “services” as the primary goal, born of some benevolence. The fact the services are offered as a carrot before the stick of a forceable camp eviction is left unsaid, mostly. Back in 2016, Augustus didn’t try too hard to perform that little rhetorical twist.
Notice how he laments that they “immediately learned” removal “does not occur overnight.” The existence of unhoused people is a thornier problem than, say, unregistered vehicles, but it is the same type of problem, addressed by the same team. The fact they’re human beings just makes it a bit more complicated. Removing regular garbage happens overnight but human garbage doesn’t. Augustus didn’t try too hard to sugar coat that logic.
It’s also worth noting that back in 2016 they were explicit about giving only a 24-hour notice before sweeping encampments. Now, they make vague commitments to giving a week’s notice, but as we saw with the RMV sweep, it’s not always the case.
The candid way Augustus described the QOL’s approach to homelessness in this report is markedly different from the way Eric Batista approached it on Tuesday. In the written version of Batista’s report on the QOL, their encampment work was entirely omitted, without explanation. On the council floor, after the sweeps were hotly debated for an hour or so, he offered an explanation on the fly. It was revealing. He said:
“The (QOL), they’ve done an unbelievable job. Dan Cahill and his team have a tremendous task, and one component of the task they have at hand is to deal and manage the situation with the unhoused. That’s one component of the many different tasks and many different things that the (QOL) has to manage and deal with on a day to day basis.
The camps are just one type of garbage, he says. There are other kinds of garbage, and it’s unfair to hone in on the one type of garbage that’s human beings. He continued:
“It’s been very intentional to remove some of the language and rhetoric that’s been added about outreach and encampments etc. out of this presentation because there’s a lot of things that they’re doing well and there’s a lot of new strategies that I want them to do.”
Translation: I took the sweeps out of the report because it looks bad and I want it to look good.
Quick question: Is it bad when a city manager hides information from the public because it’s unpopular? And feels comfortable saying so out loud in public?
If we had a real council, it would be a “big deal” that their employee lied to them by omission and admitted it. But we don’t have a real council. He didn’t get much pushback at all for doing that.
It’s useful to consider the change in messaging here from Augustus to Batista. Why did Augustus candidly describe this “homeless outreach” while Batista removed it wholesale, even copping to a “very intentional” decision to do so?
In 2016, there was no progressive bloc on the council, no criticism of sweeps in the press, no pending Supreme Court ruling on whether the practice was legal. Augustus wrote about the sweeps knowing it wouldn’t be controversial. Now, it’s different. There’s pushback. And the response to that pushback, as Batista showed, has been to just try and not talk about it so much. It’s insulting that they think they can get away with that, and it’s depressing that they can, actually. They did.
Meanwhile, the QOL today is the same QOL it was in 2015, with the same mission, logic, and approach. They are still the garbage police and homeless people are still on the list of various garbages they remove. The sweeps are still happening. The majority of councilors made it clear Tuesday night they want them to keep doing what they’re doing. They said so, proudly and indignantly, after several speakers from the public, including unhoused people, spoke about the harm that sweeps cause.
Some of the crank councilors took it upon themselves to describe that criticism as unfounded personal attack.
Donna Colorio went first:
“There were some speakers that were making some derogatory remarks against Dan Cahill and I just want to say that Dan and his staff at the (QOL) have done a tremendous job. I’ve seen him and his group treat the unhoused homeless with respect, dignity, and wanting the same thing. The goal is to have these people find a place where they can stay where they can be warm and be fed.”
That’s not the goal, though. The goal is removal. If they can accomplish removal by finding someone a shelter bed for the night, that’s fine. But the removal happens either way. “Warm and fed” is a secondary concern at best.
Candy Mero-Carlson similarly took it upon herself to indignantly lavish praise on the unfairly maligned QOL:
For us to say, for anyone to say, that Dan Cahill is nothing but probably the most compassionate individual that I have seen and worked with in a very long time... Every day his job... And he’s got one of the toughest jobs... along with the folks who go out in the quality of life team... I don’t imagine that every day they get up and say, ‘gee I can't wait to go and take down an encampment.’
And on and on. You get the idea.
What did these public commenters say which was so disrespectful, prompting all this defense of the QOL? There were only three people who spoke against the sweeps.
Frequent commenter David Webb said that Dan Cahill and the QOL work to “ensure the homeless do not have a place to stay.” That might have been what did it. But it’s just a fact. The QOL is charged with removing encampments. That is the primary goal, and a plainly stated one from the inception. They might find a shelter bed or treatment bed for someone, but they definitely clear the encampment.
Or maybe it was the perspective shared by unhoused people? Two spoke, relaying how they see the QOL. This is probably the first time most councilors were ever made to engage with the perspective of the people with firsthand QOL dealings. I’m sure it was upsetting to hear a less rosy picture than the one painted by city officials.
Samantha Olney, an unhoused resident who filed a petition to allow tents in public parks, described a “sick game of hide and seek between us and them.”
“We are stuck in a cycle of the city recycling people in and out of shelters, as well as a cat and mouse game between the (QOL) and the unhoused. From our perspective, the (QOL) views us as literal trash they can wish away by arresting us for trespassing on public property or issuing notices to vacate once a month.
This was impressive and unprecedented testimony. I clipped the whole thing.
An unhoused resident named Mark shared a similar story: “My run-ins with quality of life, they’re very belittling of us. They talk to us like we’re trash. I feel like everyone deserves respect at the end of the day. Even if you’re homeless or not.”
So there you have it—the three possible causes of all the indignation. One person who stated a fact, and two people who described their own experiences.
More than any councilor, Batista clearly took something in those comments personally. Before he began his presentation on the QOL—the one that omitted any mention of the sweeps—he addressed the criticism.
“There’s a lot of things that have been said here tonight that, one, imply certain decisions and certain behaviors from the administration and also the (QOL) and I want to say that those implications are completely false. Again, I want to say that again. They’re completely false.”
He didn’t elaborate. Two unhoused people shared their perspective with the city council, and the city manager issued a blanket assessment that all of it was false. No examples or counter arguments. “It” was “false.”
The two-hour display made it depressingly clear that there is no political will to assess whether the endless sweeps are helping or hurting. At best, there is a 7-4 majority of the council supporting endless sweeps in perpetuity. The garbage police will continue to take out the garbage as they have, with the support of a solid council majority. To suggest it’s harmful to do so will be warped into a personal affront, and lead to a two-hour futile conversation on the council floor.
Meanwhile, in the world outside the council chambers, it is becoming more and more clear that sweeps are bad policy. Just in the past few weeks, a new study and policy statement have been published showing the harmful effects.
Health Affairs published “Encampment Clearings And Transitional Housing: A Qualitative Analysis Of Resident Perspectives” this week. It reads:
Our findings also demonstrate that encampment clearings are a generally ineffective approach to improving health and safety concerns because of their exacerbation of mental health conditions and the disruption of social networks that are important for safety.
In mid-January, the American Public Health Association put out this policy statement:
Forcible displacement of encampments is a temporary cosmetic fix and does little to effectively connect unhoused people to services and housing. People experiencing unsheltered homelessness deserve to have their health and well-being protected, their choices respected, and an opportunity to choose their own plans for accessing safe, stable, and permanent housing.
And don’t forget the literal US Supreme Court is looking at whether sweeps constitute cruel and unusual punishment. A federal court in Oregon has ruled it unconstitutional to criminalize living in an encampment when there isn’t adequate shelter space.
We have a shelter bed shortfall! This applies to us!
Councilor Khrystian King asked City Solicitor Mike Traynor to address that whole unconstitutional thing.
“As far as the constitutionality of it, it’s going to be heard by the US Supreme Court, so that remains to be seen,” Traynor said. “There is one court in I think it’s the 9th District who has said it was unconstitutional when they had nowhere else to go to not let them gather in public parks. But that’s just one decision. That’s what’s up on appeal to the Supreme Court.”
Just one federal court saying that what we’re doing is unconstitutional. No biggie.
Councilor Etel Haxhiaj’s comments were a beacon of moral clarity in this otherwise bankrupt discussion. She addressed the “services” the QOL offers the unhoused before shuffling them along regardless of whether they take the offer:
“We can have a conversation about these magical extra services that people think we have. Let me break it down very clearly. The magical services that do not exist in the city of Worcester are these. You are an unhoused person, you get offered services that consist of a shelter at 25 Queen Street or the overflow at MLK. If you are a veteran that has suffered PTSD. If you are a survivor of domestic violence. If you are a woman, a transgender person, a part of the LGBT community that has been sexually assaulted and you have no trust in any authority figure, you are asked to go to a place with 100 people in bunk beds that are having multiple, multiple issues through no fault of their own.”
Too much to transcribe, but the whole thing is worth a watch.
While poor consolation, we have moved the needle in a way. Etel’s comments show that. They have to justify what they’re doing in public now. There’s debate. That wasn’t the case a few years ago, as we saw in Augustus’ report. That’s not nothing.
Still, we don’t have the votes to make any changes to the mundane cruelty of our city’s homelessness response. After the last election, it seems unlikely we will anytime soon. But the more we put these people in a position to articulate a defense out loud in a public forum the better. If the cruelty is going to continue, the very least we can do is make sure it’s visible.
I’m putting together a package of records requests to get the information Batista omitted from his report. We need to understand the full extent and nature of the endless sweeps. It can’t be something they’re allowed to do in the comfort of obscurity. These people they’re sweeping are human beings. They are not garbage.
It is a bitter pill to swallow that the political will of this city is at odds with that simple moral position. More bitter still, we’re entirely unremarkable in that regard. That political reality is the reality in almost every city in America. There are very few examples of places taking a different approach.
What we’re watching in real time, I believe, is the generation of a new subhuman, facilitating a novel but familiar fascism of the global market. I need more time than I have for this post to properly explain what I mean by that. Hopefully I can find the time soon.
You would have been reading a poor, careless attempt at articulating the thought right here if my fantastic copy editor Liz Goodfellow didn’t flag it as lacking. It was a 10-pound idea shoved in a 5 pound bag if you feel me.
For now, suffice it to say there is a much bigger picture here than Worcester City Hall, and it just so happens that city halls are the best way to see it. Worcester’s par for the course on homelessness response, making it all the more useful. What happens here is happening everywhere.
There’s no reason to believe the number of unhoused people will do anything but rise, and there’s good reason to believe that the rise will be exponential. There’s also no reason to believe that practical solutions will become politically viable any time soon (rendering some of the extremely annoying local Twitter debates a moot point), but good reason to believe that increasingly cruel and punitive measures will be tolerated—demanded, even. Shipping people off to literal camps is being considered in some cities! This is not a drill! This is not an academic consideration. Not a hypothetical. It’s happening right now. The way we are treating people right now is unacceptable.
It would be so easy to simply stop. But, on Tuesday, we also saw the reason we don’t stop.
Likely spurred by some reactionary Facebook or Nextdoor post, about a dozen cranks showed up to speak out against a citizen petition to allow tenting in public parks that was 100 percent dead in the water. The cranks significantly outnumbered the people who spoke in favor. They all had it in their heads that it was a serious proposal, and they spoke about it in grave terms.
Pam Barnes was first to go:
“I’ve lived here for almost 20 years. I’ve worked my tail off all of my adult life to try to have a nice place to live and enough to retire.
I just retired in July. Just in time to see my real estate taxes go up yet again and get further insulted by the Community Preservation Act. So which is it? Do we want to preserve our community or not?
Here’s what I’d like to know. Will this be a magnet for more people coming into our city? Because I understand they’re already coming in from other towns and getting dropped off at Kelley Square.”
That myth of the “other towns” is pervasive—repeated by a good number of city councilors, Moe Bergman especially. There’s no data behind it. It’s anecdotal. Always, it’s invoked the way Barnes does above: to demand we do less, become more cruel. Treat people like garbage getting illegally dumped at Kelley Square, as she puts it, thus necessitating the garbage police. No one uses “the towns” line to help solve homelessness. They use it to wash their hands of the idea we can do better.
More than the Eric Batistas or the Donna Colorios of the world, it’s the Pam Barneses that keep us stuck in a cycle of worsening homelessness and increasingly punitive, counter-productive responses.
Barnes spoke for the majority of people around here when she told the council she didn’t want the garbage police to stop taking out the garbage.
Major Rewind Video update!
Ok now for some much needed good news!
Yesterday, we knocked down the wall between Rewind and the space next to it. And the space next to it is going to be a coffee shop named Cordella’s Kava. Once Cordella’s opens, it’s going to be an insanely cool building. Three connected businesses: video store, coffee shop, and arcade, in a square with huge untapped potential for the sort of good urbanism we want to see here!
The story behind Cordella’s Kava is cuckoo bananas crazy. It’s the sort of Worcester story that reflects the best of who we are. While I’m still chasing down the fully reported story for a future Worcester Sucks post, I told the quick version on the Rewind Video Club Patreon page.
The post is for members only, like all the Friday Updates (yes, I stole the idea from the superintendent). Please consider signing up to support all the work we’re trying to do. And you get a real deal physical member card and exclusive Patreon content, like the community calendar we just launched! Local journalism needs you!
Speaking of that, come by on Thursday for the first WCMF Open Newsroom!
We’re cooking up a few cool workshop ideas and reporting projects which I’ll be discussing on Thursday. Big things!
Now back to bad news. The Worcester Housing Authority is coming under fire for troubling reports of poor living and working conditions. Sam Turken at WBGH had a great story on the matter recently: “Worcester Housing Authority being investigated for living and working conditions.”
State officials are looking into complaints of improper living and working conditions at public housing complexes run by the Worcester Housing Authority.
The office of the Massachusetts auditor has begun a preliminary inquiry into living standards for the housing authority’s nearly 3,000 apartments. Auditor Diana DiZoglio’s office told GBH News that, depending on the findings of that review, the auditor could investigate further and look into “deficiencies, a lack of oversight or a need for greater accountability.”
The complaints include “sewage backing up in basements, inadequate heating, roach infestations, discolored tap water and exposure to the cancer-causing building material asbestos, among other problems.”
It is frankly insane that we talk about public housing and homelessness as separate issues. It’s the same thing. I’ve seen firsthand the destitute conditions of WHA housing units and the frustration of the people made to live in them and the complete lack of recourse they have. Despite the poor quality, the wait list for even getting into one of these units remains years long.
This is the product of years and years of defunding public housing. For some reason, such housing remains largely absent from the city and state’s official response to the ongoing crisis. In more civilized countries, social housing is not the mess it is here. It’s adequately funded and useful and actually serves the goal of ensuring housing as a human right.
Here, it seems like we just sort of accept that public housing is meant to be lousy and neglected. As the affordable housing crisis rages, the Healey administration makes grand overtures to “increased housing production” as the solution, but allows public housing like the WHA to languish.
Seems to me we have a massive undiscussed blind spot here. Wouldn’t an investment in public housing stabalize rents at the low end and combat homelessness? Two birds stoned at once? Would it really be all that more expensive than the money spent on sweeps and evictions? Wouldn’t an influx of affordable public housing in a tight rental market tip the supply and demand balance fueling rent increases? Wouldn’t it be the obvious first step for a state government serious about solving the crisis?
When you see homelessness rising and at the same time public housing deteriorating—in one of the more wealthy states of the wealthiest nation in the world—it poses some questions. How seriously do our leaders really take the housing crisis? Is it something they genuinely want to solve? If not, is it possible they see a certain usefulness in leaving it unresolved? Is there a stakeholder that benefits from the maintenance of the crisis? Do private housing developers get better tax deals when they have the cudgel of “increasing much needed housing stock”? Does the housing crisis narrative then improve the bottom line for the equity firms parking capitol in “luxury” complexes getting tax finance agreements? And those private equity-backed luxury complexes are the only new housing getting built? While public housing falls to shit? And it’s literally illegal to build a modern three decker? And single-family zoning laws prohibit adding density to all but the poorest areas? And tax deals for luxury apartment complexes are absorbed as political wins for city officials like Ed Augustus, who go on to cabinet positions in the governor’s office in the arena of housing?
Hmmm. Who’s to say. Just speculation. What’s not speculation is there’s a years-long wait list for public housing units in our city which are so uninhabitable they make the news for it. This is the sort of dynamic you hear in reporting on third world countries. That, also, begs a certain question.
Odds and ends
Thanks for reading!
Pleased to see that Neal McNamara over at the Patch is back from parental leave! His write-up on the homelessness debate this week is great.
And lastly my amazing girlfriend Katie has a few Valentine’s Day stained glass pieces to sell! Check ‘em out on her site. Here’s a pic of our devious little child Gus with the pieces that are still for sale.
Ok talk soon! Have a good Super Bowl Sunday even if the game is fixed for Taylor Swift.