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Why do people have to live outside?
A few quick musings on homelessness policy failure and other Worcester business
Hello everyone! Just a few quick hits today on story lines that need updating. I’m currently in the middle of a very big and important writing project that isn’t ready yet but may be soon! Ah! This post on the other hand is me “taking it easy” in recognition of the reality that it’s not good to go more than a week without posting In This Economy.
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Currently I’m writing on a gloomy, rainy afternoon as I gaze out the window of my East Side apartment at the side street across the way. As is always the case, every single car is parked halfway on the sidewalk, despite the crackdown on sidewalk parking promised at the City Council meeting last Tuesday. It’s interesting to consider how many of those drivers are even remotely aware of said crackdown. The safe guess is zero. If the city actually starts giving tickets, they’ll be aware of the ticket they get! They will measure the fee against the reality that parking legally while the rest of the cars on the street continue to park illegally increases the chances of getting swiped or rear ended.
Better to accept the minor annoyance of a ticket and continue to park illegally. At least that’s the decision I made after getting ticketed for it a few weeks ago before the crackdown was promised. And I’m sympathetic to the problem! I don’t think people should be parking on sidewalks! But I’m forced to weigh that against the well-being of my car in a city where living without a car is prohibitively difficult.
Between my desk and those illegally-parked cars, there’s an intersection that may as well be designed to cause accidents. A “side street” meets a “main road.” There’s no light. The side street has a stop sign. The main road doesn’t. Pulling onto the main road from the side street, a driver must stick their car’s nose out well into the middle of the main road to check for oncoming traffic. The sightline is extremely poor. At the same time, main road drivers come over the crest of a hill down toward the intersection, with nothing to prevent or discourage highway speeds. If they crest the hill to find the nose of a car in their path, they have no time to react, especially going the agreed-upon standard speed of 40-50 miles per hour. In the five or six accidents I’ve personally witnessed at this intersection, it was difficult to identify which driver was “in the wrong.” Really, it was never a driver and always the City of Worcester.
The city could swiftly do away with the problem by installing a stop sign on the main road. But then cars couldn’t go 50 miles an hour anymore, and that’s apparently more important than reducing accidents. The danger and the ability to go vroom vroom on a “main road” are equally valid concerns which must be balanced, after all. In the prevailing calculus of concerns and balance, of course.
The neat thing about cities is that everything—even something mundane as this one little dangerous intersection—is a demonstration of that calculus. To consider how concerns are defined and weighted against each other is to consider who has the power to define and weigh them. Then see how those decisions shape reality in a practical sense—the dice roll presented by navigating a dangerous little intersection is the product of said decisions. Something small like an intersection is perhaps more useful a tool for understanding politics than anything generally seen as a “political issue.” There’s a clarity in the mundane you can’t find in the exceptional. And that’s what makes city politics so interesting.
Just a gloomy rainy afternoon thought. But I think it’s a useful framework for all of the following topics.
Why do people have to live outside?
Why do people have to live outside?
In the brutal heat or when it’s below freezing
There are people that are made to live outside
Why do people have to live outside?
When there are buildings all around us
With heat on and no one inside
To my mind, the question is the ultimate expression of the aforementioned calculus. The impulse to engage in the sub-humanization of “homeless people” is increasingly the norm, in Worcester and everywhere else. “Public safety” and “quality of life” are the cudgel with which we deny human beings their humanity. We are a society in the process of making a villain out of the people our society has most failed. Instead of reconciling the structural problem, we’re making a scapegoat. It’s obvious fascism happening in real time and it is bipartisan in nature. Helping the unhoused into “housed” status—and thus personhood—is an increasingly unpopular position. As the population of unhoused people increases, investment in services is decreasing. Making the victims of this shearing tear in the social safety net out to be themselves the problem is an increasingly popular position.
To look at our city in this context is to see an unremarkable city with an unremarkable homelessness problem and a mundanely cruel strategy for addressing it. Just like the intersection outside my window is useful in its unremarkable nature, Worcester is similarly useful in understanding why people have to live outside.
Several quick news items from the past week or so illustrate this.
First, the Harbor Shelter, a relatively new and small shelter for women, is cutting its overnight services. Several people close to the issue have confirmed this, but it may or may not be “official” yet. The Harbor Shelter was opened by LIFT, an organization led by people who’ve left the sex trade and targeted toward sexual assault survivors, in June 2021. For the past two years it has been a small but vital component of the thin and lacking patchwork of services for the local unhoused population. It’s not entirely clear why the shelter is closing its overnight services and not worth speculating without good information. Safe though to report that the city is losing 14-16 beds here at a time when beds are already in short supply.
Per data kept by the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance, there are about 139 beds for unhoused people between the various permanent and temporary shelters.
Based on data from last year and projected increases, there will be around 363 single adults in need of shelter on what CMHA calls a “peak” night this coming winter, “peak” meaning one of the biting cold or stormy nights when spending the night outside is especially dangerous.
With 363 beds needed and 139 beds available, the city is looking at a shortfall of 224 beds heading into this winter with not a ton of time—or, let’s be honest, political will—to remedy that situation. This is important to keep in mind when you hear the frequently espoused argument against temporary shelters that “we should be looking at more long term solutions.” The thing that makes that line bad faith is that you need to do both, and the people saying it tend to say it in a context which implies they’d rather do neither.
Meanwhile, the city’s policy of engaging in routine encampment sweeps continues to go on unabated as candidates like Jose Rivera campaign on maintaining the cruelty.
In a message to a local advocate passed on to me, an unhoused person said their camp site was removed by the city.
“…we are in desperate need for a tent the police came to our spot yesterday and they plowed it down when we weren't there and we lost everything again it sucks really,” the message reads. “We all lost our tents n and belongings.”
The person asks for an extra stove or a burner. “It was cold and it’s starting to get cold out.”
This happens all the time, all around the city. As a rule, it is not “news.” The camp evictions you occasionally read about are are just examples of a thing that almost always happens invisibly.
While I think it’s paywalled and that’s a shame, MassLive recently published a remarkably sympathetic (for the local press) story on the homelessness issue. Big kudos to Kiernan Dunlop, the reporter, who actually talked to unhoused people and treated their experiences as human experiences. This is unfortunately a transgressive move for a local reporter. The story, headlined “A note left in the woods tells two tales of Worcester’s unhoused population” does a good job of highlighting the problems that endless sweeps cause the unhoused and lays out the practical reality that there’s just a lack of beds. But of the “two tales,” the second tale is the city’s tale, and in that particular tale the city is allowed to continue to operate on the assumption that the sweeps have to happen. Even in an examination like this story, which is otherwise substantial and encompassing, it’s difficult to probe the idea that the sweeps are fundamentally wrong.
And that’s, of course, a political reality manufactured by the calculus of concerns and who gets to weigh them. When you think of it like that, the Chamber of Commerce’s decision to come out with a statement against a moratorium on encampment sweeps makes a lot of sense.
However much city staffers do care and city officials say they care about helping the unhoused, that concern is not allowed to be weighted against the prospect of being able to do nothing about the presence of a tent somewhere.
Good to end this section on the Chamber of Commerce I think, given the next section.
The Worcester Guardian Gets An Editor
The Chamber of Commerce’s new media venture is off to a start! They hired an editor last week, which will leave Chamber staff more time to write press releases about how cruel we should be homeless people. The author of that press release, Alex Guardiola, is still listed as the president, clerk, treasurer and director of the Worcester Guardian, by the way.
But the editor will now be Charlene Arsenault, a fellow Worcester Magazine alum and former Patch reporter most recently in the public relations business. In a statement, Arsenault promised to “serve up a well-balanced platter of news, events and features that satisfies the concerns and interests of our community.”
Tim Murray, Chamber president, recently appeared on the Commonwealth Magazine’s/MassInc’s Codcast podcast.
Around the eight-minute mark you can listen to Murray dance around saying my name or this outlet’s name, which is fun. And throughout you can hear him talk frequently about how he won’t have any influence over the journalism. At the ~4:30 mark, he says “you have to make sure you draw that line, and it’s a hard, impenetrable line.”
Murray and others at the Chamber frequently jump to say they won’t have editorial influence over the Guardian. It’s a ‘my shirt’ meme situation. “My shirt which says ‘I will not have a hand in the editorial decisions of my non-profit news organization’ has a lot of people asking questions already answered by my shirt!’
Aaaand The Guardian’s debut news story, posted earlier today, is a press release rewrite regarding the president of Quinsigamond Community College. We should expect the Guardian’s work to continue in this vein. The Chamber doesn’t have to “have a hand” in the editorial coverage so long as it’s the hand that feeds.
(Note: an earlier version of this story had it as the president of Assumption for some reason, not QCC. My bad.)
This is not the exciting investment in local news that we’re being made to think it is.
Meanwhile, Rewind Video and the Worcester Community Media Foundation are chugging along at trying to actually fix the problem! A few days ago we opened up the option to join on as a founding video store member!
More exciting news on the Rewind front to come! One thing in particular kicks big time ass but I’m barred from sharing it publicly for a few weeks :-)
To Chief of Not To Chief
Interesting story in the Patch recently about the ongoing Steve Sargent Situation. Apparently, Mayor Joe Petty has floated the idea of moving to a “public safety commissioner” model instead of hiring a new chief.
Petty released a statement this week suggesting City Manager Eric Batista should consider multiple options when finding a new chief, including hiring a public safety commissioner instead.
"We have had countless dedicated public servants in the chief’s position, including our current acting chief, but that does not preclude us from a review of the process," Petty said.
I don’t know enough about the difference between a police chief and a public safety commissioner to add anything valuable here. But I do know that when Petty says something like this in public fashion, it means it has already Been Decided By The Real Stakeholders. And as such there’s no point in debating it. But that won’t stop this from becoming a big debate issue in weeks leading up to the election in November.
I’d expect to hear a lot about it at Council tonight (tune in to the Worcestery Council Theater 3,000 stream! 6:15 p.m.!). One relevant order, from Councilor King, will probably suck up a lot of time (9i on the agenda):
In an effort to consider the expansion of the applicant pool associated with the Chief of Police position, request City Manager provide City Council with draft language that would, by Special Act, remove the civil service requirement for the city's Chief of Police position, as well as any other related parameters associated with the position.
Oh boy! This is gunna be messy!
Tonight’s Council meeting (ugh)
Speaking of the Council meeting, there’s a few interesting things to preview. First, we won’t be hearing specifically about the crisis pregnancy center ordinance this week, after the Council’s decision last week to delay that conversation indefinitely.
But Councilor Nguyen does have an order on about CPCs in general. Item 9q: Request City Manager and City Council review documents regarding Crisis Pregnancy Centers. The attached document is full of really good, useful research and reporting on CPCs which I’m sure Batista and the rest of the Council will definitely read.
Even though they won’t, you should! I’ve hosted the doc on my Drive for easy public viewing because the city makes it pretty hard to download agenda packet documents if you don’t already know how (how surprising, I know). If you scroll down to Page 38, you’ll see my story on CPCs in Teen Vogue. Brings a smile to my face to consider that the city manager will have to confront that piece again in a legally mandated context.
Remember last week when Candy Mero-Carlson held School Committee member Tracy Novick’s item about the commuter rail for no stated reason? This was the petition, in all its entirely non-confrontational glory.
As Councilors are allowed to do (rule needs to change bad), Carlson delayed deliberation on Novick’s order for a week by way of “holding it under privilege.” She didn’t give a reason and per the rules she wasn’t obligated to.
But now we got our reason! She held Tracy’s item because she wanted the credit. On the agenda this week is a slightly less accurate version of Tracy’s item, this time filed jointly by Mero-Carlson and Bergman. Item 9d! It reads:
Request City Manager make immediate efforts to communicate with city's State Delegation and all relevant parties relative to the need to restore the reported elimination of the direct “Heart to Hub” express train service schedule from Worcester to Boston.
On Twitter, Tracy pointed out the wording is inaccurate.
The mediocrity and the pettiness on display here are simply stunning. Matthew Noe (a Worcester icon) reached out to Candy to ask why, and the response he got makes the pettiness and the mediocrity all the more stunning.
Holding up a petition is now “information gathering.” Got it. You know who wouldn’t hold up an item like that? Mero-Carlson’s opponent, Rob Bilotta! Who was recently endorsed by the Education Association of Worcester! That’s a big deal!
Otherwise, the agenda reads as a certain manifesto from Joe Petty. A string of orders, 9j-9p, basically outline his agenda if elected. It’s all well meaning but it’s vague. Don’t care to spend much time on it. This order, however, is a “dudes rock” style order:
9p. Request City Manager install a soundly-constructed escape ramp to prevent swans from being trapped in the spillway at Salisbury Pond in Institute Park, while also assessing other water bodies in the city to ensure such an issue is not occurring elsewhere.
Save the swans baby. The homeless encampment sweeps will continue mind you but we will make sure the swans don’t get stuck in the big drain.
Odds and ends
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Everyone say congrats to Councilor Extraordinaire Etel Haxhiaj for landing a sick new job! As she recently announced:
I will be leaving my position as Director of Public Education and Advocacy at the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance to work with the National Health Care for the Homeless Council as Senior Policy Manager. You can learn more about the work of the NHCHC here: https://nhchc.org/
Pretty wild to see someone get recognized on the national level as an expert in homelessness get resoundingly shut down and ignored on the subject by local lawyers and real estate agents on the City Council huh?
Did anyone else see this weird little story about how Worcester got snubbed on money to plant trees while every other city in Massachusetts got a ton of it? Wonder what happened. Maybe we’ll hear about it at Council tonight.
A big chunk of the money would have been spent in heat island areas of the city, where residents suffer disproportionate impacts from climate change.
A total of nine Massachusetts cities received funds including Boston ($11 million) and Springfield ($6 million). Southbridge, with 17,000 residents – a fraction of Worcester's 200,000-plus population – got $1 million.
“It’s certainly disappointing,” said John Odell, Worcester’s chief sustainability officer, of the news that the city didn’t get a penny.
The closure of the Leominster birth center is a damn shame and a failure on all levels. It need to be rectified ASAP. From MassLive:
The shutdown comes during a time when reports have shown maternal mortality on the rise, and that Black non-Hispanic residents in the United States experience significantly higher maternal mortality than white non-Hispanic and Hispanic residents, with the numbers increasing disproportionately in recent years.
I’m really sad about Matt Christman, one of the hosts of Chapo Trap House and a thinker who has been so transformational for me over the years. The podcast announced recently he had some sort of health event which seems serious and will likely require a long recovery. I hope he recovers soon! No podcast has blown my mind like some of the tears Chistman gets on in his long and meditative Grill Stream episodes. Heady stuff that has certainly informed the writing in here.
And lastly, a mea culpa. In my last post, I used the word “pussy” in the context of describing the throwing of a baseball at Haxhiaj’s window as a “pussy move.” Several readers emailed me about it, rightfully pointing out the choice of words was an unforced error laden with an implicit sexism. While I felt ok about it at the time of publishing, obviously, in retrospect I was a little too heated and too careless. Won’t happen again!
Ok, til next time!