“We don’t have a network of communication between the communities, so it’s very easy for people to slip through the cracks, which is not good for them.”
Cambridge Unhoused is a series of articles, columns, explainers, and informational graphics by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism documenting homelessness funding and services in Massachusetts with particular attention paid to Cambridge. Since the topic is complex and ever-changing, we are publishing multiple short focused pieces that highlight specific issues or stakeholders but that also connect with other coverage for this project. Media produced for the Cambridge Unhoused series is distributed through the MassWire news service of BINJ and can be found together at binjonline.org.
In January 2018, Cambridge opened a warming center in Central Square that then Mayor Marc McGovern said would “keep people from freezing to death” at night while also connecting the unhoused population with longer-term solutions.
In the nearly five years since, the center has become such a well-recognized resource that other communities have taken notice, and directed people toward the facility. McGovern has expressed frustration about a social worker from neighboring Somerville telling him that they send clients to the center to keep warm.
“Somerville should open their own, they shouldn’t be sending people to Cambridge to provide services,” McGovern said. “Similarly, Somerville has a day center that they just opened. Cambridge should open a day center in our own community, we shouldn’t be sending people to Somerville.”
Unhoused individuals are often forced to crisscross the region in order to survive, but McGovern and others who know the landscape have said municipalities often fail to coordinate their efforts with said transience in mind. This lack of communication often makes it harder to ensure people get the care and support they need.
“If somebody goes to the warming center in Cambridge, and then goes back to Somerville during the day, what’s the coordination to make sure that people in Cambridge are talking to people in Somerville to make sure that that person is getting follow-up services, or isn’t falling through the cracks somewhere?” McGovern said. “We don’t have a network of communication between the communities, so it’s very easy for people to slip through the cracks, which is not good for them.”
Continuums of Care
In Massachusetts, homeless services are organized through Continuums of Care (CoC), regional or local planning bodies that coordinate housing and related funding for homeless families and individuals. There are a dozen CoCs across the state, many consisting of entire counties, but Boston, Cambridge, Fall River, New Bedford, and Lynn run their own CoCs that focus on their respective cities.
There are also about 115 communities—including Somerville—in Norfolk, Middlesex, and Essex counties that are members of a Balance of State CoC, which is run by the State Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities.
The Cambridge CoC funds permanent housing, transitional housing, supportive service projects, planning projects, and a homeless management information system. Most of that funding comes from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which the city’s Department of Human Service Programs applies for each year.
Joyce Tavon, CEO of the Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance (MHSA), said that while there are a lot of dedicated people on the front lines and helping those experiencing homelessness at a planning level, the sheer number of municipalities across the region in need of assistance—and that, in many cases, are applying for federal funding on their own, separate from the CoCs—makes it especially challenging to coordinate.
“Here in New England, and in Massachusetts, there’s this long history of having very separate cities and towns,” Tavon said. “We’re not a part of the country that has strong county government [and that] comes to hurt us in a lot of this work.”
In other parts of the country, Tavon said, “that isn’t the case.” She added, “Some of it’s not the fault of any of the folks not [being] willing to work together, it’s that they’ve inherited these structures just as the result of the history of how our area’s been set up.”
There used to be more than 20 CoCs across the state, but HUD has encouraged communities to merge and work more regionally in recent years. Tavon said that while cities and towns have “made some really great strides to do that,” there has always been a history of keeping services localized.
“I’m not sure that is always in the best interest of the people who we’re attempting to serve,” she said. “It is, I would say, a little bit frustrating and quite unfortunate that things are as separated as they are.”
Tale of two cities
Michael Libby, executive director of the Somerville Homeless Coalition, agreed that it is important for there to be a regional response to homelessness.
“One of my case managers has a quote that she always says that ‘homelessness has no zip code,’” Libby said. “I’ve been stressing a regional response, which obviously requires greater coordination.”
It can be challenging to track clients and where they’re going, Libby said, especially with a public transit system that can take someone from one city to the other in just a few minutes. Sometimes, his clients disappear for long periods and he has no idea where they are.
“They kind of fall off the face of the earth for a while, then they pop up on the radar,” he said.
Libby noted that coordination between communities has improved over the more than two decades he’s worked in Somerville—especially between those working directly with people who need services.
“I think as you move up in a system, it’s not obviously as cohesive,” Libby said. He recently met with officials from Cambridge, including McGovern, to discuss the day drop-in center idea.
“I know that Cambridge has been trying to work on a similar program, opening a similar program, and I just wanted to invite the folks from Cambridge because we’re right next door to each other [and] we share a lot of the clients,” Libby said. “We have to come together—not only to put our minds together, but we should put our resources together to have [a] more coordinated, efficient response.”
While this was progress for Cambridge and Somerville, getting communities across the region to gel on issues like homelessness is easier said than done. In the past, McGovern held a series of meetings with representatives from Cambridge, Somerville, Boston, Medford, and Malden to discuss what services each community offers. Massachusetts officials were invited to talk about state-level services, while nonprofit and shelter providers spoke about what they were seeing on the ground. Unhoused individuals also shared their experiences.
Considering past efforts and future possibilities, McGovern said that each community is different and can’t be expected to offer the same level of services. At the same time, he and others hoped they could create more of a joint effort to lobby the state and share information about services that each community offers.
“Clearly Malden isn’t going to do what Cambridge does, because Cambridge is larger and has more money [and] has a higher unhoused population,” McGovern said. “Cambridge isn’t going to do what Boston does [either] … but we should all be doing something.”
The former Cambridge mayor continued, “Unfortunately, [the last inter-municipal effort] kind of fizzled out and people sort of lost interest in it.” Now, he said, it may be time to reignite the effort.
“Maybe it’s setting up some kind of committee that meets two or three times a year just to connect with each other,” McGovern said. “We need to bring these communities together and say, Okay, what’s going on in each of our cities, what are we doing about it, how can we help each other, how can we support each other?”