By Barbara Haller
There have been multiple conversations going on – in various print media, social media, crime watches, business association meetings, and around the coffee table – about what to do about a few places where a group of people have laid claim to hang out all day (sometimes night too).
One site presently getting a lot of play is the corner of Chandler/Queen streets where the gathering is pretty non-stop. The green space there is controlled by Community Healthlink (part of UMass) and has become an enclave for sitting, sleeping, socializing. Grocery carts of belongings are often there. The group spills over to the public sidewalk where there is a bench and a tree – both part of the Chandler business corridor revitalization effort. The bench is used exclusively by the group and the tree pit is their trash receptacle. Public drinking is frequent, fights occasional. Public use of the sidewalk there is pretty difficult. Sometimes one of the group will enter a nearby business seeking a handout, a bathroom, or a place to sleep.
A group of business owners are determined to stop it. They see this behavior as anti-business and bad for Worcester. They also see this situation as a violation of the partnership agreement with the City over closing the PIP shelter and siting of the homelessness Triage Center just up the street at 25 Queen Street. Conversations among elected and administrative city officials, business owners, residents, Community Healthlink officials so far have led to “more of the same.”
And that is a shame.
As a long time Main South activist (1990 – 2002), 10-year District 4 City Councilor (2002 – 2011) and a 20-year neighbor to the area around Chandler and Queen (I live at the top Castle Street, near the top of Queen) I have deep knowledge and experience with these types of challenges. Tempers can get hot, words can be twisted, and people can look the other way. But, something needs to change at the corner of Chandler and Queen before these behaviors become more deeply entrenched. Inch by inch is how it happens.
There are many attractive corners in our urban core for people to drink, drug, deal, fight, sleep, litter, vomit, and do personal hygiene. I spent many hours working on such hot spots, starting with the front of my own business, Gilreins. Here is what works:
1. Engaged property owner(s). This means a property owner or her/his hire that will be at the property nearly always, at least at the start of reclaiming the spot.
This person must tell people that the property is privately owned and ask the people to move on – kindly and respectfully. By being physically present and clear in what is expected, much of the behavior will in fact move on. This may take a while, especially when the site is long-standing.
2. Partnering with the Worcester Police Department. This means explaining the problem and the strategy to end it to the appropriate police officer. A great place to start this is with the Community Impact officer assigned to the area. This officer will see that the rest of the WPD is on board. The officer will also serve a vital feedback role as to what is working, etc.
This may require posting the property – No Trespassing. The police will take notice and stop to move people along for the times when the property owner(s) are not present.
Again, the message needs to be consistent and repeated.
3. Public gathering on public property is legal. However, public consumption of alcohol is not legal. Nor is littering. Nor is blocking the sidewalk.
Police are key for enforcement against these behaviors. Police may not feel arrests are appropriate in many of these violations but they can confiscate alcohol, make people pick up their litter, tell people to keep the sidewalk open.
When citizens see these behaviors and have a developed partnership with the police, these behaviors must be reported consistently. If someone appears unconscious call 911 and request medical attention.
4. Recognizing and respecting people’s rights to gather on public property. This means that we can’t just tell people to move off the sidewalk or a bench just because we don’t like the way they look. This is important to understand. Disrespecting people will escalate most situations and only makes solution more difficult.
If (when) we step over the line into disrespect, apologies need to be given while returning to the consistent message.
Many times over the years we have used these best practices to clear up problem sites. It takes time and sincere commitment. The longer we wait the more difficult it is.
In the case of Chandler and Queen – the enclave is established and occupies both private and public properties. Worcester Police Department is doing some focused work for the short haul but a longer term strategy is needed and that should come from Community Healthlink – they control the green space that is the center of the activities. Community Healthlink must be frequently present at the site, explaining that people cannot loiter there and that WPD will be called on any illegal behaviors. They must closely partner with WPD for consistent messaging and enforcement.
Especially because of the elevated status of UMass in our city, elected and administrative officials should insist that UMass develop a long term strategy to correct the behaviors at this corner. As the parent organization to Community Healthlink and because Community Healthlink has not been successful in this area, the burden of solution falls to UMass directly.
This is not rocket science.