Nice big crowd in the parking lot on Queen Street! Lots of music, games, giveaways, health information! Lots of families … so much learning going on! Great to see all the beautiful faces! pics:Rosalie Tirella
By Gordon T. Davis
There is a human rights emergency in Worcester. Homeless people are suffering in the more than 600 hours of continuous temperatures below freezing. The Worcester City Council’s Committee on Public Health, chaired by Councillor Sarai Rivera, held hearings on the matter February 23.
The Triage Center for the homeless, located in the Piedmont neighborhood on Queen Street, has exceeded its capacity daily because of the extreme cold and snow.
The facility is licensed for 25 beds, but some nights more than 100 people spend the night there. This number is not representative of the number of people who need shelter, as many people do not meet the criteria of the Triage Center or choose to remain outdoors. One person who attended the meeting, Paul, said that the staff of the Triage Center was sometimes confused about the requirements.
The number of people sheltering in the Triage Center has brought complaints from the Shepherd/King Street Neighborhood Association which was represented by former Worcester City Councillor Barbara Haller. Haller and I have locked horns before on numerous issues, but in this case I think she is right despite her motives. She said the Triage Center was never intended to shelter more than 100 people on a daily basis. Forty people were acceptable, albeit a number exceeding the Center’s license for 25 beds. The old PIP Shelter had 37 residents when it closed its doors and was replaced by the Triage Center.
South Middlesex Opportunity Council (SMOC) runs the Triage Center on the campus of Community Healthlink, a part of UMass Hospital. The SMOC representative, Charles Gagnon, detailed the efforts it was making to reduce the “overflow” of people to the Triage Center. He said the goal was to develop a single point of entry for the people needing shelter; this is the vision developed by the Federal agency of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Through HUD, SMOC has 50 units of housing, 100 vouchers for housing and 15 housing slots.
SMOC said it was looking at a long-term solution of moving homeless people into housing.
Gagnon also said the harsh winter, the closure of the Long Island Center in Boston, and the periodic mercy patrols by the Worcester Police have a part to play in the overcrowding. Although he admitted he should have included the city administration/council and neighbors sooner in the discussion of the overcrowding, he felt, at the time, the extreme weather and demand on the Triage Center would subside.
Councillor Rivera said the system is broken. Mary Keefe, the district’s state representative, said she was just learning of the issue. Hopefully, Representative Keefe will come up with a strategy that the City of Worcester can take to the State.
Councillor Rivera is right in that the system is broken. There does not seem to be the political will to resolve the underlying causes that make people “homeless”: an economic system in which we live from pay check to pay check, a devastated human services safety net, the health issues of the homelessness, and the prejudice against even the sight of the homeless and “panhandlers.”
Although not a surprise, it is a disappointment that more people, politicians and Worcester political candidates did not come to the hearing.
I suppose a human rights crisis does not matter, when the people in crisis cannot vote or contribute $$$ to a political campaign.
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.
Family Health Center of Worcester, Inc. welcomes you to join us for our annual Neighborhood Health Fair on Friday, August 15, at 26 Queen Street, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Our health fair theme, “One Big Happy Family,” celebrates the global family located right here in our community.
We hope you can join us as a partner for this exciting, fun, family-oriented event that will rejoice in the vibrancy and diversity of the Worcester community.
The Neighborhood Health Fair is an outdoor event held at 26 Queen Street which promotes health, fitness, and fun while educating the public about Family Health Center of Worcester and local agencies and services.
Family Health Center staff will offer health screenings and insurance enrollment assistance to interested community members and there will be food, music, games, balloons, face painting, and much more. The event also includes many exciting raffles at no cost to attendees. Last year, through the generosity of our donors, we were able to raffle adult and youth bicycles and tricycles all with safety helmets and several back-to-school backpacks full of school supplies.
The Neighborhood Health Fair is held annually during National Community Health Center Week, which takes place this year August 10-16, 2014.
Community Health Center Week celebrates the unique and important role that community health centers play by ensuring everyone has access to high quality health care, regardless of ability to pay. In 2013 alone, Family Health Center provided health care services to more than 33,000 people in the Worcester community in 37 languages.