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Boston mayoral candidates address homelessness at virtual forum

The five major candidates running for Boston mayor laid out their plans Wednesday for tackling homelessness and helping some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
The five major candidates running for Boston mayor laid out their plans Wednesday for tackling homelessness and helping some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The five major candidates running for Boston mayor laid out their plans Wednesday for tackling homelessness, saying they would create more housing, provide better mental health services, and give additional funding to social services agencies that are helping some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

The virtual forum, one of dozens so far in the race, occurred about six weeks before the historic preliminary mayoral election Sept. 14, and each contender emphasized a need for more city accountability, assistance for homeownership, and support to existing homeless shelters. (The general election featuring the final two candidates is Nov. 2).

“We have fallen far short [in addressing this issue],“ said City Councilor Michelle Wu, stressing that the city should use its vast resources to help homeless people most in need. “We need to take responsibility at the municipal level.”


During the hour and a half forum, titled “Pathway out of Homelessness” and moderated by the Globe’s Marcela García, the mayoral hopefuls tackled themes such as workplace development, safe spaces for basic needs, and help for those battling addiction.

They were also shown videos of people who shared their personal experiences, including dealing with the discrimination they faced as they try to seek employment and other indignities.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey and City Councilor Andrea Campbell repeatedly mentioned how their experiences with housing insecurity in Boston informed their approaches.

Janey said she grew up in public housing developments, lived in a women’s shelter for a period of time, and used Section 8 housing vouchers to cover rent as a single mother. Campbell said she also grew up in Roxbury and the South End and often relied on public housing and food assistance as a child.

“As the first woman mayor and the first Black mayor, I have a different lived experience than my predecessors that I bring to this work everyday,” Janey said.


Campbell added: “If we were able to create immediate infrastructure for people dealing with COVID, we could definitely do the same for folks dealing with substance abuse and homelessness.”

John Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development , said if he is elected , he will create a fund to provide economic assistance to social service agencies that support people who are homeless or homeless people who are struggling to get on their feet.

“It’s critical that the government develop communities to make sure that we are developing communities that work for them,’' said Barros.

City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, joining Campbell, faulted Janey for eliminating the Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health and Recovery as city council president last year.

“We have to, as legislators, recognize that the problem exists,” said Essaibi George, who chaired the committee before its dissolution. “It’s very unfortunate that that committee was dissolved. ...We have to respond to [problems with homelessness] with very specific and intentional focus.”

Barros and Wu said they support sites that let individuals bring and use drugs in the presence of trained staff, adding that the sites are effective in caring for people experiencing homelessness and addiction.

But Essaibi George said that the money for such sites could be better used for long-term solutions.

The candidates also fielded questions about how they would address adding affordable housing in communities that resist such efforts. Barros said he would work with residents to build community buy-in, saying that is crucial to educating people on the dire need for housing.


“It’s critical that government work with community to make sure we’re developing communities that work for them,” he said.

Janey said that her administration would build on the successful work that is already being done to help people out of homelessness. She stressed the need for city officials and community members alike to destigmatize homelessness .

“So many of us who get to go home are very vulnerable to being in the same situation,” Janey said. “This is about humanity.”

Wu said she would remove barriers to housing , by decreasing the steps it would take to approve housing. Essaibi George said every neighborhood should be tackling this issue and “be a partner in this work.”

Campbell said the emphasis should be on all Bostonians and not only those in crisis. “No one should have to search for a bathroom or housing when we think of all the resources and the incredible providers we have in the city,’' she said.

The forum was hosted by the Boston Coalition for Homeless Individuals.

Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at tiana.woodard@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.