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Cambridge homeless shelters are ‘full to bursting’ as new faces emerge

Leaders look to create much-needed day centers to accommodate a growing unhoused community

Malene Council (right) talked to Cambridge residents while she completes her “tour” of Central Square, a walk she does multiple times a day to check-in with homeless residents and Central Square regulars.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Packed shelters and a large influx of new faces living on the streets have leaders in Cambridge pushing for the creation of day drop-in centers to provide this growing community with a place to stay warm, take a shower, or heat up a meal.

The causes of the upsurge in homeless numbers could lie in the pandemic, in the opioid epidemic, evictions, the recent dismantling of homeless encampments in Boston — or a mix of all those factors, officials say. Cambridge has been putting resources into mitigating the problem, including opening two temporary shelters since the pandemic’s beginning.

But officials say more needs to be done and fast.


“During the pandemic, all these issues related to the unhoused were coming up. We’re saying, ‘Stay home,’ but there’s people who don’t have homes. So what’s the public policy response going to be?” said Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui in a recent interview.

“At the end of the day, I feel like if there’s a way to do it, given our resources, we should be doing more,” she said. “And one way is to consider a day drop-in center.”

In that vein, a homelessness working group — consisting of city officials, housing liaisons, providers, shelter employees, and current and former unhoused residents — was formed in June. The group plans to release a report next month with short- and long-term recommendations, including the creation of one large or several small daytime drop-in centers. The hope is that neighboring municipalities will do the same.

Councilor Marc McGovern, who chairs the working group and has been a social worker for more than 25 years, said city officials were inspired by a day center they visited in Washington, D.C.

“You didn’t feel like you were a third-class person. There was art on the walls, plants. It was bright. The furniture was in good shape,” McGovern said in a phone interview earlier this month.


McGovern envisions a Cambridge center where people would be able to heat up food, take a shower, do laundry, watch a movie, have access to health care and barbers, and get help building a resume or applying for a state-issued ID.

In considering locations, the city will have to decide whether to remodel existing facilities or create new spaces, McGovern said.

But Central Square should be off the table, said one member of the group.

“While I support more services, Central has met its capacity and . . . they should be ushered into other parts of the city,” said Michael Monestime, executive board member of the Central Square Business Improvement District, in a phone interview earlier this month. “Could we be audacious enough to say Kendall Square? It’s one stop closer to Boston.”

Cambridge has more than 30 social service nonprofits including wet shelters, needle exchanges, single-room occupancy units, various other shelters including one for youth, transitional houses, rape crisis centers, food pantries, and meal programs. And many of those services are located in Central Square, which, along with Harvard Square, has the largest portion of the city’s unhoused community.

Malene Council gathers supplies to hand out to Cambridge residents during her “tour” of Central Square, a walk she does multiple times a day to check-in with homeless residents and Central Square regulars.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Last year, the Central Square Business Improvement District’s outreach and safety ambassadors — 13 people who act as “stewards for the neighborhood” — collected in a 24-block radius more than 30,000 empty nip bottles and 16,000 used needles from sharps containers, city-sponsored bins that look like red mailboxes, said Monestime.


“These are some of the things that say we are seeing an increase in Central Square’s unhoused community,” said Monestime.

Many of the new faces say they came from the area around Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston, where late last week authorities finished clearing a tent encampment of homeless people, Monestime said.

Besides being close to Boston, “Cambridge is welcoming,” said Monestime. “By and large, Cambridge police have a very hands-off, fair-treatment way of interacting with folks. A lot of those would be reasons for me to travel to Cambridge if I were in that situation.”

But other providers who spoke to The Boston Globe — like Theresa Young, director of emergency services for CASPAR (Cambridge And Somerville Programs for Addiction Recovery), and Elana Klein, a licensed social worker for the Cambridge Police Department — cautioned that the issues are too complex and multilayered to confirm whether many of the new people have come from Mass. and Cass.

And although Cambridge’s unhoused tend to stick with the same people in the same area, Klein said, the border between Boston and Cambridge is fluid.

“So we don’t know where people are coming from,” she said in a phone interview last month. “With the weather getting colder and the different pressures of the pandemic, more people are becoming homeless, and more homeless people are getting into worse situations. Overall, there has been a huge influx.”

Malene Council, a Cambridge native who for the past year has done community outreach for the Central Square Business Improvement District, said she sees unfamiliar faces among the homeless these days as she walks the streets.


“We definitely do have new faces constantly,” she said in a phone interview. “I’m just realizing it’s a lot of mental health. COVID, it brought it out of a lot of us, even people who live ‘normal’ lives, whatever normal means. I feel like it’s a lot. And we need to focus on it. We can’t just stick them anywhere.”

Council supports the idea for a day center. “Oh, that is like my dream, to have a day center,” she said.

“I’ve lived in Cambridge my whole life and I was telling everyone I think I was blind [before] because I would notice a lot of people but I wouldn’t notice, ya know? ... A lot of the young people I feel are from Mass. and Cass.”

She said, “I’m seeing a lot of younger people, a lot of younger people.”

CASPAR’s First Step Street Outreach team enrolled 221 individuals living on Cambridge streets into services in 2017. That number jumped to 408 in 2020 and was 329 last year, according to data provided by Young.

Cambridge’s Department of Human Service Programs could not provide numbers, but Ellen Semonoff, assistant city manager for human services, confirmed that “many shelters have waitlists or are unable to take people because of the uptick in positive cases.”

Shelters, which are at reduced capacity, Klein said, are “full to bursting.”


“A day center is one of the biggest needs of the city,” she said. “People just have nowhere to be.”

Local leaders say this isn’t a Cambridge issue. It’s a regional one, and neighboring communities must band together with a clearer, more streamlined vision.

“The reality is we’re doing more than almost any other city to support our unhoused community and we know it’s still not enough,” said McGovern.

Monestime and McGovern both said the Commonwealth should approach the crisis holistically.

“It’s definitely not Cambridge’s issue to solve and we can be critical of ourselves, but Cambridge is doing a pretty fantastic job regionally when we look at some of our neighbors who are not doing as much,” Monestime said.

Amy Saltzman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Amy_Saltzman.