Six months after its formation, the Harvard Square Homeless Coalition gathered in the basement of the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter Wednesday morning to reflect on its first major successes: last month city councilors approved an initiative to keep the temporary restroom facility on Cambridge Common open and agreed to consider building a permanent facility there.
The coalition was formed this summer at a meeting of the Harvard Square Business Association, after business owners expressed concern about homeless individuals using their properties’ private restroom facilities.
The only other public toilet available at the time was in Christ Church on Garden Street, but after a number of drug overdoses in the facility, church administrators decided at the end of July they could no longer keep it open to the public for security reasons.
That’s when the coalition—made up of homeless advocacy groups and church communities, including the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, Christ Church, the First Church Shelter, and homeless support organizations Youth on Fire and Bread & Jams—stepped in.
They began by organizing a letter writing campaign that encouraged parents, athletic teams, students, tourists, homeless advocates, and others who would benefit from such a facility to write letters to the City Council and the Department of Public Works.
Today, six months and many letters later, the coalition has seen the fruits of its labors.
“We met for the first time in August and by October we had a port-o-john,” said Ayala Livny, the program manager for Youth on Fire, a shelter and HIV-prevention center for homeless youth. “I think that’s pretty amazing.”
Charles A. Hobbs ’13, an administrative director at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, said he has heard positive feedback on the temporary facility. Hobbs noted that given the city’s strict laws about public urination—which falls under the category of indecent exposure, a sexual offense—the lack of public facilities put the homeless population in an impossible position.
“It’s almost forcing someone to commit a crime,” Hobbs said.
With this achievement accomplished, the committee will now focus on ensuring that plans for a permanent restroom facility on Cambridge Common do not get lost in the bureaucratic shuffle at City Hall.
Rev. Jonathan T. Eden, assistant rector at Christ Church, emphasized the importance of continued contact between coalition members and city officials to ensure that the Council continues to move forward on the project, especially considering the upcoming renovations planned for Cambridge Common.
“It would be a shame to let that go by without some serious consideration of a bathroom being part of that plan,” he said.
While the coalition is still carefully planning its next project, its members also took time to reflect on their recent success. Livny noted that she was proud of the community organizing the coalition accomplished as well as the swift and positive response of the City Council.
“I feel slightly pathetic that I’m so proud of that port-a-potty over there,” Livny said. “But it’s a small thing that makes such a huge difference in people’s lives.”
—Staff writer Amanda E. McGowan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.