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The Cambridge Department of Public Works is putting the finishing touches on a public toilet that is set to open in Harvard Square in the coming weeks. The plans for the toilet, situated across from Johnston Gate in General MacArthur Park, were first approved two years ago, largely in response to lobbying on the part of a coalition of Harvard Square businesses, churches, and other organizations. According to a 2013 survey of Cambridge residents, workers, and visitors, Harvard Square is the neighborhood of Cambridge most in need of a public toilet.
We applaud Cambridge’s actions, since access to toilet facilities is a basic human right that should not be denied to any member of society. Many cities across the country have embraced this idea—in fact, the facility in Harvard Square is modeled after the Portland Loos, public restrooms in Portland, Ore. Though this marks a strong step, there is much more that Cambridge, Boston, and Harvard can do to help address the problem of homelessness in our community.
The current initiative will only provide a single toilet. The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and the newly-opened Y2Y Harvard Square shelter also provide toilets and showers. But because of their limited hours of operation, the full need for such necessities in the Square is much greater than what currently exists. This lack of access to basic facilities perpetuates the same social factors that keep the homeless unemployed and stigmatized.
We full-heartedly support the student groups who are working to help the homeless community in Harvard Square, including those at the two shelters. At the same time, the University should take a more active role in addressing this issue. The administration should consider making long-term investments so that Harvard Square’s homeless community can live with dignity. This is especially pertinent given the fact that economists would expect the presence of Harvard to drive up rent prices in Cambridge and across the river in Allston, while remaining exempt from paying taxes on its property in the city due to its non-profit status. The statistics regarding the homeless in Cambridge—such as the fact that 45 percent of homeless adults have worked in the past 30 days—highlight the fact that Cambridge is simply unlivable for people working low wage jobs.
Cambridge and Boston must also do more to help combat rising homelessness in the area. There are a number of policy initiatives that have been tested in other cities, which have proven successful in reducing chronic homelessness. For example, the Housing First initiative has helped alleviate homelessness in places including Utah and Buffalo, N.Y. It is thus clear that steps should be taken to improve the conditions that the homeless face in Cambridge and Harvard Square. The public toilet in the Square is a step in the right direction.
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