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Petition Calls on Harvard To Shelter Homeless Population in Dorms

A circulating petition called on University administrators to provide campus facilities as housing for Cambridge's homeless population.
A circulating petition called on University administrators to provide campus facilities as housing for Cambridge's homeless population. By Naomi S. Castellon-Perez
By Sydnie M. Cobb and Declan J. Knieriem, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard students and others circulated an online petition this week calling on University administrators to offer campus facilities as housing for Cambridge’s homeless population during the global coronavirus outbreak.

“We have the facilities, the resources, and the organizational wherewithal to implement an emergency shelter on campus,” the petition reads. “It is simply unthinkable not to do this and let our most vulnerable community members suffer and die on the doorsteps of the richest university in the world.”

The petition follows University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s March 10 announcement that students would have to vacate their on-campus housing to help curb the spread of the virus. As of Sunday night, more than 750 Harvard affiliates, Cambridge residents, and others had signed the petition.

Harvard Divinity School student Christopher J. Diak published the petition after reading a Boston Globe article detailing the difficulties municipal governments faced in containing the spread of coronavirus among the region’s homeless population.

“That weekend, as the undergraduates left campus, it occurred to me that there will be thousands of vacant dorm rooms on campus that could be converted into a homeless shelter, at the very least for the residents of Cambridge,” Diak wrote in an email to The Crimson.

Several Cambridge homeless shelters, such as the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and Y2Y youth homeless shelter, have fought to remain open and operational in the face of the mounting crisis. HSHS, however, closed for the season Sunday morning, according to the organization’s website.

Diak also sent a letter to Bacow with the same proposal, according to the petition. University spokesperson Jason A. Newton confirmed that Bacow received the letter.

The petition references a policy order City Councilor Marc C. McGovern submitted to the City Council last Monday, which called for a “comprehensive” strategy for supporting the city’s homeless population. The proposal suggested “opening space for Cambridge’s homeless” in local colleges and hotels as a possible option.

McGovern said in a Sunday interview that, though no “centralized” plans had been made, the city will discuss options for supporting homeless residents this week. He added that the University “deserves some recognition” for its ongoing cooperation with the city.

“I know that Harvard is doing a lot with the city,” McGovern said. “But this is one that we haven’t been able to solve yet, and so I think it’s all hands on deck. We should be exploring all options.”

Newton wrote in an emailed statement that the University is involved in “active conversations” with state and municipal governments about providing support during the pandemic. He also wrote that the University is currently housing hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students on campus and is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on social distancing.

“The University is already working to support our neighbors in multiple ways, including through learning materials for local children, engaging members of our community who have expertise that can contribute to planning efforts by cities and states, and the provision of available personal protective equipment at the University to state emergency management authorities,” he wrote.

Cambridge resident Skip Schiel said “empathy” drove him to add his name to the petition and said he thought using Harvard’s dormitories would make “a heck of a lot of sense.”

“The usual problems of unsheltered people are tremendously exacerbated by the current virus crisis,” he said. “Many could die without at least minimal shelter.”

Diak wrote in his email that he believed a concerted effort between Cambridge and Harvard would be necessary to effectively respond to the crisis.

“This is a rapidly evolving emergency and life may change even more dramatically than we now anticipate, so, coordination between the City and the University will be crucial to our rising to the occasion,” he explained. “Furthermore, we need to understand that life will not go on as usual this semester and act accordingly, clearly and decisively.”

—Staff writer Sydnie M. Cobb can be reached at sydnie.cobb@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @cobbsydnie.

—Staff writer Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at declan.knieriem@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

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