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Cambridge Petition Challenges Harvard and MIT’s Aid to Homeless Population

Cambridge residents penned a petition calling for local universities to house the homeless during the coronavirus pandemic.
Cambridge residents penned a petition calling for local universities to house the homeless during the coronavirus pandemic. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Charles Xu, Crimson Staff Writer

Nearly 200 Cambridge residents — including Harvard and MIT affiliates — signed an online petition urging the two universities to house unsheltered residents and commit more resources to the city’s pandemic response efforts.

The petition, written by City Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan, states that Harvard and MIT’s $250,000 donations to the construction of an emergency shelter for homeless people are insufficient. The two universities, he argued, are attempting to “get away” with “doing only the bare minimum.”

“They love to talk about being strong community partners when it benefits them during more prosperous times, but in the middle of a global pandemic they are totally letting us down,” the petition reads.

“These funds are not nearly enough, and what is much more critically needed is physical space to provide safe housing for everyone who needs to be physically isolated, including all community members currently experiencing homelessness,” it reads. “Anything less is unconscionable and morally unjust.”

The City of Cambridge announced on Tuesday that the War Memorial Recreation Center would open as an emergency shelter for homeless residents, with a capacity of more than a hundred beds.

The request in Zondervan’s petition echoes that of another petition published by Harvard Divinity School student Christopher J. Diak in mid-March and signed by 1,500 individuals, which called on Harvard to house Cambridge’s homeless population in campus facilities.

In addition to the demands related to housing, Zondervan’s petition calls on both Harvard and MIT to donate at least $5 million each to a city disaster relief fund, as well as to devote the universities’ infrastructure to “vaccine development, antiviral drugs and other pandemic response tools.”

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment Tuesday about Zondervan’s petition. He wrote in a previous statement that Harvard was in conversation with state and municipal governments about providing aid in response to the pandemic.

MIT spokesperson Sarah E. Gallop said there is “no playbook” for responding to a global pandemic and that the university “has tried everything” to provide support for Cambridge.

“The things we’ve been responding to is what the city has been asking for,” Gallop noted.

Neal Chaudhuri, a case manager at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, said he believes the state needs as many sites as possible to house individuals experiencing homelessness, other than shelters.

“This is the time to use unoccupied spaces such as student dorms and hotels and all kinds of spaces to be opened up for this explicit purpose in the name of public health, in the name of trying to keep as many people alive as possible,” he said.

Chaudhuri added that opening dorms and hotel rooms to unhoused residents would specifically benefit people preemptively released from jail and prison due to the coronavirus.

“It's really important for all people who are eligible under the Supreme Judicial Court decision to get them to a safe home plan which could be these alternative housing sites like dorms and hotels,” he said.

Local homeless shelters, including the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and Y2Y youth homeless shelter, have struggled to navigate the additional costs and health protocols imposed by the coronavirus, and some have closed their doors for the season.

In response to the financial damage wrought by the pandemic, University leaders announced Monday they would freeze hiring, reduce discretionary spending, and cut top administrators’ salaries, leaving the door open to possible layoffs and furloughs in the future.

In a Tuesday interview, Zondervan, an MIT alum, said he circulated the petition to address what he believes are unsafe health conditions for people staying at the emergency shelter. He said it was “absolutely astonishing” and “unacceptable” that the city’s makeshift shelter would allow people not showing symptoms of the virus to enter without testing, increasing the risk of exposure.

“We’re not asking anything of our university partners that they cannot give,” Zondervan said of the petition. “This is really a request — a plea for help — that says, ‘Our community is hurting. We need you to give us everything that you can.’”

—Staff writer Charles Xu can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @charles_xu_27.

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