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The City of Cambridge does not anticipate opening any additional city-run homeless shelters for the impending winter, even as other local shelters are forced to either shutter their doors — like the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter — or operate on reduced capacity — like Y2Y. The emergency shelter that the city is operating, which has a capacity of around 60 individuals, will only continue to be available to those people who are already in the city’s record system.
The City of Cambridge Department of Human Service Programs last reported a census on the homeless population in the city in January 2019, claiming 361 of the 555 city-wide homeless individuals were served by emergency shelters, with an additional 136 in transitional housing. But with economic pressures from the pandemic compounding and shelters closing or reducing capacity, it’s a safe assumption that the number of people being served is far lower while the number in need is far greater.
Two advocates for the homeless population said that their “priority is to provide Cambridge’s homeless community with winter essentials in anticipation of the lack of shelter space.” Unless something changes, many people will have to suffer Cambridge’s harsh winter without shelter, which can and will be fatal. Not too unlike the coronavirus itself.
The coronavirus has exacerbated the fissures of inequality in American society. The virus is not a great equalizer; it is inconvenient for the privileged and devastating for the vulnerable. Harvard cannot allow this cycle to continue with its neighbors.
We recognize that providing shelter in the midst of a pandemic is not easy; social distancing measures mean that in a fixed amount of space, packing in more people increases the risk of virus spread. Further, the logistics are complicated: people will need to be tested, quarantined, and contact-traced.
While all of these added dimensions to providing shelter make it the task more difficult, it is not certainly impossible; we have been completing difficult tasks since the onset of the pandemic — the only variable that has changed here is the target population.
And there is a greater pattern of Harvard shirking responsibility for this population. In the past, Harvard has relied on the largely student-run HSHS and Y2Y shelter to shoulder the responsibility of caring for the homeless population that the University itself has both directly and indirectly contributed to creating through the gentrification of the Square. Now that the majority of the undergraduate population is no longer on campus, these selfless student volunteers can no longer offset the University’s detrimental impact on vulnerable Cantibrigians through their own free labor.
It’s true that Harvard itself would benefit from making sure that its neighbors are healthy, but our primary argument is that it’s morally untenable to have Harvard’s wealth and privilege sit complacently in a neighborhood where the homeless have to choose between freezing and catching the coronavirus. Harvard can no longer dodge this responsibility.
Back in April, Harvard and MIT jointly contributed half a million dollars to the creation of an emergency homeless shelter at the War Memorial Center — we argued then that this was not enough action, and it is certainly not enough now. Winter is coming.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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