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Congregating in Support of Non-Congregate Housing

By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

As temperatures in the Northeast remain unforgiving and Cambridge residents bundle up, need is on the rise among the city’s homeless population — and the situation is only worsened by the pressure to de-densify shelters during the pandemic. Fortunately, the city has finally heard and listened to the oft-ignored calls of the people living on its frigid streets: Prompted by local organizers, including Harvard student activists, the Cambridge City Council voted earlier this month to rent non-congregate homeless shelter space from the New England School of English.

The collaborative efforts of the community mobilizing behind this vote serve as a wondrous testament to the value of wielding collective action to meet the seemingly insurmountable challenges of the present — ultimately, such efforts ought to be sustained and built upon moving forward. The latest move was inspired by a petition — signed by 121 individuals experiencing homelessness themselves — and the New England School of English, which took the initiative to reach out to the City Council last April and offered its single-room dorms for utilization as temporary, non-congregate shelter space. These ventures mark a remarkable team effort — one with more than 121 once-overlooked voices finally heard.

These efforts gain even deeper value when understood within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, non-congregate shelters are of tremendous worth in any time and place, as they offer essential levels of privacy and dignity to homeless individuals, reduce their vulnerability, and increase their comfort. But they’re also more important than ever right now, as the close quarters of congregate shelters have proven to be dangerous, if not fatal, during the pandemic. In response to such difficulties, growing numbers of congregate shelters have been forced to lower capacity limits and turn away individuals due to public health concerns, only exacerbating the amount of need. Indeed, the dwindling and dangerous role of congregate shelters provokes the need for new levels of thought and inventiveness in our community’s work in supporting its most vulnerable — a task that the proponents of the City Council’s vote have risen to.

This local news also takes place against a federal backdrop: In late January, President Joe Biden signed an executive order guaranteeing that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also known as FEMA, would reimburse municipalities for 100 percent of their spending on the establishment of non-congregate shelters.

The new policy, valid until September 30, 2021, is extremely promising. It has the potential to prove that active and compassionate governance can successfully tackle our homelessness epidemic; that leaving our citizens un-housed and vulnerable is a policy choice, not an immutable societal feature. We encourage all municipalities — including our own — to take full advantage of the newfound federal support and to act boldly and swiftly to help those in need of housing.

In the specific case of the Cambridge community, we celebrate the progress made by the council but, as usual, push for more. As the city continues to develop long-term options for housing, we encourage them to amplify the voices of unhoused individuals in order to best address their needs, acknowledging that each residents’ circumstances will be unique to them and that their lived experiences will be crucial to informing good policy.

We ask the very same thing from Harvard: Aim higher and push harder. Our current community engagement pales in comparison to the New England School of English's generosity. Though we have ties to two local homeless shelters — the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and Y2Y Harvard Square — both are primarily student-run, focusing on individual rather than institutional commitments. We hope our peers’ boldness inspires Harvard to expand its own efforts and increase our positive footprint on the local community.

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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