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Facing Pandemic Challenges, City Council Votes to Rent Non-Congregate Homeless Shelter Space

The Cambridge City Council debated renting non-congregate shelter space from the New England School of English at a Council meeting Wednesday evening.
The Cambridge City Council debated renting non-congregate shelter space from the New England School of English at a Council meeting Wednesday evening. By Santiago A. Saldivar
By Ryan S. Kim and David R. Shaw, Crimson Staff Writers

Cambridge City Councilors passed a proposal to rent non-congregate housing for the city’s unhoused population and received an update on the Covid-19 vaccine rollout during a Wednesday meeting.

The council plans to rent space from the New England School of English as non-congregate housing during the pandemic. Non-congregate shelters provide private, single rooms for each guest, whereas congregate shelters house guests in one common space. An executive order from the Biden administration promises states 100 percent reimbursement for the opening and operation of non-congregate shelters and other spaces through September 2021.

Last weekend, housing advocates distributed flyers to more than 1,200 Cambridge households in a campaign to raise awareness and rally support for the policy.

Though the order may help to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus among Cambridge’s unhoused population, the New England School of English shelter will not be a permanent solution to the city’s housing problem, Councilor Marc C. McGovern said.

“We are talking about a limited amount of time,” he said. “At the end of the day, they are going to want their dorm space back at some point. This is not a long term solution or long term investment.”

More than 100 Cambridge residents signed up to speak to the Council during the meeting. The majority of public comment indicated support for the Council's proposal to rent shelter space from the New England School of English, while others argued for the removal of “hostile” architecture from public transportation stations.

Dozens of students from the Harvard College Young Democratic Socialists of America gave statements at the meeting. Willa Canfield ’23, a HCYDSA member who gave testimony, said that providing more socially distanced shelter space is tied to the mission of addressing racial justice in the city.

“This is very much a racial justice issue as well as a human rights issue and a public health issue,” she said. “And I hope the City of Cambridge will treat it as such.”

City Manager Louis A. DePasquale and Claude Jacob — Cambridge’s chief public health officer — also presented the Council with a weekly Covid-19 update.

Jacob said that the country is experiencing a “severe shortage nationwide” of vaccines and, as a result, Massachusetts is “triaging” its current supply. Fewer doses are going to cities like Cambridge, with the majority being diverted to the State’s mass vaccination sites, according to Jacob.

DePasquale said that unlike Covid-19 testing, the city has “no control or authority” in vaccine purchasing or distribution; these powers reside with the state’s Covid-19 Vaccine Advisory Group. He further explained that Massachusetts capped the supply of vaccine doses to local health departments at 100 per week through February and has not granted Cambridge any public vaccination sites.

On Monday, Cambridge residents over the age of 75 became eligible to receive the Covid-19 vaccine as part of the first group in Phase 2 of the state’s vaccine distribution plan, DePasquale noted.

The City Council also passed an order in support of the School Committee’s recent decision to expand in-person learning in March. Lisa Dobberteen — a Cambridge pediatrician and the medical director for the local public health department's School Health services — said there remains a lot of work to vaccinate Cambridge’s population, but the department has ample staffing to get it done.

“We’re fortunate that we have plenty of people to help vaccinate,” she said. “We have vaccines. We will find a way to get them into people’s arms.”

— Staff writer Ryan S. Kim can be reached at

— Staff writer David R. Shaw can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidrwshaw.

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City PoliticsCambridge City CouncilCambridge SchoolsCambridgeHomelessnessFront Middle FeatureCoronavirus