We the staff of the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter (HSHS) unequivocally state our support for the Black Lives Matter movement and our outrage at police brutality, particularly against Black people, and the systemic racism which underlies both our criminal legal system and our society in general.
As an emergency homeless shelter, HSHS operates in the context of our community’s clear racial inequality; a 2016 report cited by Cambridge’s Continuum of Care indicates that 33% of people experiencing homelessness and accessing emergency shelter were Black or African American while that group made up only 11% of the overall population in the city,¹ and our shelter reflects this disparity. These disparities are the result of decades of deliberate anti-Black racism by policy-makers on the local, state, and federal levels, and anti-Black racism plays a central role in any history of homelessness and housing insecurity in Cambridge; the very first public housing development in the city was built in 1935 and replaced an integrated community with homes explicitly restricted to white residents. This development was part and parcel of a long history of predatory housing and lending practices, mass incarceration, Jim Crow laws, unequal education practices and the legacy of slavery. As an institution made necessary by a racist housing system, it is our responsibility to assert unequivocally that the lives of our Black guests, staff members, and volunteers matter and to call out racist violence whenever we see it.
This responsibility requires us to scrutinize the role that we have played in racism against people of color experiencing homelessness in Cambridge, and especially against Black residents. First, HSHS’s current model relies on interaction with police to an inappropriate extent. In our years of operation, both shelter staff and shelter guests have called Cambridge police after incidents arising in the shelter. We acknowledge that many of these calls are inconsistent with our goal of providing a safe emergency shelter for every person who stays with us. Last spring, the staff of HSHS began discussions about forming a committee to evaluate the Cambridge Police Department’s treatment of both staff and guests and make recommendations for change in our policies. However, due to COVID-19 we as a staff chose to delay the formation of this committee in order to focus on the more immediate concerns that arose in the face of that crisis. We acknowledge that our negligence cannot continue. Second, HSHS’s current response to incidents in our space relies heavily on “warnings” given to guests and “bars” from our space; our current approach is inconsistent with the principles of restorative justice, and we acknowledge our own complicity in a model that replicates many of the same flaws of the criminal justice system.
Therefore, we as a unified staff have declared the set of commitments listed below:
- We commit to reforming our response to incidents to make it more restorative and less focused on consequences. Our current model does not always redress the harm done in the shelter and is unnecessarily punitive. In light of this, we commit to proposing a new system ready for our next season to help us address incidents in the space in a restorative manner . We will actively seek guest-input throughout this process. [by reaching out to the (guest advocacy email), and, additionally, at an in-person meeting as soon as one can be held. We recognize that guest input is vital and no concrete decisions will be made until we have a full picture of guests’ input on our response to incidents.]
- We commit to revisiting our policy surrounding our interactions with the Cambridge Police Department. We recognize that we have relied on the police too frequently to respond to incidents in the shelter. We acknowledge that the use of police or the threat of police involvement threatens the safety of many of our guests and therefore commit to finding and partnering with community organizations to assist us in emergency situations in the shelter. When appropriate, we commit to placing calls directly to existing service providers, including Pro EMS and the BEST Team, rather than placing calls to 9-1-1.
- We as a staff commit to reviewing and improving our deescalation training of staff members and volunteers in order to improve our approach to incidents.
- We acknowledge that many of these commitments arose due to the current national conversations about systemic racism, but should have been addressed prior to these discussions. In order to avoid this in the future, we as a staff commit to forming a review committee at the end of every season. This committee will be designed to go over policy notes and shift notes from the previous season in order to maintain a critical understanding of the operations of our shelter that need to be addressed. We aim to frequently self-assess our accomplishment of our goals in order to consistently provide the best services that we can for our guests.
While we strive to accomplish all of these commitments in as little time as possible, many of the above commitments are contingent on our return to campus and involvement with the Harvard community. We will continue to work towards our goals, but want to acknowledge the fact that we may be unable to achieve some to their fullest extent until we have returned to campus and shelter operations have returned to the “new normal.”