City of Cambridge Places High Priority on Supporting Unhoused Community During COVID-19 Pandemic – the City of Cambridge

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of Cambridge has prioritized supporting our unhoused community. Over the past year, we have invested over $11 million in additional funding above the annual $4.5 million to further support our most vulnerable residents.

Within weeks of the pandemic, the City began constructing the War Memorial Emergency Shelter, and last fall, we opened the Transitional Wellness Center at Spaulding Hospital. Both of these facilities were mobilized to ensure that we could support shelters in reducing population density to operate more safely. Our goal over the past year has been to control and limit the spread of COVID-19 among our unhoused community. Additionally, the City has worked closely with Bay Cove Human Services and the Cambridge Housing Authority to find longer-term housing for residents utilizing the temporary shelters. Thanks to these efforts, 20 residents have already secured housing and several others will soon be moving into longer-term housing.

Many communities have faced challenges, compounded by limited resources and funding, to keep the unhoused population healthy and minimize COVID-19 transmissions. Cambridge’s early interventions helped manage any reported clusters within the shelters, while minimizing the spread of the virus among the unhoused community. This was due to providers’ implementation of CDC recommendations for reducing spread in congregate settings and the City’s quick action to establish additional sites for people to safely congregate, decreasing the density at existing shelters, as well as the creation of an early detection system to catch individual cases before they could further spread to others in the community. These efforts were truly a cross departmental collaboration among staff from Cambridge Fire and Police Departments, Cambridge Public Health Department, Public Works, the Department of Human Service Programs (DHSP), as well as Cambridge Health Alliance and ProEMS, to name a few involved in the task of establishing COVID-19 safe sites for our unhoused residents.

The City has funded 2 to 3 meals, 7 days a week, from local restaurants for every shelter program or meals program in Cambridge that requests it. Cambridge restaurant meals are handed out every day through different sites, including four days a week at First Church. To date, the City has invested $1 million to this important program and, with the critical work of meal distribution partners, has provided over 140,000 meals since March 2020. We have been and will continue to pay for the First Church shelter to remain open all day, which provides a safe daytime space for shelter residents Additionally, the City has funded showers in Harvard Square for the unhoused population as well as the cost of staff to run the Church Street facility. The showers, along with portable toilets and hand-washing and sanitizing stations in Central, Porter, Harvard, and Alewife, have helped address the gap in availability of hygiene services as many public restrooms are unavailable during this time.

Additionally, the City has supported Y2Y, a student-run shelter for youth in Cambridge, since last March. The City’s financial commitment has enabled the shelter to remain open all year, averting closure at the usual season end in April 2020, which coincided with the first wave of COVID-19 outbreaks. With the City’s assistance, Y2Y has also been able to hire professional staff to supplement their students and staff.   

To better support the unhoused community during winter months, the City expanded access to its Warming Center in Central Square, which was previously an overnight space. Since December 2020, the Warming Center has been open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for adults experiencing homelessness to access a safe space. At all times, the maximum capacity at the Warming Center will be 30 guests to allow for social distancing during the pandemic.

Through a combination of municipal and federal funds, the City is supporting new outreach programs through Solutions at Work, Fenway Health’s Youth on Fire, and, most recently, the Central Square BID’s (Business Improvement District’s) three new outreach workers.

In addition, the City has supported Baycove’s First Step Street Outreach program to add hours and a physician to go out with this outreach team several times a week to provide street-based medical care. The outreach team offers food, water, clothing, blankets, emergency supplies, hygiene, PPE supplies and assistance accessing emergency medical and psychiatric care, testing, shelters, and substance treatment.

In partnership with the Cambridge Housing Authority and HomeStart, the City launched a new project that pairs supportive services with vouchers committed by the Cambridge Housing Authority to rehouse approximately 45 individuals with long histories of homelessness in Cambridge. The project provides staffing to assist people through every step of the rehousing process including assessing housing needs, barriers, and preferences; obtaining needed documents; engaging in housing search; and providing ongoing stabilization services to support successful tenancies.  

Through the great work of our DHSP staff, the City secures over $4.5 million annually in competitive grant funds from HUD that support permanent housing projects for formerly unhoused households and supportive services to assist in connecting people to housing and ongoing supports. With funding from HUD, the Housing Authority, and the City, there are approximately 400 units or vouchers supporting permanent housing dedicated for formerly unhoused households.

Support for our unhoused community has not been limited to just housing and meals. We also tested individuals through mobile testing and shelter-based screening programs. COVID-19 positive individuals, including shelter staff, were referred to regional isolation hotels for safe recovery. As of March 7, we had administered a total of 632 first and second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to clients and staff at Cambridge homeless shelters.

In addition to helping our unhoused community, this past year we have also provided and continue to provide financial and other types of assistance to Cambridge families and individuals facing food and/or housing insecurity, as well as to Cambridge small businesses and nonprofits.

The City is not alone in providing supports for the unhoused community. State investments in additional shelter space at the Green Street Shelter and other emergency assistance programs along with grants by the Cambridge Community Foundation and tireless work by nonprofits, faith-communities, and volunteer and mutual aid groups have provided additional critical support to the community.

Despite the broad array of investments and resources dedicated to supporting the unhoused community in Cambridge, the demand for housing and services outweighs the supply, and the challenges experienced by the unhoused community are significant and magnified by the current public health crisis. The City is committed to working with stakeholders and partners to provide support to the unhoused community and those at risk of losing housing during this very challenging time.