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City Organizes Charrette to Combat Homelessness: "Brainstorming" process involves community

City Organizes Charrette to Combat Homelessness: "Brainstorming" process involves community

Photo: Homeless in Harvard Square

“We’re working to develop a set of recommendations for the city on what we can actually do about homelessness,” Ellen Semonoff (at center in photo at right) told a gathering of about 20 people at the Cambridge Community Center Thursday evening, June 25. Ms. Semonoff is Assistant City Manager for the City of Cambridge's Department of Human Service Programs. With her in the photo are Mike Payack, left, and Liz Mengers, right, also of that department.

The meeting was the second of two this week that are part of a process called a charrette, a multi-stage community effort to gather opinions and recommendations about a single issue from people who have a stake in the outcome. In this case the stakeholders include residents, consultants, city officials and staff as well as homeless people and those who work with them.

The earlier of the two meetings was at noon on Wednesday, June 24, at the Central Square Library. The organizer for both events was Shelly Chevalier (photo above left), Planning and Development Manager for the Department of Human Service Programs. The charrette process is part of a collaborative effort launched by the city to create a plan for addressing homelessness, she said; participants include multiple city departments, nonprofit partners, and the Cambridge Homeless Continuum of Care.

"We get it," Ms. Chevalier said at Thursday’s meeting. "We have to try and do things differently, and it requires pushing beyond what we know."

Leadership for the project is organized through a 15-member Charrette Steering Committee composed of representatives from a cross-section of community organizations. The members are listed below; a number of them were present Thursday evening and took part in the discussion.

Acting as moderator Thursday evening was Larry Oaks, New England Director of the non-profit CSH (Corporation for Supportive Housing) of New England. CSH promotes supportive housing as a way of addressing chronic societal problems. It is acting as facilitator for the city’s planning process, according to Ms. Chevalier.

Mr. Oaks introduced two participants in the evening’s discussions, both of them members of the Charrette Steering Committee:
--Sean Terry of the New England Center for Veterans described the organization’s housing services and its work with homeless veterans.
--Liz Mengers of the Cambridge Department of Human Services noted that this is the second month of the “brainstorming” process and said that further discussions during the summer will be followed by another round of meetings in September.

“This meeting is part of a larger city planning process,” Larry Oaks said. “Our mission is to make sure that issues relating to housing and homelessness remain front and center in that process.”

Issues under consideration include: 1. Prioritizing people for different interventions   2. Preventing homelessness   3. Serving people who frequently use emergency services   4. Housing First service models (Housing First is a frequently-used practice for working with vulnerable populations)   5. Services in housing to reduce returns to homelessness 6. Employment and income strategies for homeless individuals and families   7. Working with landlords and property management companies   8. Strategies for increasing investment

After the presentations several people offered comments from the floor; not all were identified by name. One man described his extensive experience of homelessness, observing that it was tied to mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction. He said that for many people, being homeless is a choice.

Other participants pointed out that the high cost of housing in Cambridge is an important factor in homelessness. Several people questioned where the money for remedial measures will come from. A man who said he has been involved in public affairs here since the rent-control era questioned whether it is our responsibility to assist people from other areas.

“I don’t want us to be the only people trying to solve an insoluble problem,” he said. In response, another participant commented, “Part of our collective responsibility as a community is to put all our resources together.”

Some members of the Charrette Steering Committee were identified as such when they offered comments from the floor. Among them were:

-- George Metzger, an architect and president of the Central Square Business Association. He said that more data are needed, including information about how Cambridge’s homeless situation compares with that of other cities its size.

-- Martha Sandler, Executive Director of On The Rise, Inc., a day program for homeless women. She said that being addicted should not be synonymous with being homeless. "Bureaucratic barriers can create issues," she said, "but with this project we have an opportunity to look at the situation in a holistic way.”

In closing, Shelly Chevalier said the charrette is an effort to find a new approach to the challenge of homelessness.

“We need to focus,” she said. “We can’t do everything, but we can do something.”
The 15 Members of the Charrette Steering Committee were listed in the program. In addition to those cited above -- Mr. Terry, Ms. Mengers, Mr. Metzger, and Ms. Sandler -- the members are:
Cassie Arnaud, City of Cambridge, Community Development Department
Michael Johnston, Cambridge Housing Authority
Paula Cushner, Cambridge Healthcare for the Homeless
Stacey King, Cambridge Public Health Department
Sgt. Fred Cabral, Cambridge Police Department
Ellen Shachter, Greater Boston Legal Services
Mary Shannon Thomas, Eliot Community Human Services
Gregory Grays-Thomas, HomeStart
Odessa Deffenbaugh, Bay Cove/CASPAR
Elaine DeRosa, Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee
Rev. Joe Robinson, Christ Church

Lead Photo: "Homeless in Winter, Harvard Square," by Essygie. Creative Commons