While much of the attention on homelessness in Somerville has been focused on Davis Square in recent years, East Somerville is seeing a major uptick in unhoused folks on Lower Broadway and in the nearby parks. The problem has been growing for a while now, but it feels like it's really coming to a head in recent weeks. I'm seeing this with my own eyes and hearing about it from constituents on a regular basis.
The ward councilor for East Somerville, Ward 1 Councilor Matt McLaughlin, has been an outspoken advocate for addressing these issues for a long time, and I support his calls for action. There is a community meeting at 6:30 PM tonight at Connexion (149 Broadway) with a goal of coming together to identify clear, workable solutions to address this. Please attend if you can.
I understand the public health and safety concerns our residents and business owners have about the untenable situation in East Somerville, with reports of human waste on sidewalks, public intoxication, indecent public acts, harassment and threats, and violent incidents. A lot of the problems stem from alcohol abuse, so open containers in public should be confiscated and I'd like to see the City work with the liquor stores in East Somerville to ensure they are selling liquor responsibility. But that's only dealing with the symptoms.
Anything we do here needs to be done in a way that centers the fact this is a people problem and we're talking about fellow humans in need. The good news is that East Somerville is the site of one of three new Portland Loos (standalone outdoor public restrooms) scheduled for installation this fiscal year. I'm hopeful these are done this construction season, meaning by the end of the fall. This will help with some of the issues.
Governor Healey saw the problems with our unhoused population in East Somerville first hand on her visit to our city earlier this year. Last week she declared a state of emergency in light of the state's emergency shelter system being overwhelmed by the demand for services. The Family Welcome Centers the state created earlier this summer are struggling to keep up with the number of families who need shelter. This state of emergency allows the state to apply for federal funds to expand these services.
Locally, we need more emergency shelters, but also engagement centers and day shelters. It's my understanding many of the unhoused folks in East Somerville sleep in encampments across the city line in Charlestown, but spend their days and evenings in our city. So I believe an engagement center with public health services could give these folks the hand up that they need. Picking a good site for this is key, but there are a number of potential sites in the neighborhood.
I've communicated the urgency of the situation to the Administration and requested an action plan with concrete steps to address it. This information should be shared with the public, who are increasingly fed up with what they see as a lack of action and any sort of clear plan by the City. I'm hopeful tonight's meeting proves productive.
And now some additional things I'd like to highlight:
Somerville Media Center & MAPS displacement
On July 28, the Administration informed the City Council that the Somerville Media Center and the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers (MAPS) had been ordered to vacate their current home at 90-92 Union Square by August 31. The memo referred to an updated structural engineering report and cited "increasing risk to the structure with each new round of precipitation (both rain and snow)." as the rationale for this decision. The Media Center announced on August 10 it would be ceasing operations at the location and is scrambling to figure out how to continue operations elsewhere as it proceeds with finalizing an agreement to lease a new space. MAPS has downsized their space requirements for Somerville in hopes of staying in the city, but is moving significant operations out of the city.
I understand the Administration's reluctance to give another stay of execution here, but from speaking to a Somerville Media Center representative, they are extremely close to signing a lease agreement on their new space and the reason for the delay is negotiations with the City about specifics of the new funding agreement. I was told that a two-month extension should be sufficient to prevent the Media Center from being without space in Somerville. So I'm left wondering what kind of safety concerns about the building aren't so grave as to require immediate closure, but wouldn't permit occupancy through the end of October to allow uninterrupted operation. Needless to say, I'm incredibly alarmed and upset by this.
Last month the City held a series of public meetings about the future of the Armory, where a number of potential operational options were identified. When third-party management -- the current approach handled by The Center for the Arts at the Armory (CAA) -- failed to advance as an option under consideration, the CAA held a community meeting on Tuesday night. At this meeting, the community came out and -- to a person -- expressed their desire to see CAA remain in place as the operator of the space. Standing there in the Armory's Performance Hall, I was struck by two things: a) the massive number of names listed at the beginning when CAA leadership acknowledged everyone whose labor makes the Armory go; and b) the number of important, memorable events I've attended in that building over nearly two decades.
The City already is having a tough enough time with facility maintenance as the owner and landlord, following our taking of the Armory by eminent domain in 2021. I have extremely serious concerns about the idea of the City pushing out CAA and assuming operational control of the space. I understand that we're struggling as a municipal government to figure out how exactly to proceed with the key decision-makers from the 2021 taking no longer with the City. But I really believe forcing out CAA and trying to do this ourselves would make a bad situation worse. So I'm asking the public to please join me in signing CAA's petition calling on the City make third-party management one of the options under consideration for the Armory going forward.
Asbestos in school buildings
On August 4, the City announced the final three days of the summer session at the Edgerly Education Center had been canceled following the discovery of non-friable asbestos in the caulking in windows. This was very concerning because of the fact students had been in class there prior to that decision and because of the breakneck preparations to prepare the space to host the Winter Hill Community Innovation School community when the new school year starts on August 30. Five days later we received word the City had closed the Winter Hill School building after discovering "the unexpected presence of asbestos in material not typically found to contain asbestos."
In my ongoing conversations with members of the Winter Hill community, this news went over as the latest in what feels like a never-ending parade of bad news. I was slightly encouraged by what I heard on the building front at last week's community meeting, but I remain on edge about the building being ready when teachers show up for their first day of work in just 11 days. My biggest concern right now might be the lack of clarity the City and Somerville Public Schools were able to provide about transportation to and from WHCIS's temporary home in East Somerville this school year. I'm hoping for good news on multiple fronts in the coming days.
Crossing guards needed!
Speaking of ongoing sagas, we find ourselves once again short of crossing guards with the new school year just around the corner. If you're at all able, please consider answering the call by becoming a crossing guard. This is a critical position that keeps our kids safe on their way to and from school as they navigate streets full of drivers whose interest in driving safely and obeying the rules of the road seems to decrease each day.
Join the Somerville Community Land Trust board
Following on the heels of residents moving into their first homes, the Somerville Community Land Trust is holding its first official Board of Directors election this fall. The board meets monthly to review the projects underway at Somerville CLT and direct strategy for the organization. There is room to get very involved in events, fundraising, etc., or to act in a more advisory capacity. Somerville CLT's 15-person board is elected by the Somerville community and split into three groups:
- General Somerville community members
- Somerville CLT property residents
- Representatives of the Public Interest
Somerville CLT is hosting info sessions in the coming weeks. The first is Sunday, August 20 at 11:30 AM on Zoom, followed by an in-person meeting at Connexion in East Somerville on a weekday evening (date TBD). The election will take place the weekend of October 14-15. Click here nominate someone -- or yourself!
Summer construction updates
In a city full of construction, this month is managing to feel even busier than normal on the street construction front, particularly if you live in East Somerville. Badly-needed work on both Pearl Street and Cross Street have been underway for a bit, and they're due to wrap shortly, with paving scheduled for Pearl Street on Friday! (Update: Rain has pushed this work back to Monday, August 21 and Tuesday, August 22.) Meanwhile, work continues on on the Spring Hill Sewer Separation Project (including Highland Ave) and the McGrath Highway.
Multi-member body openings
Serving on a multi-member body (boards, committees, and commissions) is a great way to take an active role in your city and contribute to the community. The Administration currently is seeking members for three multi-member bodies:
- Somerville Commission on Energy Use and Climate Change
- Somerville Public Library Board of Trustees
- Somerville Commission for Persons with Disabilities
Please consider applying for one of these openings!
I'm really enjoying serving as your Councilor-At-Large and I hope the voters of Somerville feel the same way about me. To that end, I'm holding a fundraiser for my re-election campaign on the afternoon of Sunday, August 27. I'll share details on the event and location shortly, but please mark your calendars and join me to talk about what we want to accomplish next term. Campaign contributions of any amount are appreciated but definitely not required to attend.
If you don't want to wait for a fundraiser event to contribute, you can do that any time here. And if you'd like to help out in non-monetary ways as well, I'm looking for folks to host gatherings of friends and neighbors this fall, as well as campaign volunteers to knock doors. Please reply to this email if you're interested.
Did You Know...
The City of Somerville has strict rules around the removal of trees, and there are penalties for not following these rules. You can find out details here.
I'm going taking some time with family this week and next, so I'm not holding my regular weekly office hours this weekend. Office hours will resume on Sunday, August 27.
If you'd prefer to meet individually, I'm also continuing to offer on-demand office hours to fit your schedule via my Calendly.
The week ahead
The City Council returns from our summer recess with our regular meeting on Thursday, August 24 at 7 PM in the council chamber.
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