The Worcester City Council unanimously decided against a petition last week to allow tents in public spaces at temporary shelter for the city’s growing homeless population, while councilors called for other interim solutions during a tense discussion.
The City Council discussed Samantha Olney’s petition at their regular meeting Feb. 6, which would have allowed tents in public spaces as a temporary solution to homelessness, especially in the winter months. Olney is the director of Homeless Addicts Leadership Organization in Worcester, according to her petition, and is unhoused herself.
The petition also recommended guidelines for the people living in the tents, including capacity limits, trash disposal, and tent size. Olney wrote that allowing the tents would allow for a more inclusive atmosphere in Worcester and would protect people experiencing homelessness from being arrested.
“These things are needed to address the continually growing crisis of homelessness in the City of Worcester because most unhoused individuals know from previously lived experience that the city is NOT there to help,” Olney wrote. “We believe that the city would much rather push our issues to the side rather than deal with them directly.”
While the councilors voted unanimously to place the petition on file — meaning to stop considering it — after about an hour of discussion, they traded arguments about how to combat homelessness in the city.
Worcester’s homeless population is growing year to year due to high rents and the opioid epidemic, the Telegram & Gazette reported last year, and the second-largest city in Massachusetts is a hub of resources for unhoused people.
District 5 Councilor Etel Haxhiaj said that, while she agreed with filing the petition, Olney’s experiences living unhoused, as well as others, would be valuable to the city’s Homelessness Task Force. Haxhiaj was the only councilor applauded after speaking.
“I’m not endorsing the idea of people sleeping in parks. I am endorsing the idea of folks like Samantha coming to the table and joining the conversation,” Haxhiaj said. “I feel a genuine responsibility to protect my residents, to protect your rights to have a respectful, dignified solution. That is all I’m asking. Please invite those folks to the table.”
Last month, a homeless encampment was set up outside an emergency shelter in Worcester to protest the lack of shelter available for unhoused people, especially women, the Telegram & Gazette reported. The shelter opened in December with 45 beds for men and 15 beds for women.
District 3 Councilor George Russell spoke against the petition, citing safety concerns for residents and especially seniors. He said with encampments in public parks and near private land, residents say they “can’t enjoy (their) property.”
“I understand that folks that are in an encampment are in a desperate situation. What about the people that live right next door? What about the people who want to use the park? What about the families who want to use the park? What about the senior citizens who want to use the park?” Russell said.
The councilors also moved for the Worcester city manager to report to the council “how the city is engaging with the State to ensure funding for housing solutions for the city’s homeless population.”
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