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Policing of Unhoused PEOPLE IN CAMBRIDGE: Initial Research Findings


At the onset of COVID-19, unhoused community members were forced to choose between two bad options: stay inside crowded congregate shelters where COVID rates would soar or live outside. Some shelters closed or reduced their capacity. Non-congregate shelters in Cambridge, where people could socially isolate and live in healthy ways, did not exist until December 2020, over six months into the pandemic. As calls to “stay at home” were issued at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, unhoused community members in Cambridge had no safe place to “shelter in place” and were largely left alone on the empty streets, hyper-visible. We know this hyper-visibility can be intensified for Black and Brown residents living unhoused. The Cambridge Police and the ambassadors of Central Square Business Improvement District (BID) forced people to shuffle between public locations with nowhere to go. Community members shared these experiences of increased incidents of police surveillance, coercion and harassment, as well as move-along orders during drop-in, on outreach, and at our organizing meetings. 

These concerns, alongside many others, sparked MAAP’s staff and unhoused organizers to set up blank whiteboards for people to share their unmet needs, organizing priorities, and solutions. The priorities that people laid out - and conversations around the specific ways the police and policing entities are harmful to people’s health and safety motivated MAAP’s unhoused organizers and staff, in partnership with researchers from Boston Medical Center to develop a mixed-methods survey about unhoused people’s experiences with the police and policing, and vision for a non-carceral crisis response team. The team interviewed 113 unhoused community members in Cambridge. The survey revealed the extent of policing and criminalization of people who are surviving poverty in public, people who use drugs, and people who experience challenges with their mental health by different policing entities, including the Cambridge Police, MA State Police, University Police, the MBTA Police, the Central Square Business Improvement District (BID), the shelter system, and private citizens through “complaint-oriented policing.” People shared their vision for an anti-carceral crisis response team centered around the need for a program that uplifts people’s personal autonomy, mediates between businesses and the unhoused community, meets people’s most basic and daily needs, and affirms people’s right to survive and spend time in public space. 

We are excited to share initial findings of our 2021 research while we continue to collaborate with our community members and research partners to analyze data and findings, and prepare a final report on the impact of policing and criminalization on the unhoused community in Cambridge. This report will present how we can best support the unhoused community by asking the experts on homelessness: people who are living unhoused in Cambridge. Using the specific and nuanced expertise of the unhoused community, we will provide a framework for an alternative crisis response that does not involve the police, and is outside any carceral system. We also include a comprehensive set of recommendations for the city of Cambridge that are based on evidence and best practices to lessen the unhoused community’s interactions with the police, reduce fatalities related to overdose, and break the cycle of homelessness that is a result of punitive and moralistic policies. The recommendations provide concrete ways to support the unhoused community in caring for each other and serve as a blueprint for strategic investments (and divestments) for the City of Cambridge.

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