"Options were offered"
The city demolished a homeless encampment because Walmart asked them to
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The city demolished a homeless encampment behind the Walmart on Wednesday after Walmart asked them to.
They demolished it. They threw away tents. They sent people packing. They gave people there 20 minutes to grab what they could before bringing in the trucks and clearing it out. Everyone who was living there, as derelict and inadequate a situation as it was, is now in a worse position.
There are technically three parties involved in the demolition. Part of the encampment was on Providence-Worcester Railroad property, part of it was on state property, and a combination of City Hall employees and police officers removed the people there. So it was a combined effort of the city, the state and the railroad. For the purposes of simplicity and clarity, I am just going to say “the city” from here on out. Yeah, there might be some people in City Hall going hey that wasn’t the city that was the railroad or whatever. But to that I say yes in fact it was the fucking city. Cops and city employees went down there, broke up a homeless encampment and threw people’s stuff out. There is no wiggling out of that. “Ohhh no you’re wrong it was actually the railroad that rented the dumpster.” Shut the fuck up and ask yourself if it matters to any of the dozens of people who are now further displaced and in a more vulnerable position which agency or company did what. It doesn’t. It doesn’t matter to me and it shouldn’t matter to my readers. At the end of the day, it was the cops at the behest of City Hall. I’m writing this knowing it directly contradicts much of what I was told by city officials. More on that later.
At the scene yesterday afternoon, a dumpster near the camp was filled to the brim with chairs, coolers, tarps and tents among other things. It was there, right next to the camp, and I was looking at it some 12 hours after I was told by city officials that everyone got to take all their stuff with them. I called out to a man gathering things in a push cart just below the bike path that cuts behind the Walmart and I asked him what happened on Wednesday.
“They took everything,” he said. And I asked to talk to him more, but he was in a rush. I took his number and went on my way. I haven’t been able to get back in touch with him.
In the area—and I’m not going to say where for obvious reasons—I came across an almost unnoticeable trail, akin to a deer trail, heading into the woods. It led to a small cluster of tents, well hidden behind a dense thicket of bushes and vines. Steven, who didn’t feel comfortable having his picture taken or giving his last name, was organizing things around his camp when I approached him. I gave him a cigarette and we got to talking. He was one of the people living at the homeless encampment and he lost everything but the clothes on his back. Since, his friend has been letting him stay at his camp.
“There was like maybe 40 of us in there and the cops came in and there was maybe 30 cops. They were all like pack it up it's time to go. It's time to go. If you're not out of here in 20 minutes, we're taking everything,” he said.
Steven’s a young Hispanic man, maybe 25, and he looked exhausted. His big brown eyes carried an honesty and an exasperated sadness. He spoke softly and plainly, with little emotion. He articulated injustices in the manner of someone quite used to injustice.
“So people that weren’t there to get their stuff... They came in with trucks and fuckin plows and plowed through that shit. Took everything away. So, um, a lot of us lost our shit. I lost my shit. I was in the hospital at the time, so all my stuff was gone.
"We had to start over. It sucked, you know? Cuz they didn't give us no warning. They gave us 20 minutes to grab our shit. So we grabbed what we could grab but we had to go. I lost all my clothes. They were going from tent to tent, throwing it in the back of the truck. We've been here for a couple years now, so all the stuff we accumulated over the years. And then you've got the outreach people always coming in and bringing us food and stuff, and they fucked all that up too.”
At the very least, the camp was a point of contact. A way for doctors and social workers and aid groups to reliably find and help these people. This was a point stressed to me by several of the people who helped the folks at this camp. They had a point of contact and they had a rapport. Now, they’re scattered. They’re harder to find and they’re less trusting.
“It was just fucked up what they did to us,” Steven said. “They didn't give us no warning. Tent, clothes, shoes, all our camping stuff, cooking supplies. Like stuff that we really couldn't grab right away. All gone.”
I got the head of the “quality of life team” and the city’s director of public health on the phone Friday afternoon and asked why they demolished the camp. Mattie Castiel, the aforementioned director of public health, went all woah woah woah buddy there’s a problem with your language there we didn’t demolish anything. I said oh okay do explain what you did then. The explanation I got is that the cops and the cop-adjacent homelessness team in City Hall went to the camp and told everyone they had to skedaddle and then anything they left behind was thrown in the garbage. They gave the people several weeks of heads up that they were going to come in and destroy their home and then they went in and destroyed their home. Dan Cahill, the guy in charge of the quality of life team, said everyone took their stuff with them. They only threw out two or three tents that were vacant, he said. I’d like to point out that this statement is evidently contradictory to what Steven and the other guy told me, as well as what other people have told me off the record because they’re scared shitless of retribution from the city.
I don’t really see the difference whether it’s cops with guns giving you 20 minutes to scram or it’s a bulldozer. It accomplishes the same thing. These people had a place to stay and now they don’t. But the firsthand accounts of bulldozers along with the dumpster full of tents and chairs near the camp and the bulldozer-sized tracks in the mud certainly call the official account into question. Woah there Castiel said there’s a problem with your language. We didn’t demolish anything.
Erik Garcia, a doctor at UMass who works with these people, said that while he wasn’t sure what prompted the removal, he felt it was done with good intentions. I tend to disagree but we don’t know for a fact why the camp was demolished. More on that later.
Garcia also credited the quality of life team for the several weeks of outreach before the camp was finally vacated. But, he said, the camp was a place where people like him could find these folks. Now they’re scattered and they don’t trust anyone.
“I am in agreement that living in a tent outside where there’s no proper sanitation, no security, is not ideal for anybody. I support that idea,” he said. “However, I think if we don’t have adequate facilities that people are willing to access, then the solution of simply bulldozing people’s belongings, and moving people on to yet another location is not the answer.”
“The net result,” he continued, “is that people were displaced and for many, many reasons did not choose to go into the shelter. Now they are outside without tents and sleeping bags and medications.”
Dr. Garcia knew these people. He treated injuries, got them medication, and came to learn their stories. He learned, crucially, that there were people in that encampment who had housing vouchers but couldn’t use them.
“There was simply no place for them to go,” he said.
Halfway through Castiel and Cahill defending both the removal of the camp and the city’s overall philosophy as it relates to the homeless, I pressed Castiel on that point. How is it, I asked, that people in a homeless encampment could have housing vouchers and nowhere to use the voucher?
“That’s part of the city’s housing shortage and we need to figure that out,” she told me.
Oh so you’re saying there are people literally living in tents and being labeled public health issues because there’s not enough affordable housing in this city?
Talk to the Worcester Housing Authority, she said. The backlog is crazy. There are so many vouchers and nowhere to place people, she said. We’re working on it, she said.
But until the city starts really working on that affordable housing problem which is the direct result of its economic development strategy we just can’t have people living in tents. We need to break the encampments up so they can go… somewhere else… not a house cuz there aren’t any of those lol but somewhere else. Find a new place to set up your tents so in six months we can send the “quality of life team” and some cops back in to tell you to move again and throw your shit out. Seems like a good plan, doesn’t it?
City officials told me they went in there because they were getting a lot of complaints from the neighbors, which… sure. I bet. Homeless people are often addicted to drugs and/or mentally ill and they are sometimes forced by their economic situations and addictions to do dumb things. Breaking up an encampment doesn’t fix that problem at all. It just moves it somewhere else. Also, people have horribly shitty attitudes toward the homeless and any neighbor complaining about the fact they’re simply there is a bad person. Sometimes that bad person is a global corporation.
A grim little detail I was able to confirm is that one of the complaining neighbors was Walmart. Dan Cahill confirmed this to me on the phone. I asked if Walmart was one of these neighbors that made the city do this and he gave a little pause then grumbled that there were a lot of people complaining but yeah Walmart was one of them.
I don’t suggest chewing on that fact too long because that’s one hell of a way to read this story. Walmart called the cops on the small homeless encampment behind its corporate-colonial outpost in our city. The cops dutifully responded to the complaint, sending the Worcester residents there further into hiding and desperation for the sake of a corporation that pays starvation wages to its employees. The majority of its employees live in neighborhoods where rents are increasingly untenable for people living on starvation wages and that’s an economic reality pushing people further and further toward homelessness every day. Walmart and corporations like it put a massive strain on our already beleaguered welfare state. A 2020 report by the Government Accountability Office found that Walmart was among the top four employers of people receiving federal assistance in each of the five states studied and one of the states they studied was freakin Mass baby. Now that’s what I call welfare fraud! So this massively profitable corporation could easily treat its employees well and they wouldn’t need state assistance. Instead, the company puts the burden on the government, straining an already too-thin social safety net for the benefit of its shareholders.
Zooming back in on our hometown Walmart and the homeless encampment behind it, this company which treats its employees like shit to the point it burdens the government then calls the government and asks it to get rid of the homeless encampment. The government goes down to the homeless folks there and it says hey we’re going to kick you out in a couple weeks, can I offer you a stay in one of our horribly underfunded and decrepit homeless shelters? Or can I interest you in one of our state-funded addiction treatment programs that have been means-tested to death and you might not even qualify for it and oh yeah you need a state ID to access it do you have one of those or the five other documents required to get one oh you don’t? Oh too bad we tried tho make sure you tell people we tried to help you. And then they just kick you out and if you’re lucky you get to break your tent down first.
“Our main goal is to get these people connected to services,” Cahill told me. “Unfortunately there’s gonna come a time when we have to do something and move them along if they’re not going to listen.”
Walmart was not the only complaining party, according to city officials. Lots of people in the area were uncomfortable with the camp, they said, and there were needles and piss and shit. People walking on the bike path over there felt uncomfortable doing so, they said. So it’s a balancing act, you know? You have to understand that we as City Officials are trying our best to deal with this problem ensuring all parties are justly heard and their qualms resolved. I mean you have neighbors and businesses over there and they were on private property after all. They were trespassing you know. We can’t have regular folks walk past these people in their hard-earned leisure time.
Another grim detail to consider here is the whole bike path element. Cahill told me that the city started reaching out to these people telling them they gotta move it in mid-September. There has been some homeless presence in that area for years, and over the past six months, since the city did the same thing to another homeless camp that the guys down there call “the mountain,” the camp has grown bigger. So it’s not some new thing.
Last week, the City of Worcester held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the newly created Gateway Park Arch, an illuminated piece of public art created by local artists which serves as the entrance into the beautiful new Blackstone Gateway Park which features the wonderful new Blackstone River Valley Heritage Center. It’s right across the street from the homeless encampment. You had the mayor there and the city manager and all sorts of other dignitaries and they talked about how this park is such a wonderful new resource for the city! This is what Spectrum News quoted Ed Augustus saying at the ceremony.
“That is the vision. That’s why we’re doing all these parks over — to create the opportunity to do this,” City Manager Ed Augustus said during the ribbon cutting ceremony. “That brings people out. To have neighbors discover each other, make connections and find a sense of community in their neighborhood.”
A new sense of community in their neighborhood, he says. This guy. This freakin guy.
How much coincidence are we willing to accept in this situation? The city administration unveils a new feather in its cap, a new resource for the taxpaying, home owning public. New evidence of a city on the rise! And a week later a homeless camp that may mar that image, that may throw the basic premise into question, is disbanded and the people there are forced to relocate elsewhere, to a new place where they’ll be a new public health problem to a new set of taxpaying, homeowning abutters. And the abutters will complain and the cops will come in and throw away their shit and tell them to get moving again.
Given the tendency of government to always move a bit slower than planned it’s not unreasonable to think the idea was to get rid of this homeless encampment before the ribbon cutting ceremony. If that’s the case they were only a week late so that’s pretty good.
Or this headline here on the matter from MassLive: “New archway at Blackstone Gateway Park represents latest addition to ‘secret sauce’ of Worcester Renaissance”
Well we certainly can’t have a visual representation of our collapsing social safety net so close to the newest visual representation of our secret sauce now can we? Whatever the fuck that means?
That arch is maybe 500 feet from the demolished homeless encampment. You can see it if you’re over there. I’m sure the arch looks lovely at night! The soft light of that glowing arch off in the distance—and all the secret sauce of this city’s amazing renaissance contained within it—well it probably licked the sides of those tents like a campfire in those few short days they were allowed to co-exist with it. I bet the people at the camp felt a whole new sense of community about it like Ol Ed said.
Yeah the ribbon cutting is another detail I wouldn’t suggest chewing on for very long.
The question of “why now” is still very much an open one. The answer I got from city officials is that it’s a public health issue and people (Walmart) were complaining. But that doesn’t really answer the question. That doesn’t provide a clear imperative for why the camp had to be wholesale cleared out on a Wednesday in October. It had been there for long enough. The unveiling of the Gateway Arch a few hundred feet away brings us closer to possibly answering the question, but it’s still conjecture, still an assumption. We don’t know why they chose to do this, and do it right when it’s starting to get cold out.
This story is so illustrative of the cold cruelty of bureaucracy and the way it’s weaponized against our most vulnerable residents. The banality of it.
The question of what this accomplished is also an open one. A very open one. To my mind breaking up a homeless encampment only drives people further away from help and into increasingly vulnerable positions. It’s another chip in the already cracked facade that this is a society that cares at all about these people. Garcia, the doctor I quoted earlier in the article, said he called around to the shelters and asked if they had any new check-ins Wednesday night from the encampment and none of them did. Cahill, the quality of life team guy, said three of the people they vacated checked into the Hotel Grace, a temporary shelter open only during the colder months. Either way, most of those people just had to find somewhere else to stay, like Steven did. All the city did for Steven was throw out his stuff.
“The city went in and talked to these folks ahead of time and offered a number of alternatives,” the city spokesman, Walter Bird, told me in our first conversation on the matter.
“Options were offered.”
Writing this put me in a bad mood so I’ll be brief with my usual postscript.
My work is funded 100 percent by the readers who choose to support me. I don’t even paywall anything it’s just a choice it’s just you saying “I’d like to have real independent fearless journalism in my city and that’s worth $5 bucks a month.”
I did a podcast with some cool folks down in Providence the other day about the sex education situation in Worcester and Shanel Soucy the anti-sex ed school committee candidate. The podcast is called Sex Ed Debunked and it’s all about the myths that scare parents away from sex education and why it’s actually good. It’s good stuff!
Here’s the link to the episode on Apple podcasts.
This is the anti-sex ed candidate, Shanel Soucy, apparently getting invited to South High to give a motivational speech? Go out there kids and try really hard to not be gay!
Friendly reminder that you can go vote for anyone but her as early as today and please please please at least by Nov. 2
Uhhhhh yeah that’s all bye bye
"When the only tool you have is a hammer" --obviously this isn't the biggest problem with what happened there, but if they cleared vegetation up to the river that is likely to be a Wetlands Protection Act violation. As a Conservation Commissioner I've asked Planning Dept. staff to investigate.