The Stone Soup situation

How gentrification, addiction and homelessness are putting the squeeze on a true Worcester gem

There are few places in Worcester more important to the city’s small but active group of grassroots activists than Stone Soup. The quaint-looking house on King Street has housed some of the city’s most righteous and active organizations for years, operating as a collective with the shared goal of building a better world from the ground up.

Stone Soup is also in grave danger of falling apart as the powerful cocktail of gentrification and a worsening addiction and homelessness problem descend on Stone Soup and its surrounding neighborhood in a way that is likely unmatched anywhere else in the city.  

Last week, Stone Soup made the news after a smash-and-grab robbery that caused an estimated $12,000 in property damage and stolen equipment. Future Focus Media, a co-op which helps city youth produce videos and other media, lost cameras and hard drives and other such equipment they need to do what they do, and nearly every other office was broken into and ransacked in some way.

But the story of Stone Soup—and the King Street area and Main South in general—it goes a lot deeper than one smash-and-grab robbery. Stone Soup is in the middle of what we might generally call a containment zone. What I mean by that is the cops will push the homeless and drug users away from other areas of the city, but once they hit that stretch of Main Street, they can stay. That’s where they’re allowed to be because that’s the “bad neighborhood” so who cares, right? One of the many activists I interviewed for this story, harm reduction specialist Leo Sun, put it this way: “This is where the cops chase people to then leave them alone.”

On a recent afternoon I went by Stone Soup to grab a picture of it in its new boarded-up state, and the activity of drug users and the drug dealers they rely on was apparent. Four guys were posted up on a fence across the street arguing about how much they should be charging for a “ball.” Two other obviously not sober guys got into a car, immediately smashed the rear bumper into a granite post, then drove off going way too fast for a residential street. There’s been a hot-wired moped mysteriously parked behind Stone Soup with two bags of who-knows-what next to it for the better part of a week and one of the organizers I spoke to said she called the cops and the cops came and surprise surprise, they didn’t do anything and the bike is presumably still there. Organizers have told me stories of people shooting up behind the building and in the building. Organizers are also split on whether or not that’s a good thing, a difficult subject which I will get into later in this piece. But the internal drama of Stone Soup is less important than the outside forces which have exacerbated it. 

Our elected leaders are so quick to say that Worcester is going through a “renaissance” propelled by luxury apartment developments and a baseball stadium and an absurd number of hotel developments and all this other “new investment” which we should celebrate for reasons which are still a little unclear to me. Nevertheless, everyone with money is in on the game. Now is the time to buy property in Worcester, they say. Values are on the rise! There’s money to be made in this narrative of a city on the move. It almost doesn’t matter whether it’s true. If people believe it they’ll be willing to spend more money to cash in on it. It’ll be all sunshine and speculative roses until the market inevitably crashes again and we say ahhh crap, couldn’t have seen this coming, guess we have to cut some teachers this year to pay off our PawSox loan. This from today, by the way.

Ha ha it’s all good tho!!

This is all to say that if you look at King Street, the renaissance narrative rings especially hollow. For regular, working class people, the real estate gold rush that Worcester leaders call a renaissance has exactly one effect: it raises rents. It makes the ~nice~ parts of the city less attainable. It further concentrates poverty in the areas of the city that police have over decades of containment policy dictated to be the poor parts of the city. Policy aimed at increasing property value without significant investment in services for the homeless and the near-homeless is the sort of sadism that results in areas like King Street having an unmanageable population of drug users left to their own devices. Since the pandemic hit, Stone Soup has been mostly empty. An unoccupied building in the middle of a street where drug users are increasingly pushed to congregate. What did you think was going to happen?

So what is the city doing about it? They’re moving to put Stone Soup into city receivership. They’re trying to take the property away from the activists who have made it such a special place for so many years. In a Sept. 3 letter, the city initiated what is called a “receivership action” to “divest the corporation of ownership of the property and place it in the hands of a third-party receiver” for violations of the city’s sanitary code. Trash on the property, basically. The city is creating an untenable situation for Stone Soup then blaming them for it and trying to get rid of them. Totally normal behavior. Heart of the Commonwealth. 

Stone Soup board member Matt Feinstein told me that they’ve received the letter and are still crafting a plan on how to respond, so this is very much a developing situation and Stone Soup could use all the support it can get

To help their case, they’ve taken action to drive away the population. They’ve boarded up all the windows and they’ve written big “no trespassing” signs. They’ve voted to discontinue any harm reduction practices, like letting people in to use the bathroom or letting people sleep on the property. In order to save their collective from destruction at the hands of City Hall, they have to do the same thing City Hall does. Push ‘em away. Put ‘em somewhere else. Make it someone else’s problem. As the problem of gentrification in Worcester worsens, the areas where you can effectively push them to get smaller and smaller, and then one day we’ll be in the position of watching our city leaders consider bulldozing a homeless camp like they’re doing in Philly right now.

Here’s where I’m going to get into some of the internal Stone Soup drama in a way that is surely going to piss off everyone involved if I’m doing it right, but I am going to tread carefully because these are all good people with good intentions. But it’s important because there are competing philosophies on how we should be handling the problem of addiction, and the debate I’m going to play out here is one that I think most people don’t really think about and haven’t been exposed to in any significant way. It centers around the concept of harm reduction, which generally means taking steps to make sure drug users don’t die. There’s various ways of going about this, but it can include giving drug users needles, giving them a place to crash, building trust, advocating for them, and helping them to advocate for themselves. At the heart, it’s about treating drug users like people, accepting that there’s nothing you can do about drug use, and attempting to build a better world for them. 

Some of the people associated with one of the groups in Stone Soup, EPOCA, which stands for ex-prisoners and prisoners organizing for community advancement, used Stone Soup as a place to practice harm reduction strategies. They would let people into the space to use the bathroom and shower, use the community garden out back as a place to meet, and generally try to be a sympathetic ally to the poor and desperate people who are suffering through the throes of addiction. Sun, who I quoted earlier in this piece, is one of those people. We talked last week and they shared stories of gardening with drug users, healing wounds like an infected foot, and building relationships. From Sun’s perspective, recent action to shut the building off from the population of drug users around it have worsened tensions that eventually culminated in the smash-and-grab break-in. 

“This is not the first break-in nor will it be the last,” they said. “That’s not a threat, that’s reality. This building is unoccupied in the middle of King Street and the only changes that are happening that impact the homeless community and drug-using community, the community that is surviving poverty, are just more physical changes to prevent them from access to the things they need.”

The break-in, they said, may have come from frustration with the changes. 

“It’s valid that the harder it is to get in to use the bathroom every night, the angrier you are when you get in,” they said. 

But while Sun and others involved with EPOCA have made harm reduction their focus, that is not the mission of other organizations which share the space. Worcester Earn-A-Bike recently left due to feeling unsafe in the space, and a new member of the collective, Our Story Edutainment, has been working to clean up the space and better secure it. I caught up with Sha-Asia Medina and Parlee Jones of Our Story a few days ago. Our Story’s mission is to promote and center the stories of Worcester’s African American community, and they hope to use their new Stone Soup location as a meeting place for the community. The activity of drug users in and around the space makes them feel unsafe, makes others feel unsafe, and makes the property difficult to use as a meeting place, they said. 

“Stone Soup right now does not have the capacity to handle this problem,” said Medina. “We know that the homelessness problem is real and needs to be addressed, the mental health issue as well, but at this point in time because of the receivership and being at risk of losing the building, any kind of harm reduction or substantial support of folks that are outside is not something we can take on. Maybe in a year we can revisit that.”

This is an opinion shared by Feinstein as well. 

“The main goal of Stone Soup is to be a home for grassroots organizations. We want to focus on changing systems and systems of oppression and creating a new economy,” he said. “How much we can do on our doorstep, that’s the internal discussion and debate and conflict. We’re in consensus that we want to focus on social justice work and upstream issues.”

In my conversation with Sun, they said they were sympathetic to the argument that this problem is too big for Stone Soup to take on. 

“I think there is a very realistic concern and critique in that there isn’t the structural funding or support, but that doesn’t mean that we have zero capacity and have to lock our doors forever because we can’t help everyone,” they said. “These people have no hope at all. If you had just helped them by offering the space, we would not be in this position right now.”

So that’s generally the debate. There are some other things going on with EPOCA and the Stone Soup collective that are crappy but not interesting to a wider audience so I’m not going to get into it. But the debate over harm reduction, and using the Stone Soup space for it, I really, really struggle with this. As I was leaving my conversation with Medina and Jones, I remember thinking “shit, this is a lot.”

On the one hand, I agree with the philosophy that drug users should be treated as people and they should be helped and I think the people out there doing that are totally righteous. On the other hand, Stone Soup is not a place designed solely to do that, nor is it a homeless encampment, and the practice of harm reduction in a collective space shared by people with other goals in mind… I mean, I understand the frustration. People in the throes of addiction do the things that people in the throes of addiction do. They break in and they steal and they lie and they do whatever it takes to get high. Harm reduction means accepting this and helping them anyway and building the sort of trust that humanizes both you and them, but if harm reduction isn’t your thing, that’s a crappy and dangerous sort of environment to be around. As Sun probably correctly argued, a Stone Soup that is open and loving to the drug users around it is probably not a Stone Soup that gets ransacked. As Medina probably correctly argued, it’s not worth the risk, and it makes people feel unsafe. It’s a really tough question!  

But on the other other hand, if Stone Soup can’t even do it, no one is going to do it. Where are these people supposed to go? We as a society so badly fail to properly care for them. We dump them in the ~bad neighborhoods~ and leave it up to the people there to figure it out. In Worcester we have one homeless shelter, Queen Street, and conditions there are so bad that people would rather sleep in the woods or on the street even in the dead of winter so we have an ad hoc homeless shelter, The Hotel Grace, that opens on the coldest nights of the year so those people don’t freeze to death.

If you have good intentions and lend your space, you can be quickly overrun because no one else is going to do it. 

The easier route, unfortunately, is to say “not in my back yard” and try to kick the problem to some other neighborhood, some other town. With this receivership process, the city has Stone Soup by the proverbial gonads, and they’re forced to do the same or lose everything they’ve been working to build for years. 

Next to the front door of Stone Soup, written in chalk, there’s a message.

Hey you!!!

We are not a shelter. But if you are in need, try: 25 Queen Street. Be in by 4:30 p.m. Must have I.D.

Try: Hotel Grace. 4 Temple Street. Run by Pastor Richie.

Stay safe

Stay warm

Stay hopeful

Some rennaissance.

~/~

If you liked this piece consider liking sharing and subscribing my sweet babies! This is one of the more substantially reported pieces I’ve written and it took a lot of time, so I’d like to work less at my other job and have more time to report thank you 

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On Saturday Sept. 26 I will be performing a set of songs by the late great Townes Van Zandt at Ralph’s Rock Diner so you should come out to that if that’s your thing and help support the best bar in the world. I’m playing by myself outside on the patio and they take COVID seriously there and are absolutely brutal to people who don’t wear masks I mean they’ll really yell at you. So mask up and come on down!

Here’s Townes with a song that’s extremely relevant to the story above.