- Police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are trying to regain the trust of the city’s homeless population, which is three times the US average.
- Officers with the department’s Homeless Outreach Program check on homeless residents daily.
- We visited Cambridge to see whether the program is working, and whether another citywide social program could work better.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Officer Eric Helberg’s entire job is to check in on the homeless population of Cambridge, Massachusetts. He’s a part of the Homeless Outreach Program of the city’s police department.
“It’s easy to go in there with force, and force the person to cooperate,” Helberg says. “But once you’ve done that, the relationship is over, right?”
Officer Eric Helberg of the Cambridge Police Department’s homeless outreach program.
But the Cambridge Police Department hadn’t always used this kind of approach. As the city’s first Black, female superintendent, Christine Elow says the Cambridge Police Department once implemented hardline, zero-tolerance policies on those without homes.
“If you [saw] somebody drinking in public, [we’d] arrest them. And we did that for years, if not decades,” she said.
Now, the department is trying to do all it can to repair a strained relationship with the city’s homeless. But what could help is a different kind of approach, outside of the police department.
Developed in 2019, the Central Square Business Improvement District provides blankets, food, and support for the city’s homeless population. A unique part of this program are its ambassadors, many of whom were once homeless themselves.
That includes Paul White, who has been with the program for a couple of years and says homeless people in Cambridge trust them more than officers.
“We hear them, we listen to them, we understand them. We feel their pain because most of us been through it,” he said. “See, you have to really walk into those shoes to really understand what I’m saying.”
Paul White, right, an ambassador with the Central Square Business Improvement District.
Fanny Texier and Jordan Terrell
Still, many times in Cambridge, officers are the first on the scene. When we visited in July 2020, we followed Helberg’s daily patrol. Starting from the department located on the lower east side of the city, he made his way to Central Square, near the city’s center. It’s an area where many of those experiencing homelessness congregate.
Helberg quickly encountered a homeless woman named Jackie, who shared with him an alleged crime had been committed against her. After talking to her for a few minutes, he calls for medical aid and she heads to the hospital. About a decade ago, however, the department’s policies would’ve forced Helberg to arrest Jackie for public intoxication.
Helberg interacts with a homeless Cambridge resident, Jackie.
Changing how officers respond to issues related to homelessness was essential for Cambridge. The number of people living on the streets is almost three times higher than the national average. Helberg said that at any given time, the city has about 500 people living on the streets.
The problem is partly because of Cambridge’s skyrocketing housing prices. The average cost of a single-family home in 2019 was about $1.5 million, almost four times the national average. And while the standard rent for a one-bedroom is a little over $1,600 in the US, recent estimates show it’s much higher in Cambridge.
That can be costly for someone receiving little to no wages, like Cambridge resident Ray.
“I’ve been homeless for six months. I’m very educated, have a college degree.” Ray said. “I could go to work tomorrow, but how can I go to work without having a stable place? This can happen to anybody.”
Patrolling the city’s homeless used to be both challenging ineffective for the Cambridge Police Department. Officers rarely developed relationships with those who were unhoused. Instead, most interactions took place after an altercation or call for help. It would often lead to arrests for low-level crimes like loitering or drinking in public.
The Homeless Outreach Program was launched in 2007, two years before the department was placed in the national spotlight over the arrest of professor Henry Louis Gates in his own home in 2009.
Professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested in his own Cambridge home in 2009, turning the national spotlight onto the city’s policing.
At the time, Christine had recently been promoted to a new role, and she says for her, it felt like the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement in Cambridge.
“I think there’s a denial in some police circles about systemic racism and the impact that it has had on Black and brown communities,” she said.
“Some people feel like it’s their own fault, right? It’s well, you know, ‘If Black people worked harder, or if brown people worked harder, then they could find their way out of poverty and find their way to a successful life, the American dream.'”
As an officer, Christine says being seen as legitimate in the eyes of the community is crucially important.
“It’s really dealing with the whole person in whatever issue they’re dealing with,” she said. “We want to treat people with respect and dignity.”
Those on the receiving end often say they appreciate the department’s efforts, especially compared to police in other cities.
“Cambridge police is the most calm. I’ve been around police that whoop your ass,” one man said. Another woman said, “These police, I’m telling you right now, never hurt us. They help us up.”
Still, the department’s most recent report shows homeless arrests increased to almost 16% of the total arrests in 2015. That’s a lot for a group that accounts for less than 0.5% of the city’s population. The department says it’s now stopped tracking homeless arrests in recent years, partly because it’s challenging to prove whether someone is homeless.
But the department faced criticism in 2020 after residents demanded the reallocation of funds. Thousands showed their support for other community resources instead of the police. One alternative to policing in Cambridge is the Business Improvement District, or BIDs.
“My biggest hope is that I can get to one and their life can change,” Paul White said.
Fanny Texier and Jordan Terrell
Michael Monestime has served as the organization’s Executive Director since 2019, but his work is more important now than ever.
“We get more steps in than anybody in our district. We are omnipresent,” Monestime said of his team. “We wear bright, visible colors, so you can see us, you can alert us. That omnipresence is important. There’s been a decline in other sort of foot patrol that we’ve seen.”
Ambassadors for the team check in on homeless residents, walking around to different hotspots like needle exchanges, warming shelters, and bus stops. Their job is to connect with people, many times based off their own lived experiences.
That was the case for White, who now oversees a team of eight with BIDs.
“I ended up on the streets because I burned all my bridges with my loved ones,” he said. “You said it, I’d done it. I was a mess.”
Monestime says oftentimes, the police department can still be overly reactive to crimes, as opposed to proactively preventing them.
But while both organizations operate differently, BIDs still relies on the police for help when needed. For White, the police presence helps with the work he and his team does.
“They save a lot of lives,” he said. “There’s people overdosing every day, and the cops [are] on the scene.”
“It’s easy to go in there with force, and force the person to cooperate,” Helberg said. “But once you’ve done that, the relationship is over.”
The police department is slowly regaining its trust among the homeless population. Instead of arrests, officers are encouraged to file court orders that lead to treatment opportunities. The number of orders filed has tripled since the initiative began in 2013.
As the department’s superintendent, Elow says their goal is to figure out ways to break down barriers.
“It’s looking for alternatives to the criminal justice system for people who are suffering from mental health issues, or substance abuse, homelessness, and poverty,” she said.
For officers like Helberg, he says his role will always be to build relationships with his community.
“And do that in such a way that people don’t look at me with fear,” he said. “We look at each other with mutual respect.”
Even with all this effort, the city’s homelessness numbers remain steady, shedding light on a systemic problem that might not be solved with just one group.
But for White, it only takes one.
“My biggest hope is that I can get to one and their life can change,” he said.
The Insidexpress is now on Telegram and Google News. Join us on Telegram and Google News, and stay updated.