Transform Harvard Dormitories into an Emergency Homeless Shelter for COVID-19 Crisis

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We are in the midst of a national emergency. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Harvard University has ordered undergraduates to leave campus and not to return following spring break. While heartbreaking for many in our college and university community, this situation has created the conditions for Harvard to take even stronger steps to ensure the welfare of everyone in our community and stem the tide of this pandemic by providing free housing and meals to all homeless persons in Cambridge until this crisis is resolved.

As I wrote in my letter to Lawrence Bacow, President of Harvard University, "You can read in the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, among other outlets, how this crisis is going to crush homeless shelters across the country, how difficult it is for the homeless to isolate themselves and practice social distancing, and how they often lack critical health information.

"We have the facilities, the resources, and the organizational wherewithal to implement an emergency shelter on campus. Whether that would be a distributed system using the Harvard Houses or a centralized shelter using the dorms in Harvard Yard, it is simply unthinkable not to do this and let our most vulnerable community members suffer and die on the doorsteps of the richest university in the world."

There are many logistical and legal challenges that Harvard will have to overcome to implement this emergency response, but, it is our moral and spiritual imperative to do so. And it is not without precedent in this crisis: in New York, there are plans underway to convert college dormitories into medical clinics and homeless shelters to meet the growing demand for hospital beds. 

Here in Cambridge, Councillor Marc McGovern, former mayor of Cambridge, is submitting a late policy order to the Cambridge City Council, an emergency provision, to urge the City of Cambridge to partner with local colleges and universities to convert their dormitories into life-saving facilities for the homeless. Here is the order:

Whereas: On any given night Cambridge has as many as 500 homeless men and women on our streets and in our shelters and 

Whereas: Many of our homeless residents are older and/or have underlying health conditions and

Whereas: Covid-19 is posing a threat to our community as a whole, but can be deadly to those with compromised immune systems and 

Whereas: In addition to lack of shelter, many shelters are not able to provide the CDC recommended six feet of social distancing and 

Whereas: Many of these shelters, along with churches, have cancelled their meals programs for the foreseeable future therefore be it

Ordered: That the City Manager is asked to work with all relative City Departments to develop a comprehensive plan on how to best support our homeless residents, shelters and the programs that support them, including, but not limited to, reaching out to area hotels and colleges about opening space for Cambridge’s homeless to have shelter, issuing emergency funds to shelters so they can stay open during the day, and including our homeless population in any food outreach being organized by the City.

Harvard University should be a partner in this plan. Harvard should use CDC guidelines to develop a housing plan for the 500 homeless people in our community, partner with local law enforcement, mental health providers, and social workers to ensure that the homeless in our community are safe and properly supervised in our dormitories, and set an example for colleges across the country who will have to make choices about how to meet the exigencies of this unprecedented moment in our nation's history.

Sign this petition to urge the President and Fellows of Harvard College to be good neighbors, to do justice to our community, and to take every step to ensure the welfare of our country, by transforming our dormitories into an emergency shelter for Cambridge's homeless population until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.