Worcester police arrested three people for refusing to leave a downtown homeless encampment on Wednesday night.

Activists, including people who are homeless, had set up the handful of tents in the parking lot of Worcester’s 60-bed temporary emergency shelter late Tuesday. The encampment was meant to be for people who’ve been denied beds at the shelter, which has been at capacity.

With hundreds of unhoused people in the city, the organizers argued that Worcester lacks enough safe shelter spaces. The shortage of beds has stemmed in part from multiple other shelters in Worcester closing in the past year.

The people at the encampment initially didn’t experience any resistance from the police. But they said that changed Wednesday afternoon when officers and representatives from the agency running the shelter — the South Middlesex Opportunity Council — accused them of trespassing. The shelter staff agreed to let more people in, and in return organizers would have to disassemble the tents.

When the activists responded that the offer didn’t meet their demands for more safe shelter spaces citywide, and they refused to leave, police began arresting them.

“One of the things that stands out to me from this experience is the lack of willingness to listen and to understand the lived experiences and the words of the people who are surviving homelessness and the opiate pandemic,” said Addison Turner, who helped organize the encampment and was arrested.

None of the homeless people sleeping at the encampment were arrested. Some of them decided to accept a spot in the shelter.

A spokesman for the Worcester Police Department said one of the activists who was arrested faces charges of assault and battery on a police officer. The spokesman deferred further comment to city officials.

In a statement, Worcester City Manager Eric Batista said officials made repeated efforts to bring people staying in the tents into the shelter without confrontation. Batista said he was disappointed about the way the events unfolded but did not elaborate about why police ended up clearing the encampment.

“The City of Worcester, SMOC [South Middlesex Opportunity Council], and partner agencies place a high priority on the safety, security, and quality of life of those experiencing homelessness and remain committed to finding viable solutions that meet everyone’s needs,” Batista said.

The South Middlesex Opportunity Council has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

The temporary emergency shelter opened in December as a way for people to avoid the cold. Shelter staff have required that people fill out an application before giving out beds on a first-come, first-served basis.

Activists said they were frustrated that the shelter has 45 beds for men but just 15 for women. Staff also have not been allowing trans people in, according to Turner and Jennifer Baez, a transgender woman who says she was turned away from the shelter.

Worcester’s shortage of safe spaces for women has become increasingly acute after one of the only overnight women’s shelters in the area closed in part because the city stopped funding it. No new women’s shelter has opened as a replacement. As a result, Turner said many homeless women, a lot of whom are survivors of sexual assault and the sex trade, have nowhere safe to go.

“I’d put it as just misogyny with the shelters and services that are available,” he said.

Krystle Beeso, a homeless woman who spent Tuesday night at the encampment, added that the police department’s sweep exemplifies the Catch-22 for many homeless people in Worcester. If they camp outside and don’t go to a shelter, police officers threaten to arrest them and clear their encampment. But with shelters full, all they can do is camp outdoors.

“Where can we go? I don’t choose to stay outside,” Beeso said.

A Worcester spokesman said the number of beds reserved for men and women in the emergency shelter is based on U.S. Census data for homeless people in Worcester. The allocation of beds can be adjusted based on need, the spokesman said.

The encampment sweep came a day after Worcester City Council discussed an increase in homeless people seeking shelter during the day in the city’s downtown public library. During an interview Thursday, vice chair of the council Khrystian King said the encampment and subsequent arrests reflected the shortcomings of the response to homelessness in Worcester and beyond.

“We have to continue to build towards making sure that we have capacity for this population,” he said. “That folks … have safe spaces in our shelters.”

Updated: January 13, 2024
This story was updated to clarify that the activists at the encampment included people who are homeless.
Updated: January 12, 2024
This story was updated with additional details on the city’s reason for the gender split of the emergency shelter.
Updated: January 11, 2024
This story has been updated to include a response from city officials and the Worcester Police Department.