Leaders in Lawrence are expressing frustration that their city has become a destination for homeless people in the region and are calling on other communities and the state to help share the burden.
Public works crews on Tuesday began clearing out two homeless encampments located near bridge underpasses along the Merrimack River, citing public health concerns because of trash at the campsites. Mayor De Peña’s office said the city is seeking grants to support its shelters and cleanup efforts, and has been helping homeless people who were displaced from the riverside campsites find shelter.
Lawrence City Council President Marc Laplante said the city’s strong network of human service organizations and substance abuse treatment programs attract homeless people from other communities.
“We do have a lot of individuals who are not from Lawrence who find that this place is a place that can take care of many of their needs,” said Laplante. “And while we are a very generous city, it cannot be just the city of Lawrence's problem. It’s a regional issue that needs to be combated, not just municipality by municipality.”
Jessica Andors, the director of Lawrence Community Works, a community development organization that helps build affordable housing, challenged the claim that people are coming to the city just because of its human services network. She said social services in the city largely support families who already live in the area.
But Andors agrees that neighboring communities in the Merrimack Valley need to do more to help, specifically, by developing more housing. She noted that new construction in Lawrence has not kept pace with demand.
“Rental prices have increased astronomically in the last three to four years,” she said.
Not far from one of the riverside encampments, a supervisor at one of four free meal sites in Lawrence said that close to half of the people they serve coming for food are likely unhoused, and an increasing number have recently arrived in Lawrence.
“We have our regulars, but now we're getting a lot of new people. We can tell they come from different cities,” said Enny Santos, who oversees interns at Cor Unum Meal Center in South Lawrence.
Santos said in the last year, the number of dinner meals they’re serving has increased from 150 to 250 a night.
There are several other encampments in the city, said Laplante, including underneath a cloverleaf of bridges at I-495.
Underneath the north side of Casey Bridge Wednesday, a black mattress under a tangle of blankets lay on the gravel and dirt by the concrete footings. Elsewhere on the ground were socks, food wrappers and plastic foam containers. The constant sound of vehicles rattled on the roadway overhead.
“We have to be empathetic, which means we have to understand these individuals … are trying to find ways to exist,” Laplante said. “We can't be blind to that. But when I talk to our staff in the city, they feel an incredible burden of trying to help out. And it's a burden that we cannot deal with unilaterally."
Jorge Jaime, director of the city’s public works department, said it will take workers weeks to clear trash from encampments along the river and could fill nearly a dozen dumpsters.
“It’s not just about the cost,” said Jaime. "If I have 10 employees there, I can’t mow the parks and pick up trash downtown or mark the ballfields for games."
“If we don’t take care of the homeless over there, they will come back and the trash will come back,” he added.
Back in South Lawrence near the Merrimack River, residents of the Southside Apartments rooming house where a small room costs $625 a month said there are few vacancies left in their building. But rooming houses offer one of the remaining sources of affordable housing and often a way out of being homeless.
“For my job and income, it’s convenient for me to be in a place like this so I don't end up on homeless under a bridge myself,” said Jose Alicea, 49, who works temporary jobs for a chocolate company and clothing factory. “I live paycheck to paycheck, but I'm not on the street.”