On Sept. 7, a houseless manentered Harleston Hall behind two students, looking for a place to stay for the night. When residents on the fourth floor found him asleep on a common room couch, they turned to the Tufts University Police Department to address the situation. However, the outcome of their concern was more severe than they likely expected. After being called, TUPD chose to arrest and charge the man with trespassing. He now awaits a criminal case in court.
Yolanda Smith, executive director of public safety, justified the decision to arrest the man in an email to the Daily, writing that TUPD officers rarely make arrests.
"The Harleston Hall case was unusual and involved circumstances that made an arrest the appropriate action, including -- but not limited to -- the fact that the person involved had trespassed more than once and been advised not to enter Tufts’ buildings.” Smith said in the email. “We have great compassion and empathy for those who might be unhoused or suffering from food insecurities. But we also must meet our responsibility to ensure that the Tufts community is safe for everyone. Students who encounter a trespasser in a residence hall should call TUPD, knowing that we will respond appropriately and sensitively and keep all parties safe and sound.”
What remains unclear, however, is why TUPD would react punitively despite students' claims that the man “never crossed the line of making someone uncomfortable.”
Tufts must recognize that the issue of houselessness is a complex issue that cannot be solved through either shallow warnings or baseless arrests. Rather, this form of punishment only leads to a vicious cycle of criminalization and economic hardship. To prevent the exacerbation of this through complicity sanctioned by the university, Tufts must implement a more restorative and productive approach to deal with safety issues of this nature.
As reported in Somerville’s Consolidation Action Plan for 2018–19, more than 500 people experience houselessness in Somerville every year. According to this plan, houseless individuals may suffer from chronic houselessness, issues of substance abuse or mental health issues and emergent health needs. Furthermore, Hispanic and Black populations are disproportionately exposed to poverty in comparison to the city’s white population. Shelters work extremely hard to support those in need, such as the Somerville Housing Coalition, which, as of 2020, has offered nearly 4,000 clients food, shelter and other services for as long as necessary. However, these organizations cannot physically address the needs of every houseless person living in Somerville. These limitations are compounded when factoring in rapidly rising home prices and financial burdens of COVID-19.
The issues facing the Medford/Somerville area are not unique and reflect a systemic failure to properly respond to and address houselessness. Large metropolitan areas like Boston utilize anti-houseless methods including hostile architecture and police intervention to forcefully prevent people facing houselessness from being in public spaces. The continued criminalization and repressive framework used by government bodies does little to actively combat the material issues of the houseless population. Instead, it replaces assistance — including services like shelters or financial help — with obstacles such as incarceration or fines.
In the incident that arose in Harleston Hall, TUPD could have very easily redirected the individual to available shelters in the area or resources to help instead of making an arrest. Ultimately, its decision here indicated the need for an alternative response team that is more equipped to deal with this kind of situation. For other public safety issues requiring increased sensitivity, such as other non-violent arrests and mental health crises, an expansion of non-police staff in the Department of Public Safety that have expertise on responding to these situations and are easily accessible to the student body is necessary.
In light of its inadequate response, as well as the university'ssignificant role in the gentrification of the surrounding area and displacement of local populations, Tufts must take active steps toward preventing houselessness. While Tufts has funded projects in the past, the university should look at investing in longer and more concrete solutions. Some universities have used their financial resources to work with local organizations and provide temporary housing to people facing houselessness while others have simply provided resources on their websites. These are clear examples of how large institutions can try to combat the negative impact of their actions on the people they displaced. Ultimately, words of compassion and empathy cannot erase the decision made by TUPD, but institutional investment in combating the problem of homelessness may be a good start.