Today Bill Shaner returns with a dispatch from Worcester, MA about the abrupt and cruel disposal of an unhoused encampment by the city. The story echoes what has been going on in Boston — which we covered here most recently in this piece — albeit with one glaring difference: In Boston the eviction of and the destruction of the belongings of the unhoused has been covered extensively in the media. In Worcester, a smaller city, but nonetheless the second largest in the state, no one seems to give a shit.
I’ve been focusing on this type of story a lot lately but for good reason. There’s no better convergence of everything that makes Hell World what it is than the blatant indifference to suffering from our leaders, the use of the carceral system as a catchall solution to any problem, the lack of affordable housing and health services for all of us and especially the most vulnerable, and the ravages of addiction and substance misuse.
Previously I wrote about a similar assault on the dignity of the people living in a tent community in Manchester, NH. “Some of them came back from work and it’s literally like if your house had been torn up from the ground,” an aid volunteer there told me at the time. “We’re going to need to replace everything for them.”
It was just fucked up what they did to us
by Bill Shaner
Earlier this week the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the City of Boston for its handling of the Mass. and Cass homeless encampment.
“In spite of City officials’ suggestions that housing would be provided, the plaintiffs and others were driven out—under threat of arrest—with no viable housing options. Much of their personal property was summarily destroyed, leaving them without access to clothing and even vital papers such as their identification,” a summary of the lawsuit reads.
I’m sitting in my apartment in Worcester reading that right now thinking, hm, that sounds awfully familiar.
Just a week before evictions at Mass. and Cass began, Worcester city officials and police, with the help of the state and the Worcester-Providence Railroad, cleared a large homeless encampment behind a Walmart in the city and—importantly—adjacent a bike and walking path that had just recently been the site of a press conference touting the city’s meteoric rise to prominence; what city officials often call its renaissance. Also—and this is the most Hell Worldian facet of the entire story—the action was carried out at least partially at the behest of Walmart. A city official confirmed to me that Walmart was one of the complaining parties that spurred the demolition.
The tents were cleared quietly on a Wednesday morning. Unlike in Boston, Worcester mayor Joe Petty made no public statement prior, nor did he declare any state of public health emergency. The camp demolition would have happened without any public awareness at all had it not been for a group of outreach workers raising the alarm. A story I wrote contained the first public statement on the matter by anyone at City Hall, although a spokesman for the city did his darndest to dissuade me from writing it. Had I not asked for comment, it’s likely they would have gone on ignoring it. Even so, some of the comments they made were directly contradicted by the firsthand accounts I got from people living at the camp, like whether or not they threw out anyone’s tents (they said they didn’t but they did).
Subsequently, the story was picked up by the local Patch, and then… that’s it. No official public statement. No promise that the city would do better. Nothing. At the next City Council meeting, councilors clumsily danced around the issue, responding to a cartoonishly vague request from Councilor Sarai Rivera:
One resident at the meeting asked the City Manager’s Office to release a report examining what happened. The manager has not yet done so and it’s unlikely he will.
What we do know is that police officers told several dozen people there they had 20 minutes to gather their things and leave, then they threw anything left over out and sent in the bulldozers and cleaning crews. The homeless there were left to find a new place to camp and some were left with nothing. In the days after the demolition I went down to the area in an attempt to find any satellite camps set up in the wake of the destruction. When I did I talked to a guy named Steven who was in the hospital when his camp was demolished. He lost everything besides the clothes on his back. Since then he has been staying with a friend.
“There was like maybe 40 of us in there and the cops came in and there was maybe 30 cops. They were all like pack it up it's time to go. It's time to go. If you're not out of here in 20 minutes, we're taking everything,” he said.
Steven’s a young Hispanic man, maybe 25, and he looked exhausted. His big brown eyes carried an honesty and an exasperated sadness. He spoke softly and plainly, with little emotion. He articulated injustices in the manner of someone quite used to injustice.
“So people that weren’t there to get their stuff... They came in with trucks and fuckin plows and plowed through that shit. Took everything away. So, um, a lot of us lost our shit. I lost my shit. I was in the hospital at the time, so all my stuff was gone.
"We had to start over. It sucked, you know? Cause they didn't give us no warning. They gave us 20 minutes to grab our shit. So we grabbed what we could grab but we had to go. I lost all my clothes. They were going from tent to tent, throwing it in the back of the truck. We've been here for a couple years now, so all the stuff we accumulated over the years. And then you've got the outreach people always coming in and bringing us food and stuff, and they fucked all that up too.”
City officials defended the action, saying they spent three weeks prior to the eviction explaining to the people at the encampment that they were going to be relocated. They offered the unhoused stays in the city’s shelters and addiction treatment programs.
“Our main goal is to get these people connected to services,” Dan Cahill, a member of the city’s “Quality of Life Team” told me. “Unfortunately there’s gonna come a time when we have to do something and move them along if they’re not going to listen.”
Here’s where the ACLU’s lawsuit would really apply. The lawsuit alleges it is illegal to remove an encampment without first identifying viable housing options.
While Worcester says they offered the unhoused people at the Walmart camp beds in the city’s homeless shelters, they are not logistically feasible. One is only for women, one is in a state of miserable repair, and the third, a new addition called the “Hotel Grace,” in the basement of a church downtown, is often so full they have to turn people away. A doctor that works with the population said that none of the evicted people spent the night in a shelter. Cahill, the city official quoted above, told me only three people spent the night at Hotel Grace the night after the demolition. But these homeless shelters are all temporary and are not by themselves a viable alternative to a tent.
The bottom line is that the overwhelming majority of the people staying at the encampment chose to keep living outside. But now they’re more scattered and more distrusting of help. The camp had provided outreach workers, doctors, and community organizers a central place to drop off supplies and medicine.
“I am in agreement that living in a tent outside where there’s no proper sanitation, no security, is not ideal for anybody. I support that idea,” Erik Garcia, a UMass physician who worked with the people at the camp, told me. “However, I think if we don’t have adequate facilities that people are willing to access, then the solution of simply bulldozing people’s belongings, and moving people on to yet another location is not the answer. The net result is that people were displaced and for many, many reasons did not choose to go into the shelter. Now they are outside without tents and sleeping bags and medications.”
This is language echoed by the ACLU as it relates to Mass. and Cass.
“We can’t sweep or arrest our way out of the intersecting crises at Mass. and Cass,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “This plan is harmful and unconstitutional because it forces people to disperse with no safe place to sleep, while disconnecting them from the medical care they are able to receive at Mass. and Cass. Indeed, it’s inconsistent with City assurances, public safety, and the law.”
In Boston, at least, the issue is being discussed. Mayor-elect Michelle Wu told WGBH that her administration will pursue more transitional housing options, like vacant hotel rooms, for the city’s homeless.
“Even though we have shelter beds that are available, there are barriers to accessing shelter, and ... [shelters] are not settings that everyone feels safe in,” Wu told reporters. The better approach, she said, “is when individuals are connected to transitional housing, whether that is through vacant hotel rooms that are repurposed and wrapped around with medical and public health services, or in buildings that can be retrofit to have more of a hotel or apartment-like setting with services rather than an open shelter.”
Worcester officials have yet to make such a statement. In Worcester, it came out that at least a few of the people at the encampment had housing vouchers that they couldn’t use. When I asked a city official why, she told me that there’s a backlog at Worcester Housing Authority and that the lack of affordable housing units has put the squeeze on.
“That’s part of the city’s housing shortage and we need to figure that out,” she told me.
In the meantime, of course, the city is in the business of demolishing homeless camps, despite all the outreach workers, doctors and activists telling them that the practice makes the situation profoundly worse for unhoused people. Accounts from the unhoused and from people who work with the homeless population, like Garcia, suggest that the Walmart camp demolition was not an isolated incident, but rather the continuation of a pattern. Just six months ago, Garcia told me, a camp in the area known as “The Mountain” was broken up in a similar fashion. Police officers and City Hall’s cop-adjacent “Quality of Life Team” went into the camp, offered a variety of tepid and insufficient alternatives, then sent them packing under threat of arrest.
The ACLU lawsuit alleges that Boston has no process for identifying people’s individual barriers to shelter, “including physical or mental disabilities, underlying medical issues that make people more vulnerable to serious COVID infection, harm reduction needs, and family or partner situations.”
“City and other officials are using the threat of arrest and criminal prosecution to force displacements of those who live on the streets without providing actually available, practical alternative housing options,” said Kevin Prussia, partner at WilmerHale, a law firm joining the ACLU in the fight. “Because of this intimidation, people are sleeping in less secure spaces. This system violates both the Eighth Amendment and federal and state disability discrimination laws.”
Along with the lawsuit, the ACLU and a coalition of addiction, housing, public health and civil liberties experts are calling for a new, six-point plan to address Mass. and Cass. In so many words the plan is this: leave the tents where they are, conduct an assessment of each of the unhoused people’s needs, use hotels and motels to create temporary housing, expand harm reduction practices like safe injection sites, decriminalize drug possession, and provide more access to treatment.
The Mass. and Cass situation has forced the issue of homelessness into prominence in Boston, and the ACLU’s lawsuit could well bring about changes to the way the city handles its homeless population. But the demolition in Worcester—how quietly it was carried out, and how little officials there seem to care—suggests that the Mass. and Cass removal is only remarkable in how much attention it has received. Camps are demolished routinely, all the time, all across the state, and every time it sends the people there into more vulnerable and dangerous situations.
I’m thinking about Steven, the young man I found near the Walmart after the demolition. He looked so tired and miserable, and he could barely muster any affect in his voice despite the injustices he described. If it weren’t for his friend letting him stay at his camp, he told me he didn’t know what he’d do. It was mid-October, the weather was just starting to turn, and the city threw all his stuff out. It’s almost hard to imagine. You can be living in a homeless encampment, in such an already dire situation, and still somehow this world creates a new square zero to set you back upon.
“It was just fucked up what they did to us,” he told me.
Bill Shaner previously reported for Hell World on a No New Women’s Prisons anti-incarceration march organized by Families for Justice as Healing among others and on the (still ongoing) strike by nurses at Saint Vincent Medical Center. He writes the newsletter Worcester Sucks and I Love It.
A few years back I somehow convinced Esquire to let me write a story about the grand opening of a toilet. In retrospect it seems funny because toilets are inherently funny but [abrupt shift of tone while looking you dead in the eye] there’s actually nothing funny at all about the place where the poop and pee goes.
The occasion was the unveiling of a public toilet in Harvard Square in Cambridge in a ceremony led by the mayor and all manner of local officials. A nearby church that had long opened its doors to anyone in the vicinity who needed to relieve themselves — particularly the area’s unhoused population — had decided they could no longer accommodate everyone and so they banded together with other local groups and advocates in the area to push for the construction of a standalone public toilet. Again the fact that this was a remarkable event in the first place is kind of weird but the entire affair only highlighted how absurd it is how we as a society restrict access to one of the single most basic and necessary human bodily functions. If you’ve ever spent time around there in Cambridge or Boston or in any city for that matter you’ve probably felt the same frustration. There’s nowhere to piss or shit for free! What are we doing here man?
“It's a true cause for celebration,” then mayor Denise Simmons said. “Access to public toilets has always been an issue. It's been difficult to get restaurants to open up to non-customers. Often homeless populations struggle to find bathrooms—the elderly and persons with disabilities. This is an amenity that will serve millions each year and make it even more attractive for people to come here. This is a great day to celebrate. We won't raise the champagne, we'll just pass the toilet paper.”
Remember last year when people were hoarding toilet paper? We all know it was awful and terrible and sad but I think we just kind of glossed over how downright fucking weird 2020 was without fully reckoning with it. Washing our groceries and shit.
“The city is recognizing this is a public service and a public need, because we have millions of people coming through here,” Richard Parker an economist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard said in another speech that day while summarizing the state of relieving oneself in America succinctly:
“Four dollars for a macchiato to urinate is bit much.”
I was reminded of that whole thing today because of a story in Bloomberg about the state of pissing and shitting in America a problem that like almost everything else that is corroded and broken in this country was only made worse and brought to the fore by the pandemic. In the early days of Covid when nearly all restaurants and cafes and bookstores — shout out to the Barnes and Noble in Union Square in New York if that is where everyone still shits down there — were shuttered or had closed off their bathrooms the lack of actual public accommodations for human beings to find a moment’s comfort became all the more glaring.
Outside of a handful of “progressive” cities like Portland, OR, and Cambridge, who have made some effort nothing much has improved around the country since that toilet party that I mentioned previously. In fact it all seems to have gotten worse.
“There are roughly 1,160 public bathrooms for New York City’s eight million residents,” the New York Times reported earlier this year, “and the pandemic has exacerbated people’s frustrations with these facilities, which are often dirty, hard to find, out of order, or simply not enough in number to accommodate city crowds.”
“Infection fears led cities to padlock the few public restrooms that were available,” Bloomberg wrote. “Stories emerged about Amazon and Uber drivers resorting to peeing in bottles, while unhoused individuals relied on adult diapers or five-gallon buckets filled with kitty litter. Public urination complaints spiked in cities like New York and Washington, D.C., especially when crowds flooded the streets in the summer of 2020 to protest the murder of George Floyd.”
“The state of public restrooms in the U.S. is pretty deplorable, with certain exceptions,” Steven Soifer the president and co-founder of the American Restroom Association told them.
Would it surprise you to hear that like every other simple thing we handle public restrooms worse here in America than a lot of other countries?
“In 2011, a United Nations-appointed special rapporteur who was sent to the U.S. to assess the “human right of clean drinking water and sanitation” was shocked by the lack of public toilets in one of the richest economies in the world.”
Be pretty cool to be the Alexis de Tocqueville of toilets imo. Actually that makes me wonder: Are there writers from other countries who come here to walk around looking at how we do things here just constantly writing Can you believe this shit? Can you believe how these people live? Kind of like a reverse tourism and travel writer. Because if not that seems like a real boom industry.
A full accounting of truly public facilities is elusive, says Soifer, but government-funded options are exceedingly rare in the U.S., compared to Europe and Asia; privately owned restrooms in cafes and fast-food outlets are the most common alternatives. According to a “Public Toilet Index” released in August 2021 by the U.K. bathroom supply company QS Supplies and the online toilet-finding tool PeePlace, the U.S. has only eight toilets per 100,000 people overall — tied with Botswana. (Iceland leads their ranking, with 56 per 100,000 residents.)
Fucking Iceland loves to lead the rankings of things.
In any case the point is the lack of public toilets in America is something that’s so obvious and necessary that we could easily fix. Even Nicholas fucking Kristoff managed to have a good take on it earlier this year.
This is all of course tied into class and power and how we seem to need to regulate and punish what types of people get to exist as human beings in public. Like with everything else here those with money will always be able to figure out a workaround. People without just have to go fuck themselves. It’s a way of thinking hammered home every time you hear some cruel reactionary fuck talk about how (always liberal cities) are “covered in feces.” Ok man how about we provide poorer people safe and free ways to use the bathroom you might say to them to which the reaction is often: No. Building public restrooms will only encourage undesirables to use them you see and no one wants to have to look at that. And now that you mention it wouldn’t it just be more convenient if poor people disappeared?
Alright I just made up a guy to get mad at in my brain there but it’s not that far off from reality.
I wrote about the lack of public toilets in here briefly a while back but it’s probably worth revisiting today since we’re on the subject.
The Amazon piss abuse story has reminded me how in so many cities you are required to spend money in a business in order to urinate. Or else you have to do this sheepish pantomime that you're going to spend money then duck out feeling like you've stolen something. I love feeling like a cat burglar because I stole a toilet’s swallow worth of water from Panera.
Then on the other side we've managed to criminalize pissing in public. Getting added to a sex offender registry because you had to piss and didn't have $9 for a Simply Smoothie.
Here’s the real catch though. Let’s say you do spend the $6 on a coffee in order to piss. What happens next? You guessed it: Your body starts manufacturing even more piss!! It’s the perfect trap…
Then some readers responded:
- I’ve definitely bought a soda at Burger King solely in order to piss in downtown SF. I’ve also begged a BART employee to let me use his toilet, but he probably wouldn’t have said yes if I wasn’t a young white woman. I wonder why public urination is a big problem??
- People will complain about shit in the street and blame the homeless dude doing it rather than the surrounding area's lack of free restrooms.
- As someone who has a really small bladder and who has also been pregnant five times (and then had lots of little people with small bladders) I’ve never understood how we as humans don’t demand more public restrooms.
- I do a whole phone scam with bars/ restaurants on my phone. Pretend I'm meeting someone who didn't show, yell "you're breaking up! I'm going outside!" when I leave. The arguments I've staged on the way to the can!
- Never realized how hard it could be til I started Doordash driving, especially with many fast food places being drive thru only.
- Japan was a revelation to me on this. Just clean, well-maintained public toilets everywhere. A pisser's paradise.
- Municipalities downloaded the costs of public bathrooms onto private businesses. Such a scam. I have little kids and I’ve been in ridiculous situations because of a “no public bathroom” sign.
- My eyes on this were really opened by Bernie, my octogenarian urologist, who said he writes letters on behalf of patients who are ticketed for public urination, and called lack of bathroom access a public health issue. I mean, duh, but it's never put like that!
- In practice public urination is one of those selectively-enforced bullshit laws too. Your average drunk person who takes an occasional piss between cars on the street is probably fine, but if you're homeless and lack any choice they'll use it as an excuse to criminalize you
- Challenge mode: Having to piss while being homeless. In most places, society has made private urination inaccessible, and public urination illegal. Many towns have effectively outlawed an unavoidable bodily function, and use the law to criminalize the homeless for *existing*.
- Was thinking about this the other day: America hasn’t only privatized every bit of public space, we have also privatized the most basic human private activities we all need to do to live! We barely even *joke* about the idea of public bathrooms anymore because they’re so rare.
- Going insane about this SEPTA station closure where the homeless peed in the elevator so much it broke and absolutely no one in the news asking why there are no toilets available, just straight blaming addicts.
“If you don’t have public bathrooms, what you’re saying is, ‘We do not care about anyone who doesn’t have money,’ which I think encapsulates where American politics has been going since 1980,” Toilet co-editor (sorry but lol!!) Harvey Molotch told Bloomberg. “I hope that there will be a move toward greater acceptance of public spending and government intervention, because that’s what it’s going to take to deal with the problem.”
I hope so too. If the debate over the Build Back Better bill is any indication “a move toward greater acceptance of public spending and government intervention” is arriving any day now.
I just remembered that after the grand opening of the toilet in Cambridge I went inside to try to use it but I got stage fright with all the media around and I couldn’t pull the trigger. Some say that turd lives inside of me to this day.