Robbing Peter

“Really?” That’s my standard reaction when I hear or see things that are disturbingly stupid these days. It was how I reacted when I found out that Bread and Jams would be closing its doors. For those of you who don’t know about Bread and Jams, it is a drop-in center that has served the needs of the homeless, mainly in the Cambridge/Somerville area, for over 25 years. It’s importance to the homeless community should not be taken lightly. It is a place where people gather during the day to keep out of the elements, since many overnight shelters’ doors are closed during the day (most shelters are not required to keep their doors open during daytime hours, unless there is a state of emergency). It also provides hot and healthy lunches, an address for people to receive their mail and to give out to potential employers, hot showers and other important services that can’t always be accessed. Up until a few years ago, Bread and Jams also offered locker storage.

Now, if you don’t think these basic needs are important for the homeless, then consider this: as far as food goes, most of the homeless are lucky if they can get an actually healthy meal during the day. Yes, they can go to soup kitchens, but those mostly offer only soup and sandwiches. That’s great, but is it always healthy? In addition, most employers won’t accept a shelter address on a job application. Hell, you even need an address to get homeless services these days. Imagine taking a shower at 6 a.m. for an interview at 2 p.m., sitting around in your good clothes for six or seven hours. Would you do it? A PO Box in Cambridge is $77 for six months. We’re talking basic needs, folks.

The other reason this makes no sense is because not every homeless person chooses to sleep in a shelter. Some shelters strip you of your pride and dignity. For many on the street, their dignity is all they have left. They need Bread and Jams. Why is this valuable place closing its doors? Well, as always, you have rumors and you have the truth. The rumor: things were getting a little out of control, so the place where they were located, the Swedenborg Chapel, wanted it closed. The problem with that theory is that no matter where Bread and Jams has been located over the years, it has always had a reputation for sometimes being a rowdy place. It happens everywhere, not just there. Some shelters are a little rougher around the edges than others, but it works itself out. So the rumor is just that, a rumor.

It would help if they had their own place. Swedenborg Chapel was the most recent place to take them in. Their previous hosts just wanted to get rid of them.

The real reason why they are closing their doors is budget cuts. These cuts make no sense to me. Bread and Jams, like most places that serve the homeless, gets the majority of their funding from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In the last few years they have been shifting their funding more toward permanent housing, which is great, up until you read the fine print. In order for HUD’s funding to go to the right places, other programs are being sacrificed. Important street outreach programs like Bread and Jams and Youth On Fire, both of which have been forced to relocate for the same reasons, are being cut out. Forgive me, but I thought when this whole Housing First thing came about, monies were going to be shifted away from the emergency shelter system (I could think of a couple of shelters that could use a little downsizing). Instead, they’re cutting out smaller, much-needed programs and stuffing people into small rooms, and thinking everything is going to be okay. That’s the same logic that was used to shut down most of the mental health hospitals during the Reagan administration (hey guys, the ‘80s called; they want their ideas back!). It’s also robbing Peter to pay Paul, which is why I said, “Really?” to begin with.

James Shearer

James Shearer is a writer and co-founder of Spare Change News.