ONLINE: Cambridge gets creative with "charrette" on homelessness

The City of Cambridge Department of Human Service Programs will host a public conversation about homelessness, bringing together the local community and experts to discuss problems and work toward solutions. Coordinating with Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), the Charrette on Homelessness will take place from September 15 to 18, featuring six two-hour discussions and a closing feedback session.

Homelessness isn’t often treated like a community issue, admits Shelly Chevalier, Cambridge’s Planning & Development Manager.

“I think that’s been our own tendency, for these conversations to happen among providers,” she says. “[But] we’re trying to push out of that.”

With the Charrette, Chevalier especially hopes to engage people who are homeless or have experienced homelessness to learn what changes would make the process of transitioning into housing easier and quicker.

The Charrette, a term that originates in the design world, is divided into six discussions and will address a variety of concerns. From ways to better serve the chronically homeless, to potential housing-first models, to issues with developing housing. The talks will also address broader issues like housing availability and affordability, which affects people who are at risk of becoming homeless, and makes it difficult for people to acquire housing.

Each session will follow a “fishbowl model.” In this format, experts and a facilitator will sit in the middle of the room, with the audience surrounding them. For the first half, the facilitator will ask the experts questions on the issue. In the second half, the experts will turn outward and face the audience, answering questions, hearing observations, and discussing problems and solutions with the community.

Members of the CSH, a national organization that has hosted Charrettes in several other cities, will take notes on the discussions and present the community recommendations on Friday.

It’s not a lecture, and it’s not testimony, either. It’s a discussion between citizens and experts. “We’re trying to create structure in which we can literally have that conversation, with the objective of this actually adding up to something actionable in a short period of time.” Chevalier hopes the Charrette can help officials craft policies and plans within three or four months.


In a way, these community discussions represent a transition away from the 10 year plans that were popular in the last decade—in fact, Chevalier notes, such plans were required by the federal department for Housing and Urban Development.

“Communities are still doing this type of planning process, but [now] it’s more common for these plans to look at three or five years,” says Chevalier. “My own view is that when the time frame for achieving an objective is not so far out, it really motivates you to begin taking action now.”

The schedule for the Charrette is posted below. It’s free to attend and open to all.

Tuesday, September 15 @ Sheraton Commander, Harvard Square 9:00 am: Introduction

  • 9:30 – 11:30 a.m.: Serving Frequent Users of Emergency Services
  • 12:30 – 2:30 p.m.: “Housing First” Services Models
  • 3:00 – 5:00 p.m.: Strategies for Increasing Investment

Wednesday, September 16 @ Sheraton Commander, Harvard Square, 16 Garden St., Cambridge

  • 9:00 a.m.: Introduction
  • 9:30 – 11:30 a.m.: Increasing Housing Supply for People Experiencing Homelessness
  • 12:30 – 2:30 p.m.: Services and Policies to Prevent Homelessness
  • 3:00 – 5:00 p.m.: Service Navigation and Systems Coordination

Friday, September 18 @ YWCA – Hannum Hall, Central Square, 7 Temple St., Cambridge

  • 10:00 a.m. – 12 noon: Community Recommendations


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