Northeastern University Political Review
April 25, 2016
Northeastern University Political Review
April 25, 2016
This past Monday, world leaders from all over the globe, along with thousands of other activists, journalists and representatives, have gathered in Paris for the UN Conference of Climate Change. The event, known colloquially as COP21, calls for 12 days of negotiations on the issue of humans’ environmental impact. Many are heralding this as the biggest and most influential conference on the subject ever organized.
If you are reading this article, chances are you already knew about COP21 or were, at least, vaguely aware of its happening. As a Northeastern student, and a self-identified environmentalist, living in Europe for study abroad – I wanted to know how I could get involved. A lot of my time in Prague has been spent travelling for pleasure and it felt like time to be a part of something that was bigger—much, much bigger—than myself. Climate change is an issue that will affect me, but the impacts it will have on my future children, my future grandchildren, and so on and so on will be even greater. I want my descendants, even the ones who won’t know my name, to look back on this time as history as the time we started changing the way we live to become more sustainable and less consumerist.
The purpose of the article is to not to educate you about the hazardous pace with which we humans are destroying our planetary home – although I will include some informative links at the end. I’d much rather instill in you a sense of optimism, which is what I came away from Paris with this past weekend. While I was not able to attend the UN conference, I was able to spend one day at the 11th annual Conference of Youth, or COY11. With this came the opportunity to experience Paris as it geared up for these potentially historical negotiations and simultaneously recovered from the atrocious terrorist attacks just two weeks ago.
On the weekend of November 26-28, approximately 5,000 young people from all over the world gathered at the Parc d’Expositions in the Parisian suburb of Villepinte to give presentations on their environmental work, listen to interviews and speeches given by well-known environmental activists, participate in workshops and plan mobilization in a youthful and optimistic atmosphere. Although it was not the first COY, it was the largest ever, mirroring the COP21.
I was only able to attend the Conference of Youth on its last day and it was in full swing by the time I made it to Villepinte around noon. Unsure where to begin, I entered a room (it was less a room than a partitioned area with chairs and a welcoming banner) where a young Brazilian woman named Beatriz led a presentation on her work with educating impoverished children about climate change. Because these children did not always receive consistent love from their parents, nor did they always have food in their bellies or a safe place to sleep every night, it was hard to communicate to them about the importance of saving the environment. It is a privilege to care about more than just your own basic needs, she summarized, and the way she was able to get the children’s attention was to be a stable person in their lives, to give them the love they desired, to ultimately speak the language that they also spoke: love.
“From my experience, people don’t really care about climate change if you just go with the climate change usual speech, people don’t really care, at least in Brazil, people think they have much bigger problems like poverty, health, education problems,” Beatriz told me after her presentation. “What I’ve learned is that if you love what you’re doing and if you love that person whose on the other side listening to you… the person will listen if there is love involved.”
Beatriz, who works for two different Brazilian NGOS, Engajamundo and Verdeluz, explained that we must keep this in mind even as we go against the ‘bad guys’ like oil companies. Those companies are still comprised of humans – and it’s important to remember what we have in common with each other despite the giant gulf of disagreement about these critical political issues. Her message was also something I thought the more militant (for lack of a better word) activists should keep in mind when crusading their “my way or the high way” environmentalist beliefs.
After Beatriz’s presentation I listened to a Q&A session with Asher Jay, an artist and ardent protector of wildlife. (You can read more about her here.) Her artwork, which raises awareness about wildlife issues such as elephant poaching or overfishing, was also on display. She spoke eloquently of the conservation issues which many of us, the interviewer included, thought had been solved years ago. I really enjoyed listening to her and it was easy to feel how strongly she felt about these issues and how much of her life was dedicated to them. The most memorable thing she shared was this:
“We are still losing an elephant every 15 minutes.…I would say the ivory issue is one of the issues of our time and has come to affect my personal life, particularly my dating life because every time I go on a date I can’t help but think of the fact that we’re losing an elephant every 15 minutes so by the time I come to desert, I can’t help but wonder if this guy is worth 6 elephants….
“If you think about your time in that matter, you would think about your day very carefully because every second, you could be utilizing it more productively to help these issues and to give voice to those who are being suppressed and marginalized just because they can’t speak the same language as those who are in power… I can’t help but fight because it’s an unjust fight.”
Many of the booths and presentations were in French and while translation services were available for the major speeches, I definitely missed out on a few really cool things. After eating lunch and wandering around a little more in amazement, I stumbled upon an Art Space, replete with paint, brushes, and cardboard. While the People’s Climate March, which was meant to take place the next day, had been forbidden by the French government for security reasons, many people were still planning to gather on Sunday. Therefore there were several groups of people in the Art Space working fervently on banners and signs to bring with them to the Human Chain gathering, which would replace the prohibited march. One group invited me to work on their banner and I happily accepted. We painted the background with an Earth-colored gradient and after that dried, wrote with white paint the words “conscience planeterre” – which, according to their explanation (and the obvious cognates) is a play on words to mean “planetary conscience,” with “terre” being the French word for Earth. It was a masterpiece.
I listened to a few more presentations about things like mangrove forests and coral reefs, wandered around the exposition center simply absorbing everything that there was to see, and caught the last few minutes of Nicolas Hulot’s speech, which required a headset for English translation. Hulot is a French environmentalist who gained celebrity hosting a popular documentary show about nature. He is also involved politically, and has even threatened to run for president unless the other candidates seriously addressed climate change. To be honest, I had never heard of him but there was a huge crowd listening to him speak. I only caught the last few minutes of his speech, which mostly was praise for the COY presenters, organizers, and participants and a reiteration that “something must be done or we’re doomed.” (That’s not a direct quote, but I’m sure Mr. Hulot would agree with the general sentiment.)
I left COY with a lot of hope and optimism. We now know that our great-grandparents’ and our grandparents’ generations started us on this ecologically devastating trek through industrialization and consumerism, we have watched our parents’ generation stall in taking serious action or even seriously addressing the issue – our generation must be the one to affect change. I hope we can look back at this time in history as the beginning of humanity undoing the damages of the past couple hundred years.
As I previously mentioned, the People’s Climate March in Paris was cancelled due to security concerns by the government after the attacks by Daesh two weeks ago. I was very disappointed by this but I knew that the activists, who had been planning the march worldwide for months, would have something up their sleeves. I also knew COY would be the place to find out what that something was. Indeed, a Human Chain running down Boulevard Voltaire was organized and the next day I went to go check it out.
What I found was hundreds if not thousands of people holding hands in a line, peacefully standing in front of buildings and businesses so that others could walk by. Many of them were dressed up as different animals and holding serious or comical signs. There were kids and octogenarians, and many, many young people. I even recognized a few familiar faces from COY. I was so happy to see this continuation of joyful demonstration after leaving the conference the day before. In some parts, there was a near constant ‘wave’ going down the line accompanied by the requisite “wooooo!” from every individual as they lifted their arms, grinning.
Then, I noticed the innumerable candles, flowers, and miscellaneous items lined up just across the street – a memorial to the victims of Daesh.
To say it was simply beautiful would be a disservice, it was also heart wrenching and maddening. To see two such public displays right next to each other… it took me aback. So many people eagerly trying to make an impact on the future just two weeks after so many peoples’ lives were unnecessarily brought to a halt in such a repugnant manner. The memorial went on for several blocks and it really was aesthetically lovely – the votive candles, the photographs, the children’s drawings, outrage and mourning expressed in both English and French. It was a very emotional scene and I was couldn’t help but remember the viral video of the dad and son, which expressed the kind of hope that can only be found sprouting out of moments of such evil and hate.
It took me a moment to realize why the memorial area was in that particular location. Then I looked to my right and saw the Bataclan nightclub, the military personnel with their red berets and camouflage and guns protecting it, and the announcement for that fateful night’s performance: The Eagles of Death Metal. Right there, in that very spot, true evil had appeared and took too many innocent lives down with it.
The insidious paranoia that followed those attacks has been felt everywhere in Europe. Even in my home city of Prague, which is quite a small, under-the-radar city, many people have called for refusal of any Muslim refugees and some large gatherings have been cancelled due to the same security concerns. Even my own mother, who has had a love affair with France from afar for as long as I can remember, was terrified about me going to Paris to stand in large crowds.
But I went anyway, and I’m so glad I did. Despite the open wound that the Daesh attack left in Paris, the city remains the inspiring and beautiful place that it always has been – perhaps more now than ever.While I was there, I did take the time to see the timeless landmarks and museums that are permanently etched in pop culture, but I was more grateful to see Paris at this particular moment in its long history.
It would, however, be a disservice to ignore the violence that took place in this same area, Republique, later that day. I was only there personally to witness a peaceful demonstration, but there were news reports of some protesters “pelting officers with bottles as well as candles that had been left in tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks.” Around 200 people were arrested. This was extremely disheartening news to hear at the end of the day – especially as the protesters’ weapons were originally tokens of love, mourning and solidarity. While I would love to over-romanticize the climate movement as I witnessed it last weekend, the truth is that it’s rarely as simple as good versus bad. More positive news of the demonstrations, which I did not personally witness either, were images of hundreds of pairs of shoes festively arrayed in the same area, some from important people like Ban ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, and Pope Francis.
One of the other activities that had been planned by the activists I met at COY11 was the “Climate Games.” As it was explained to me, the Green Team (environmentalists) would be going against the Black Team (the coal and oil industries and the like) while trying to evade the Blue Team (the police). I walked away from that conversation thinking it didn’t feel quite right to list the police as an enemy, especially since they were responding to very real security threats. These games were meant to take place over the next two weeks as COP21 was taking place. I didn’t get any more information on the Climate Games since I wasn’t going to be in Paris during the time, but I was unpleasantly reminded of that when I heard about the protester vs. police violence. I do, however, believe that it was a small group of people who would cause such chaos in what should have been a peaceful demonstration, and their actions are not a good overall representation of the people and protests I myself witnessed.
Like much of the world these days, Paris is in the midst of big things: some things exciting and inspiring, and some things dark and painful. Our world as we know it is going through major growing pains. Climate change, terrorism… these are a few of the very real and very scary consequences of globalization and technology. As young people beginning to think about taking up the mantle of leadership, it will be up to us to peacefully navigate this big scary world, and these seemingly insurmountable problems in front of us. To do so, we must find ways to unite in our humanity, not create more division.
For more reading on COP21, COY11 and the general issue of Climate Change:
Climate Warriors by Vogue- thirteen of the most prominent women fighting climate change
Six graphics that explain climate change by the BBC
The Conference of Youth official website
Citing Urgency, World Leaders Converge on France for Climate Talks by the New York Times
Climate Change and Moral Responsibility by the New York Times Op-Ed section (June 2015)
COP21: A Potluck Dinner in Paris by the New Yorker
and, of course…
Clay T., a disabled father and husband from Massachusetts, began to use medical marijuana in April of last year to help him deal with the symptoms that were ruining his life and making it impossible to be the father he wanted to be. He believes these symptoms—inability to walk and talk properly, gastrointestinal problems like nausea and stomach pain—were caused by the pharmaceuticals he was prescribed as a child.
“When I first started it, I was almost like a 60-year-old man, walking with a cane, shaking as I walked, unable to put together sentences that people could understand. It was to the point where they were pumping me full of Klonopin, Percocet, Vicodin. I previously used cannabis as a teenager and it helped, so my neurologist wanted to try it,” Clay said. “We went the route and within six months, complete turnaround. 100 percent turnaround, like holy wow.”
Clay is just one of a number of people who find marijuana to be infinitely more helpful than any other synthetic drug. It has been used for thousands of years as a medicine but was made illegal in the United States in 1937. At the time, the American Medical Association was using it as the primary medicine for more than 100 different illnesses at the time. It is commonly believed that it was banned because of the threat hemp (the plant from which marijuana is grown) posed to the paper and synthetic materials industries, because it is easy to grow and creates a durable paper. Despite this, the media pushed the idea that cannabis was incredibly dangerous and the public accepted that.
Nearly 80 years have passed, and public opinion has changed dramatically. A new Gallup Poll released in October shows that a record 58 percent of Americans favor legalizing cannabis and regulating it much like alcohol. Colorado and Washington state have already taken this step by legalizing marijuana in 2012.
In fact, Massachusetts may be voting on this measure in 2016. A committee called Bay State Repeal is working toward adding a question on the ballot in an attempt to end cannabis prohibition in the state. It is the same group that has been working on marijuana reform since the early ‘90s, passing a number of acts regarding medical marijuana and decriminalization of the drug.
“Public opinion is changing. The reason that it’s happening is that the truth is hard to keep away from people,” said Bill Downing, treasurer of Bay State Repeal. “It’s very difficult to disguise the truth. People are understanding the truth about cannabis now. And once that happens, prohibition is doomed.”
According to Downing, cannabis prohibition creates a $60 billion underground economy. This money is untaxed and funds drug cartels that use violence to manage their business. Meanwhile, otherwise law-abiding citizens are incarcerated for possessing small amounts of marijuana – about 800,000 per year, he said. An arrest can ruin an individual’s career and family. There are many other consequences of the U.S. government’s failed war on drugs, like a crowded court system, lack of access to an ancient medicine, making criminals of ordinary citizens and turning true criminals out onto the streets for lack of space.
The importance of taxing and regulating such an in-demand substance is not lost on Art Carden, assistant professor of economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
“When you have something that’s demanded inelastically, meaning that people are not likely to change their consumption just because the price gets very high, this means that drug prohibition, which is an attempt to reduce the supply, will cause the price to go up way high,” Carden said. “These things aren’t meant to be bought and sold in markets where there’s basically no legal competition – that’s what creates all the unintended spillovers: violence, too many people in prison, much harder and more potent drugs.”
If marijuana was fully legalized, according to Carden, the billions in tax dollars that goes toward prohibition could instead go to more useful places, like education and health care.
However, not everyone believes marijuana is something we should allow. Dave Evans, an attorney from New Jersey who has done public advocacy against marijuana and researched the subject for his book on drug testing, says that cannabis will have a negative impact on society if legalized.
“The costs of legalizing marijuana are going to be huge,” Evans said. “If we have as many marijuana users as we have tobacco users, it’s going to be a horrendous expense in terms of health care, increased crime, drunk driving, industrial accidents, it’s going to be a big mess. There’s no way you’re going to get enough tax money out of marijuana to pay for it. There’s no way that the taxes from alcohol and tobacco pay for the damage they cause.”
U.S. marijuana production is over 14,000 metric tons annually, with a retail value of $113 billion. In diverting this amount from the legal economy, prohibition costs at least $31.1 billion in lost tax revenues annually, according to The Marijuana Policy Almanac released in 2006.
A 1988 study by doctors and pot advocates Michael Aldrich and Tod Mikuriya showed that since decriminalizing marijuana in 1976, California saves $100 million in law enforcement and criminal justice costs annually. But 11 years after the publication of their study, California legalized medical marijuana. Due to the lax regulations regarding who can qualify as a patient, cannabis is now relatively easy to come by legally.
Chloe Peak, a student at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., got her med card earlier this year. Peak has no debilitating, chronic disease that is often associated with medical marijuana. Health problems like anxiety, sleep deprivation and nausea affect most people to some extent and can be enough to qualify for a card.
“I had to chit-chat with this doctor who just evaluates people for marijuana licenses and he was a funny, weird dude,” she said. “I spent like $100 and it took no time at all. I could’ve spent less. In Venice Beach, there are places on the boardwalk where you can just walk in and pay $30 or $40 and they’ll get you a card right away.”
Because of this, many dispensaries line the streets, but Peak’s preferred method of obtaining cannabis is getting it delivered. Other dispensaries offer incentives like 10 percent off with a student ID.
After legalizing medical marijuana in 2012, Massachusetts is currently in the middle of planning where to put dispensaries and weeding through candidates to run the 30 dispensaries allowed by the law. So far, Worcester is the most popular community with nine applicants looking to open shop there. Boston is in second place with just six. For now, patients like Clay T. must either grow their own or find a caregiver to grow it for them. A caregiver can only supply two patients at a time, and they are in very high demand
It’s also far more difficult to obtain a med card in Massachusetts, although that could change in a few years once the dispensaries are up and running. Right now, there is only one place in the state that can legally certify patients for medical marijuana. The Holistic Clinic is located in Brighton and does some holistic medicines, such as reflexology, in addition to providing certificates.
“We have patients ranging from people who have cancer to people who have anxiety,” said founder Rick Comenzo. The clinic just opened in April of this year. It does not distribute marijuana nor does it help patients find caregivers.
“The medical industry has not accepted medical marijuana totally at this moment,” he said. “There’s a lot of skepticism. It’s going to take a while, especially from the medical perspective, for primary caregivers to believe that this is a viable source.”
Comenzo may be right, especially since programs like the one in California show that legal medical marijuana can virtually turn into legal recreational use if it’s not heavily regulated. This may deter doctors from viewing it as a viable medicine.
Clay said he strongly supports the caregiver method and doesn’t plan on shopping in dispensaries, which he said are more about making money than helping his debilitating symptoms. However, Clay is lucky enough to have found a caregiver. There is a growing, legitimate demand for medical marijuana in Massachusetts and very few caregivers to provide, especially given the limit of two patients per caregiver. Dispensaries will make it easier to supply everyone.
“With the caregivers and the medical cannabis, I’ve found caregivers that were willing to grow strains just for me, one-on-one, face to face,” Clay said. “I didn’t feel like I was a shady member of society having to go to a back alley deal trying to get my medicine. I was able to talk to someone about my symptoms, willing to work with me, willing to suggest something for me that might work that I haven’t been thinking of.”
Katie Burpee, a high school student, developed an eating disorder during her sophomore year of high school. She lost 35 pounds in a matter of months from her already slim figure due to the uncontrollable desire to starve herself and binge and purge.
“I can’t even tell you how much positive reinforcement I got for the weight that I lost,” said Katie, who lives in New Jersey. “People would always say, ‘You look so good! You’ve lost so much weight!’ but I knew they saw that I never ate at lunch. I knew people knew what was up and yet I never really got anything but compliments. It made me so mad.”
Burpee, now a 17-year-old senior, is just one victim of a growing epidemic of eating disorders that many experts blame on the cultural fixation that being thin is the only way to be beautiful. Her disorder was a constant struggle that required her to stay at a rehabilitation facility for eight weeks, yet in a gross twist, most of her peers were actually jealous of the results.
“Eating disorders are more prevalent, definitely. When I first became a dietician, the expression wasn’t in the common language. We didn’t know about it,” said Ellen Glovsky, dietician, faculty member in Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences and author of the new book “Wellness, Not Weight: Health at Every Size”. “When I was a student I was introduced to a patient with anorexia and nobody knew what it was; they didn’t understand why she didn’t eat. Now I’m teaching it in my Intro to Human Nutrition class, I spend two classes on it.”
A study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality showed that hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under 12 increased by 119 percent between 1999 and 2006, which mirrors the trends for teenagers and adults, both male and female. Click here for more information on eating disorders.
Many people think that eating disorders are restricted to anorexia and bulimia, but a third eating disorder, binge eating disorder, is also becoming more common. Glovsy notes that the majority of her clients come to her for help with this particular disorder, and guesses that that’s the national trend as well. These patients are usually overweight or obese because they overeat for emotional reasons.
It’s clear that the U.S. has a serious problem with creating an environment for children to grow up happy and healthy. We live in a nation where magazines featuring underweight supermodels are sold next to rows and rows of king-size candy bars and fattening chips. It’s affecting our society as more and more people struggle with maintaining a healthy weight and body image.
“I think the kids that are fatter definitely have body image issues,” said Kelsey Higbie, an after-school program assistant in Roxbury and children’s swim instructor. “They want to wear big T-shirts into the pool despite the fact that we would tell them that wasn’t a good thing to wear. They were very conscious about covering up their bodies, even at a young age.”
The pressure to be thin and the constant barrage of unhealthy food options like fast food, poor quality school lunches and enormous portion sizes are two extremes that are creating an unhealthy expectation that no one can live up to.
How can we teach our children to develop a healthy relationship with food, especially when they are constantly surrounded by pizza parties, sugary cereals and candy?
“Sometimes families distort eating behavior in an effort to keep their kids thin,” said Glovksy. “The kids never learn normal eating behavior and listening to their own bodies. Am I hungry? What do I really want? How much of this do I really need?”
Not understanding how and when to eat is fueling the extreme eating habits of our country, according to Glovsky.
New Jersey-based nutritional consultant Anne Hamilton, who is also the mother of two, explains how she feeds her children healthy food without going too far.
She recommends giving kids fruit instead of candy if they want something sweet, and substituting almond and soy milk for dairy. Her kids also enjoy meat-free “chicken” fingers and veggie burgers. For breakfast, plain oatmeal is easy to make on the stove, as are omelets and organic breakfast sausages.
“Instead of traditional white or whole wheat pastas, I serve my kids rice pasta, made from brown rice, which is very tasty,” said Hamilton. “Mung bean pasta, which you can get from a health food store or Amazon, is really quite delicious as well. It has more protein, and you put sauce or whatever you want on it.”
But for working class families eating on a budget with little time to prepare healthful food at home, it’s often easier to just eat out. It’s taking its toll on our nation’s kids. In 1980, about six percent of children aged six to 17 were obese. By 2010, that percentage had tripled, according to the annual America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being report.
“Poor quality food is available everywhere, all the time, and people have gotten more and more accustomed to eating it,” said Katherine Tucker, Professor of Nutritional Sciences at University of Massachusetts in Lowell. “Starting with fast food and increasing portion sizes to the point of super-size soft drinks. It’s just so easy to get too many calories and people are so used to it now that it’s hard to stop the tide.”
Katie, on the other hand, has learned from her disorder and is applying the things she learned during her rehabilitation to live a more healthy life.
“I just make sure I have a balanced meal. I just try to have a variety in every meal,” she said. “I would never have a meal of all vegetables or all fruit or all starches. I’m not measuring it out or being compulsive, I just try to balance it out.”
It seems like our whole nation could learn a lesson from her.
There are thousands of people in Boston Common, sitting on the hills or browsing booths selling tapestries, bongs, or aromatic food. They all have one thing in common.
Almost everyone is getting high on marijuana.
It’s the annual HempFest, an enormously popular rally to legalize marijuana that takes place in September. Despite marijuana’s current status as a Schedule 1 drug, city officials allow this event to happen.
The nation is in a period of transition in regards to the regulation of marijuana. Colorado and Washington have already completely legalized the drug, while over more than a dozen states have legalized medical marijuana.
In 2008, Massachusetts decriminalized the drug, meaning anyone possessing under an ounce of the substance is subject only to a $100 fine. In 2012, the state legalized medical marijuana and is currently working toward making this a reality.
“The change I’ve observed is a difference in opinion, so a lot more people support the legalization of marijuana since it was decriminalized,” said Skylar Coons, president of the Suffolk University chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “When the medical marijuana movement started, a lot of people were finding out about the benefits of marijuana so that helps further the cause.”
According to a February 2013 poll, 58% of Massachusetts residents would want to legalize marijuana completely and regulate it the same way as alcohol. Cannabis activists are pushing for a legalization measure on the 2016 ballot.
In August, the Justice Department stated that the federal government would not sue states for allowing the sale or consumption of cannabis, although they did stress the need for proper regulation.
But there are still many people who oppose marijuana. Scott Chipman is the Southern California chairman of CALM, Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana.
“Marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug because it is dangerous,” Chipman said. “It’s addictive and it’s a psychoactive drug. Unfortunately, people have not gotten all the information they need to make an informed decision about marijuana.”
According to Chipman, marijuana can cause diseases such as chronic bronchitis, heart attacks and fetal brain damage if ingested by a pregnant mother. He also stressed the factor marijuana plays in high school and college drop-outs.
“People who smoke weed live on the edge of sanity,” he said.
Implementation of medical marijuana laws in Massachusetts is moving slowly but steadily. The state is currently deciding which companies can open dispensaries and where. A town meeting in Raynham convening on Oct. 29 will address these issues as well.
While state marijuana laws have changed quite a bit in the past few years, Northeastern University policy remains the same.
“Students get in trouble because of university policy, not the law,” said Albert Sweeney, captain of Northeastern’s Public Safety Division. “It’s still in the student conduct book as a violation.”
Sweeney says he has seen no significant change in how many students are caught smoking marijuana since the change in laws.
“Here in Boston and in Massachusetts in general, MassCann is definitely pushing for legalization to happen in 2013,” said Coons, referring to the state-wide chapter of NORML. “With two states already legalizing I think that will be coming to more states in the near future.”
It’s definitely possible to believe marijuana could be legal when observing so many people peacefully smoking weed on a beautiful day in Boston Common. In fact, it seems strange that it’s not already.
The Human Services Commission heard from two representatives of the Cambridge Multi-Service Center, specifically Haitian Services and the Emergency Solutions Grants, last night as part of their planning to allocate funding.
“The [Emergency Solution Grants] program is a federal grant that the city has to assist the residents of Cambridge with prevention of eviction and rapid rehousing,” said Maria Melo, prevention services coordinator at the Multi-Service Center.
The Multi-Service Center, part of the Department of Human Service Programs, focuses on getting the homeless, near-homeless and low-income families back on their feet through securing temporary shelter, locating stable and appropriate housing, providing referrals for public benefits, food programs, job searches, legal services and budget counseling. The Cambridge Haitian Services is a part of the Multi-Service Center as well, offering similar services as well as English as a Second Language classes, immigration and citizen assistance to Haitians and people of all populations.
Melo presented the work she has done with her team at ESG first. “There are three components to ESG,” she said. “They are: rapid rehousing, eviction prevention funds, and most recently our STAR program.”
Rapid rehousing, she explained, is for individuals living in the shelter systems. The ESG grant program helps these people find subsidized housing or affordable market rate housing, which will often take them to the suburbs of Revere or Chelsea, she noted. Thirteen people have been housed through the program since July. Often, after being placed in housing, clients will receive six months of stabilization services.
“We want to make sure people are getting the benefits they’re entitled to and that they’re meeting with us on a regular basis,” Melo said. “We want to make sure they’re paying their rent, not falling through any loophole that might make them homeless again.”
The ESG program is only for single individuals and the majority have remained stable in their housing.
Eviction prevention is exactly what it sounds like. People facing eviction must present a Summary Process Summons and Complaint, showing they are being evicted, and be under a certain level of income in order to qualify.
“We do a lot of advocacy with the Housing Commission, landlords, a lot of back and forth to get things together to make this work,” said Melo.
The ESG program has prevented 39 evictions with the prevention fund from last year through this year, Melo said. She did, however, explain the hardships the ESG faces, like getting potential clients to reply to correspondents or present the proper paperwork.
Finally, the STAR program (Support for Tenants at Risk) mirrors the general ESG program but is more tailored to clients who suffer from mental illness. For example, if a tenant is being evicted due to behavioral issues rather than rent related, STAR will help him or her retain their housing and get medical help.
“So far we have 11 new cases that are up and running and three new cases,” Melo said. “Most of the clients are funding related but we have the ability to provide them with mental health services.”
Jean Jeune, Haitian Services coordinator, began his presentation with some Haitian history as well as the history of the Haitian Services in Cambridge.
“When Haitians first come here, we do an assessment of what they need. They usually need English as a Second Language classes, a job… some want college, some of them have been to high school in Haiti and need to get their GED to go to college here and some people, who have been to college, just need a push,” Jeune said. “We only provide only direct services, not money.”
After his presentation, the commission discussed other possible areas for funding. At one point, the concept that there are many services providing aid to the public and at many times, aid may be given to the same areas was brought up.
“There must be a lot of duplication and replication and wouldn’t it make sense if everybody were together?” asked commissioner Nan Stone. “I can imagine that it might be the case in some areas but I can also imagine that it’s a fiction in their minds.”
Fellow commission member Khari Milner had a similar idea. “We need to talk about creating a cross-commission initiative,” he said. “For example, if the Arts Council would want to create a campaign to build awareness about mental health or immigration or homelessness through the arts. Doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking, but we should see if there’s an interest there.”
Several commission members had other ideas for funding they shared after the meeting.
“We should strengthen existing programs for children,” said Rebecca Thomas. “Cities do not need to duplicate [state-run programs] but for a city that’s interested in taking part of that, that’s great.”
Ellen Semonoff, assistant city manager for Human Services, had several other ideas as well. “There’s a lack of accessible male services at all levels,” she said. “We also have pretty high percentages of kids that go to college but don’t complete their first year, or don’t go back for their second due to financial and social reasons.”
“We have a few more meetings before we have to decide where our funding is going,” Semonoff said.
Today, I woke up with a sore throat, headache and a bad mood. My first order of business was to head over to City Hall to get the records. I took the T to Downtown Crossing and walked around with my eyes glued to my iPhone, trying to find where the actual building was. Finally, I found it. It is a depressing building, and dauntingly large. I walked around for a little bit and tried to get a feel for where I should go. I guess I looked lost because a nice man stopped me and asked me if I needed help, and I explained to him the project.
He and another lady directed me to the assessment department where I talked to an extremely helpful man named Gerald. I decided to look up my friends’ apartment building since it is off-campus and also a place I spend a lot of my time. He got the information for me very quickly and was then kind enough to direct me to where I could find the voting information.
I still felt really sick but the lady working in the voter registrar department, Joanne, was equally helpful. I hadn’t even thought of who I would look up but Marty Walsh, the mayoral candidate, seemed like a good idea.
I was surprised at how diverse the people were in City Hall. There were all kinds of people: nice people, rude people, people of all races, mentally disabled people, well-dressed people, people with crazy piercings, people with young kids, people of all different ages. I felt like I blended right in because there was no “normal” person. It was a pain to get myself there and figure out where the right offices were but once I did, it went very smoothly. I didn’t have to pay or deal with rude city employees.
Overall, it was a positive experience, but I did not find anything that would make a good story idea. Walsh has always voted Democrat, so that comes as no surprise. As for the building, I now know how valuable it is but that doesn’t really provide me with anything interesting.