Worcester, Massachusetts

There’s an intersection in Worcester, Massachusetts, where seven roads converge. It’s governed by five stop signs and two traffic islands, yet it still feels like an unregulated sea of asphalt. For new drivers in central Massachusetts, it’s a rite of passage. To truly deserve your license, you must not only master the RMV test; you must also cruise unscathed through Kelley Square. (My strategy: Make eye contact with the person you’re cutting off, and their conscience will probably outweigh their desire to hit you.)

Kelley Square is a contentious topic, and not just because traversing it can be a near-death experience. In August 2018, the city of Worcester announced a $240 million project, the centerpiece of which will be a roughly $90 million baseball stadium for the farm team to New England’s beloved Boston Red Sox. The development will transform the area around Kelley Square, adding two hotels and at least 250 units of market-rate housing. Many critics fear this will price out some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. Commuters are accustomed to seeing down-on-their-luck residents standing in Kelley Square traffic islands, holding cardboard signs and asking for help—but many forget that this place is a hub for at-risk populations.

In 2018, Worcester, a city of about 185,000, saw its median monthly rent increase by 16 percent among currently available apartments, with the average one-bedroom apartment going from $1,150 per month to $1,330. (Nationally, the rent for a one-bedroom apartment fell by 1.9 percent in 2018.) Advocates for the homeless argue that the city must reinvest its growing tax revenue in affordable housing and supportive services or rent increases will displace not only low-income residents but also small businesses and nonprofits.

Worcester is not the only city dealing with the consequences of rapid development. In October 2018, NPR told its listeners to “Forget Oakland or Hoboken. Worcester, Mass., is the new ‘it’ town,” pointing out that just as San Francisco and New York City did for their smaller neighbors, Boston could drag Worcester up to wealthy-city status. The NPR story highlighted a millennial Morgan Stanley employee who “lives in one of Worcester’s swanky new downtown buildings” and Worcester’s transformation into a “destination for foodies,” with “plenty of former factories and mill buildings just waiting to be rehabbed.” It closed with a sober nod to the city’s accelerating cost of housing, which, like anywhere, is hitting the poor the hardest. By feeding the state’s bottomless appetite for Boston sports, Worcester officials are only speeding up this process.

The “Paw Sox,” as they’re currently called, have been based out of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, since 1970. But when their contract came up for renewal in 2018, the team wanted a new stadium, and Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo wanted them to pay their fair share for it. Under the bill that Raimondo signed, Rhode Island taxpayers would have ponied up $38 million and the team would ultimately have paid $45 million for the stadium.

Charlie Baker, the business-friendly Massachusetts governor and former insurance-company CEO, saw an opportunity to take the team from their smaller neighbor, and extended an offer for a stadium worth about $90 million, “up to $34 million” of which the team would pay back over 30 years. Unsurprisingly, the minor-league team went with Baker’s plan, and it will soon become the “Woo Sox” in honor of its new Worcester home. Out-of-towners will need to bypass the infamous intersection to get to the games, and, conveniently, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation will redesign Kelley Square.

While many locals are rightfully concerned about the coming development, they only add to the problems faced by impoverished Worcester residents. In November 2018, Wahya Wolfpaw returned home to what she described as a slumlord-operated “illegal boarding house” to find her mattress slashed up and her door ripped from its hinges.

“I’m like, do I take that as a hate crime against a grandma, an indigenous Cherokee, a gay person?” Wolfpaw asked, half-jokingly. Wolfpaw is also part Muskogee Creek, an ex-prisoner, an activist, a breast-cancer survivor, and now, a homeless person for the third time in her life. Wolfpaw spent three weeks in jail until her charges were dismissed, at which point she was released into a city where she could no longer afford anywhere suitable to live.

“It destroyed my whole career,” Wolfpaw said. “I started working on floors in hospitals and made it up to facilities manager. It’s all gone now.”

Wolfpaw is a volunteer with Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA), an activist group that’s especially necessary in Worcester. When the recently incarcerated have nowhere else to go, the region’s prisons release them in Worcester, giving the city a significant ex-prisoner population.

“[The prisons] drop off at the corner here,” EPOCA Executive Director Kevin Lynch told me when we met at Stone Soup, an artist and activist collective in Worcester where EPOCA has its office. Handwritten white letters on the building’s green exterior read: “No we are not a shelter, but if you are in need try—” followed by two shelter suggestions with guidelines, and ending with, “Stay safe. Stay warm.”

Worcester boasts that it exceeds statewide requirements for affordable housing, noting in July 2018 that 13.4 percent of its housing qualifies as affordable, a greater proportion than the state minimum of 10 percent. (In this regard, only Boston and Springfield have Worcester beat.) In 1983, Massachusetts became the only state with a “right to shelter” law, a mandate that every homeless family be offered a place to stay. (New York City and the District of Columbia also have right-to-shelter rules.)

The commonwealth is required to “administer a program of emergency housing assistance to needy families with children and pregnant woman [sic]…at locations that are geographically convenient to families who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness.” But neither of these requirements do much for the population that EPOCA serves: The right-to-shelter law doesn’t apply to homeless individuals without kids nor to any person with an outstanding arrest warrant, and people with criminal records are routinely denied rentals and leases, affordable or not.

To Wolfpaw, Lynch, and other EPOCA advocates, what Worcester needs is clear: more supportive housing and shelters and cultural and policy shifts to ease reentry for the homeless and formerly incarcerated populations. Wolfpaw did a long stint at Worcester’s main homeless shelter—a stay of eight months at an establishment where technically the limit is three weeks. The shelter is operated by the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, based out of Framingham, a smaller city in the next county over. The posted occupancy is 40, but, as Wolfpaw tells it, at any given moment the population could be as high as 110. It’s a “wet shelter,” meaning the residents don’t have to be sober to stay, and Wolfpaw estimates the gender distribution at nine men to every woman.

People suffering from drug and alcohol addiction deserve secure housing like everyone else, but for those like Wolfpaw, who’s sober, it’s important to have an environment safe and free of substances. “It’s very dangerous in there because a lot of the men…are in blackouts,” Wolfpaw said. “I’ve had to protect a lot of women [who] had no idea what they were walking into.”

While the city desperately needs more shelters and supportive housing, officials have largely set their sights on homes that cater to higher-paying renters. A development known as 145 Front opened in February 2018, eventually putting 365 new apartments next to Worcester’s train station—just down the street from Kelley Square. Since the apartments went in, the city has stepped up its policing.

“It was a [private] security force [in Union Station], before,” Lynch said. “They got rid of the security because they weren’t doing anything, then they put the police in.”

Edward Augustus, Worcester’s city manager, confirmed that the city replaced the Union Station security force with a police substation, which opened in March 2018. Shortly after the first renters moved into 145 Front, he explained, “We lost almost all of the tenants due to safety and security issues.… We really had to do something about it.”

In the last six months, according to publicly accessible data, Worcester police made over 2,000 arrests or citations for quality-of-life infractions in a less-than-two-square-mile plot that includes Union Station and Kelley Square.

“The people that they just built the houses for…don’t want to see ‘undesirables’ when they’re going to Union Station, so that’s why the push is out,” Lynch said. “That’s gentrification!”

Nicknamed “Worst-er” by residents of the quieter surrounding towns, the city has for years carried a reputation as the crime capital of central Massachusetts. It doesn’t take a sociologist to know that some of that fear is rooted racism. The area around Worcester is overwhelmingly white and known for farms, forests, and churches, with those wealthier communities isolated from the struggles and offerings of a diverse city.

Allen Fletcher, a local developer who’s lived in Worcester’s Canal District for the past 18 years, told me he wants to “civilize” the city: “People were sitting in the bus shelters and shooting up drugs and partying, and it was disgraceful.” But Fletcher said he doesn’t think the solution is to restrict access to public spaces. “I’ve always felt that, generally speaking, the best answer is to populate the district with people you want, and then everyone can, presumably, co-mingle.”

Fletcher is in charge of a project called Harding Green, a four-story structure going up right on Kelley Square. The ground level, according to the plan, will host a food and shopping marketplace in the style of Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and the three floors above it will contain 80 units of market-rate housing. The Harding Green project, whose permitting preceded the ballpark deal, is already under construction and scheduled to open its doors in July.

“We have a genuine opportunity to…fit into the pattern called ‘transit-oriented development,’” Fletcher explained. “Because [Harding Green is] so close to Union Station, it would be very easy to imagine somebody living in my development and walking or taking their bike up to Union Station and commuting to Boston, not even having a car. And I hope that happens.”

Asked if he was worried about displacing low-income Worcester residents who can’t afford market-rate housing, Fletcher stated simply: “I’ve always taken comfort in the fact that we weren’t displacing anybody here in the main part of the district, because nobody lived here anyway.” (Members of the homeless population, who live in and around Kelley Square, are unlikely to agree.)

“I find them sleeping in doorways, and pissing in doorways, and defecating on loading docks,” Fletcher said. “I watched a homeless person take a shit—pardon my French—in my lower garden just yesterday. And that’s not pleasing to me.”

Wolfpaw agrees that there’s a public-health and sanitation crisis in Worcester, but she sees the problem from a different angle: “Right now there’s a Hep A outbreak [in Worcester]. They’re blaming it on the homeless, they’re blaming on the drug users, and they’re blaming it on the prisoners. And I’m like whoa… where are people supposed to wash their hands?

Wolfpaw and Lynch aren’t against building up the city; they say it just needs to be done with all of the city’s residents in mind. “I think [development] has a chance of succeeding, but only if you’re totally inclusive, and I mean inclusive of the community,” Lynch said.

“It’s just a wounded community,” Wolfpaw added, “it needs some TLC.”

EPOCA has been organizing to ensure that some of that care becomes a reality, holding panel discussions, participating in a homelessness task force, and demonstrating at the Massachusetts State House with other activists. Along with approximately 35 other groups that make up the Worcester Community Labor Coalition, EPOCA helped write an open letter to the baseball team and develop a community-benefits agreement (CBA) to present to the city. So far, the city and the team have declined to sign the document. While activists have questioned why Worcester did not develop a CBA before agreeing to the ballpark deal, Augustus said the city will sign some sort of CBA, eventually.

It’s clear that Kelley Square—and the city that contains it—is changing, and the Woo Sox will hasten that along. At a promotional photo-op for the deal in September, EPOCA confronted popular Dominican-American retired Red Sox player Pedro Martinez. “We said, ‘Pedro, there’s a lot of Dominican folks in Worcester that are getting pushed out to the street,” Lynch recalled. “And, ‘Please, when you sign this, look at the community-benefits agreement.’”

While EPOCA’s fight is far from over, the group seems to have gotten the city’s ear. When I spoke with Wolfpaw, she was gearing up for a meeting with Augustus, and she had her first piece of evidence ready: a cardboard sign reading “Worcester P.D. Please Stop Arresting People For Being Homeless,” which she said she found on land where the stadium will soon sit.

“These are what the Cherokee call talking leaves,” Wolfpaw said of the sign, adding that she planned to tell Augustus: “The wind brought this to me, and it’s a message from your community. If you don’t think there’s a homeless situation, your police department seems to think there is.”