Public housing

Drug use and violence among unhoused infiltrators of a Manning Square public housing estate, residents say

The Frank J. Manning Apartments are public housing located close to Central Square and its social services. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

Some residents of Manning Apartments, a public housing complex near Central Square for the elderly and disabled, say they feel unsafe amid a spike in illegal activity in and around the building – and a Cambridge Housing Authority official said on Friday that an attempt to better address the issue with private security suffered a setback.

Drug dealings and prostitution, heroin, methamphetamine and crack cocaine use and violence are common at Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza, the courtyard outside the complex, resident Tyler Motes said. (Disclosure: Motes contributes photos to Cambridge Day.)

Activity also swept through the building, Motes said, with strangers — many with knives and once with a gun — entering through frequently broken doors or following residents. Residents of the building have encountered trash, blood and urine on the floors of public spaces inside from people entering from the plaza. Sometimes they come to sleep in a stairwell, sometimes to buy drugs from apartments in the building, because dealers who do not live in Manning have nevertheless moved inside.

A resident who asked to be identified as Bernadette said she recently went to throw out her trash and found someone smoking crack in the trash room.

The Manning Apartments share Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza with a library branch. In this photo from April 21, a man is asleep or passed out on a planter. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

Another resident who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal said she had been the target of repeated verbal abuse, with someone telling her, “Give me a cigarette, you have no choice” and a person threatening to “Go get your gun and come back.”

Just a year ago, Cambridge Housing Authority’s 19-storey Frank J. Manning Apartments tower – in 237 Franklin Street, it neighbors the Central Square Branch of the Cambridge Public Library – felt safe enough that residents could sit in the courtyard for long periods of time, Motes said. Now people are too scared.

“It’s not good for my anxiety,” Bernadette said.

Many homeless

Homeless people gather in the square. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

The Cambridge Housing Authority first hired a security company to keep unwanted visitors out of Manning in late 2019. A cleanup of the square that aimed to make it more family-friendly has instead attracted the homeless shelter. (The Millers River and LBJ buildings in East Cambridge and Cambridgeport also have private security.)

The situation worsened with the closure last year of the “Mass and Cass” homeless encampment in Boston, also known as the “Methadone Mile”, when many of its regulars came to Cambridge, a Motes said.

Doors between Manning and the square are often broken, allowing access for the homeless and others, residents say. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

While Michael Johnston, executive director of the Cambridge Housing Authority, said there was “no doubt” about the increased presence of homeless people, he believes the growth began before the forced exodus from Boston, and for a more fundamental reason: “I have 21,000 people on my waiting list. Many of them are homeless, lined up, couchsurfing, desperate just to get a [single-room occupancy] unit, let alone an apartment. There simply isn’t enough affordable housing.

People are also drawn to the many services the city provides for homeless people and drug addicts, especially around the central square, the anonymous Manning resident said. She said she was not in favor of cutting services, but the city needed to make sure it didn’t hurt residents.

Not just the place

Non-residents attempt to enter Manning on February 24. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

Councilor Marc McGovern, a social worker by training, called it a “chicken-or-egg problem” in which “you want the services where people can access them, but putting the services in a particular neighborhood , people who use these services are going to be in this neighborhood.

He said he “respects that it may be scary for some people”, but described the situation as complicated, given that people have the right to gather in public spaces such as the courtyard. Johnston agrees that the police are doing what they can, given those limitations. “We can’t just walk in and kick everybody out” from a public square, Johnston said.

But these homeless people do not stay in the square; they enter. And amid a city and state moving away from drug-use prosecutions, Motes said officers told him their instructions were not to rely on arrests of drug addicts or trespassers. .

Security and police

A non-resident inside Manning – who locals say still manages to sell drugs inside the building. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

Meanwhile, the building’s private security, provided by the housing authority, has been totally inadequate, Motes said. Although 1st Armor Protection Services is under contract to guard the building, which has a security guard present every day from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., Motes said security guards have done little recently to evacuate the people in the building or yard and sometimes didn’t force incoming people to log in – a building rule.

The unnamed resident said she hopes the city will institute 24-hour security and issue identification which must be presented to a guard before entry into the building is permitted.

Yet some nights no security guard showed up, Motes said.

Residents took to social media to alert officials to the issue and won a meeting in May over their complaints, but Motes said the response was focused on addressing the mental health issues of some of the intruders instead. than improving safety.

Since that meeting, the police department has increased its “visibility” of the area, Cambridge Police Department communications director Jeremy Warnick said in an email. Officers were directed to the area in front of the Manning Apartments “at specific times of the day and night with a focus on times when there were reports of concerning activity,” Warnick wrote.

The security company withdraws

Johnston also responded by calling a meeting with 1st Armor – a company introduced a year ago after MDS Protection Services guards hired by the CHA complained of literally sleeping on the job. On Friday, he received the response from a May 16 meeting in which officials “had a frank conversation” and went through a list of complaints. “They told me they would get back to me by the end of this week on the things they could do and the things they couldn’t do,” Johnston said.

Instead, the CHA learned on Friday that 1st Armor would withdraw from Cambridge social housing when its contract ended in July, Johnston said. The authority will have to issue a new appeal to companies that can get back to work – and hopefully do better.

The round-the-clock security that some residents demand is impossible within the agency’s budget, Johnston said. And identity verifications may be desired by some, but not by all.

Broken doors and syringes

On Friday, Motes arrived to find the gates to the plaza smashed in again, allowing access to locals and firefighters who had been called to the scene to deal with drug needles and syringes found between Manning and the library.

Additional help may come from a social worker recently placed at the library branch and McGovern expects him to be “more” involved.

“Hopefully we can provide an environment where people are safe but also where people can come together and not infringe on anyone’s rights,” McGovern said.