Arlington, Somerville coalition team up

Because of increased interest, Chief Julie Flaherty told YourArlington that Officer Joseph "Canniff will continue to do outreach Wednesdays as part of his regular assignment. The Somerville Homeless Coalition has been collecting donations and doing outreach Fridays as well for some time, and we thought it made sense to have [him] assist as the HOT team has worked together to connect and build relationships with our homeless population with the goal of securing permanent housing."

From left at Mugar Woods are Felicity Beal, director of development, Somerville Homeless Coalition; Joe, a coalition client; and Hannah O'Halloran, coalition shelter-services manager. Melanie Gilbert photoFlanking Joe at Mugar Woods are Felicity Beal, left, and Hannah O'Halloran, both of the Somerville Homeless Coalition.  Melanie Gilbert photo

UPDATED, March 29: For many Arlington residents, the early days of the pandemic meant having to manage working from home and remote/hybrid school schedules. For those without a fixed address, what Felicity Beal, director of development for the Somerville Homeless Coalition, calls “the hidden homeless,” Covid-19 became an elemental struggle for survival in a dramatically reshaped landscape.

“Hidden homelessness is a problem in many communities,” said Beal. “You don’t see them because they are living in their car, couch surfing or sleeping rough outdoors.”

In Arlington, the Mugar Woods, a 17-acre site in East Arlington between Thorndike Park and Route 2, is home to a rotating community of between 10 to 12 unhoused people who are supported by town agencies and area community groups.

Water shortage for unhoused

But when the town closed libraries last March 12, and a week later, when Massachusetts’s Gov. Charlie Baker closed all bars and restaurants, potable water became difficult to access for Arlington’s unhoused population.

“Those who are most vulnerable have been hit harder because their daytime resources were shut down,” said Marci Shapiro-Ide, a licensed social worker with the Arlington Council on Aging, and a member of the Arlington Human Services Network, a group of about 15 local social-services providers that supports the needs of the homeless in the community.

The water crisis focused the town's outreach on meeting this critical need quickly by coordinating with the Somerville Homeless Coalition, a member of the town's Human Service Network that had been providing weekly outreach to the Mugar Woods community since 2018.

With help from the Housing Corporation of Arlington, which contributed logistical support via a SignUpGenius form, the coalition came up with a list of pandemic-related needs, such as bottled and gallon jugs of water (for bathing), hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes and hand soap, as well as meals and nonperishable goods. The town shared the link with various faith-based and social-outreach groups in Arlington.

Resident answers call

Resident Karen Li saw the call to help the homeless in the online bulletin of her church, Calvary Methodist.

“I first signed up in April 2020,” she said, “to make meals for four people a few times a month.” Li’s menu includes mac-n-cheese, barbecue chicken with rice, egg rolls and lasagna with garlic bread, which she carries into Mugar Woods on Friday mornings with Hannah O’Halloran, coalition shelter-services manager.

“When I cook, I think about what they would like – what they’ve told me they liked in the past. It’s helped me to expand [my] understanding of who lives here in Arlington, and who my neighbors are.”

On a recent Friday morning, Joe, who lives in the woods, gestured to Beal, O’Halloran and Li. “They genuinely care about the work they are doing helping us,” he said, before tucking into a steaming plate of Li’s lasagna.

Besides meals, Li coordinated with Everything is Free in Arlington, a Facebook group, to expand the giving to include tents, sleeping bags, blankets, winter coats and clothing “for our unhoused neighbors,” she said.

Church support

“Karen has really run with this,” said the Rev. Cynthia Good, the faith leader of Arlington’s Calvary Methodist, and also a member of the town’s Human Services Network. “People care so deeply about those in most need in this community.” 

Good says that the church continues to support the work of the coalition and the housing corporation to make sure that “people are connected to the right resources.” 

The “it-takes-a-village” approach extends to the community-policing effort of the Arlington Police Department led by Chief Juliann Flaherty. Since 2018, the department, in partnership with Arlington’s Health and Human Services, the Somerville Homeless Coalition and others, formed the Arlington Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) focusing on the needs of the Mugar Woods population.

Officer Joe Canniff is the police liaison to HOT. “It is my favorite aspect of my assignment on patrol,” he said. Early in the pandemic, Canniff delivered dozens of cases of bottled water to O’Halloran for distribution to area homeless. His weekly outreach has included Covid testing, troubleshooting identity paperwork and addressing safety issues for the Mugar Woods inhabitants.  

Police role

Arlington Police Officer Joe Canniff, in a May 27, 2020, tweet.Arlington Police Officer Joe Canniff, in a May 27, 2020, tweet.

Chief Flaherty said that the police department is “the guardian of the whole community,” including those without a permanent address. “It’s a team effort, and Officer Canniff has been amazing with this group and connecting with them.”

Meanwhile, the place where the homeless live near Thorndike Field could become housing of a wholly different kind, though town officials have opposed the planned project since 2015. On Thursday, March 11, the Zoning Board of Appeals is scheduled to hold what it believes to be the final hearing on the developer's permit application for Thorndike Place.

Beal notes that while the coalition “supports the homeless where they are, our ultimate goal is to find everyone a home.” In 2020, the nonprofit organization served more than 7,000 area clients and housed nearly 200 of them. Beal says that two people currently living in the Mugar Woods are on track for transitional housing this spring.

In the meantime, Karen Li continues her weekly meal cooking. This week’s menu: chicken and broccoli -- and blondies for dessert.

You can help

To donate to or learn more about the work of the Somerville Homeless Coalition.

SignUpGenius link for the Friday drop-offs at Thorndike Park.


Jan. 7, 2019: State removes homeless spikes; town to revive task force

This news feature by freelancver Melanie Gilbert of Arlington was published Wednesday, March 10, 2021, and updated March 29.