Phase 1:

 Project Right to Shelter 


Project Right to Shelter is phase 1 of a larger emerging Project Right to Housing. It demands that our elected officials take immediate action to protect the current homeless population under COVID-19 through temporary placement in hotel rooms, while also pressuring them to pass guaranteed housing legislation into law. Project Right to Housing is being piloted in Cambridge, MA, but it is easily replicable in other local communities across the nation. This project challenges local governments to adopt a housing first model. Once phase 1 is completed successfully then phase 2 will be enacted, which will ensure that all residents are provided with permanent housing within six months of their residence at a hotel or motel. We believe that Cambridge must become a TRUE Housing First city. We are at a critical juncture where we have made significant progress on attaining non-congregate shelter for unhoused community members in Cambridge, but while we continue to organize for this demand we are now ready to shift into building out phase 2 of this project.

Project Right to Shelter will not solve every struggle in the homeless community. It does not immediately alleviate the long-term issues that have left them to live on the streets. But it does grant residents protection and dignity in an incredibly vulnerable moment, and it does it in a way that benefits cities and communities. In the long term, through phase 2 of Project Right to Housing, we hope that this project will lead to a greater focus on the provision of housing and building support structures for every resident of our city, state, and country. In the meantime, now is our chance to demonstrate to the world that local communities truly care about all community members.


On April 19, 2020, 121 unhoused Cambridge community members signed a petition requesting the City of Cambridge and the City Manager to provide hotel rooms/dorms for unhoused residents to socially distance and quarantine. In signing this petition, unhoused residents and community organizations were thinking about the broader public health interests of the Cambridge community as the pandemic began. City leadership denied their request and instead stuck with the recently opened War Memorial shelter as the emergency response under Covid-19.


Organizers from MAAP (the Material Aid and Advocacy Program) alongside unhoused community members and allies, wrote a Letter of Solutions and Demands to the Massachusetts governor, state leadership, mayors, town managers, and district attorneys. This letter was signed by fourteen allied organizations, including Families for Justice as Healing, the Massachusetts Bail Fund, Prisoners’ Legal Services, and SIFMA Now! It indicates the injustice of state leadership’s calls for individuals to stay home for safety concerns, given that the state has not created adequate safe housing options for unhoused people during the pandemic. It also voices the demand for these officials to “[r]apidly provide vacant hotel or dorm and vacant housing (including luxury units) to ensure safety for those in shelters, on the street, and leaving jails and prisons.” The letter argues that with a non-congregate housing option, homeless community members will have a wider range of sheltering options to choose from, increase their ability to socially distance, and access social, medical, and housing supports.

MAAP organizers have continued to meet with City Councilors Sobrinho-Wheeler and Zondervan throughout the pandemic to discuss this demand, as well as with City Councilor McGovern, with the City Manager, and with other city leadership to discuss issues facing the unhoused community at the beginning of the pandemic. MAAP also organized a call-in to bring community members to testify in favor of hotel and dorm housing options for the homeless community at a City Council hearing.

Moreover, the Cambridge Nonprofit Coalition Unhoused Advocacy Group has continued direct advocacy for non-congregate shelter options in hotels and dorms. Alongside the MAAP campaign, it sent a joint letter with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) to Cambridge leadership, explaining the need for this shelter option and for other resources for unhoused people during the pandemic. Cambridge leadership did not consider this proposal. The Coalition has continued to meet with city leadership to express this demand, recently speaking at the November 12 City of Cambridge hearing, alongside two unhoused MAAP organizers. 


Time and time again, by centering the voices and experiences of unhoused community members and building a tireless campaign, these organizations, allies, and individuals have shown that the city’s response to the needs of the homeless community has been thoroughly insufficient. City leadership has ignored and overlooked the voices of the very community these programs are designed to support and protect, projecting its own understanding of what this community needs during a pandemic. By doing so, Cambridge city leaders have lost time and invested funding into programs that were already vetted for failure by the homeless community itself. However, with the onset of winter weather, the City of Cambridge has a major opportunity to respond to requests made by unhoused Cambridge residents.


As MAAP, the CNC Unhoused Advocacy Group, and their co-organizers have shown, voices from the homeless community need to be brought to the forefront of every single policy development being determined for their well-being, and further what the homeless community asks for should not be diluted to suit the comforts of the already housed population. This is the only way to achieve an equitable Covid-19 response for unhoused Cambridge residents.