The motion by City Councilors Erik Gitschier and Corey Robinson to explore the feasibility of using the former Superior Courthouse on Gorham Street to address the mental health, substance use and homeless issues was met in many quarters with the type of reaction you’d expect.
“We don’t need another magnet to draw even more of these people in!”
“You’re going to destroy the neighborhood!”
“You’re in La La land if you think this is going to solve the problem!”
Those were among the arguments used against Councilor Robinson when he called in to defend the idea on my former morning radio stomping grounds. And trust me, I get the knee-jerk reaction to the proposal. It’s born from the same thought processes I have about the issue.
Lowell has done and continues to do more than its fair share. We can’t expect the Mill City to solve problems plaguing the entire state and country, no matter how many taxpayer dollars are dangled in front of us like Swifty, the mechanical rabbit leading the hungry Greyhounds around the track at the old Wonderland Park.
Because as the many Lowellians who spent time at Revere’s dog racing oval could tell you, the pooches never were able to catch Swifty, no matter how many times they chased.
It’s also true our neighborhoods, particularly the Downtown, have reached a saturation point. Which is why the Superior Courthouse idea is worth exploring, not jettisoning like a VeoRide into the canal.
Hear me out for a minute.
There are those, yours truly included, who believe Tewksbury State Hospital is the answer. Or more specifically, the Tewksbury State Hospital model is the answer.
First, what makes anyone think the residents of Tewksbury are going to be any more enthralled with the idea of solving society’s problems within their town borders than the Lowellians upset at the Gitschier/Robinson idea? Not in my backyard is a very human reaction, and sometimes even justified.
But the bigger issue is that even with Tewksbury theoretically returning to full capacity, it’s not enough. Nowhere near enough, in fact, to deal with the mental health and addiction problems exacerbated by the pandemic and the lockdown induced isolation whose full effects have yet to hit us.
“The state should buy property elsewhere and build facilities to house these people,” was also part of the radio back and forth with the Councilor, which completely ignores a simple economic reality. It’s a complete waste of taxpayer money to buy property and facilities when the state already owns vacant ones, like the Superior Courthouse.
“They’re going to start loitering there and that’s the first thing people are going to see when they get off the connector to come downtown.”
This is where the shortsightedness of dismissing the idea without even exploring it really misses the point.
Folks, we’re not breaking any news here. They already do loiter, use drugs, commit crimes, pollute, create a bad first impression of the city, etc.
One peek at South Common or the Jay’s Food Store parking lot just down the street is all you need to understand the problem already exists at an all-too visible level. Are the urine and feces laden downtown sidewalks and alleyways, or the dozen or so business front doors used as makeshift sleeping quarters a better alternative to a facility that might help alleviate the situation?
The vacant courthouse allows you to bring the problems indoors and out of sight, while also offering the potential for substantive services to treat mental illness and addiction for those inclined to accept help. A mini-Tewksbury State Hospital, so to speak.
And here’s the part critics are missing; it provides the City an opportunity to attack the vagrancy issue at the heart of this political battle in a meaningful way.
Provide enough beds to house those seeking services and maybe, just maybe, there’s less outcry from the paid advocates banging the drums every time the issue comes up. Good luck winning the P.R. battle when there are enough beds available, yet you still want to tell us how you care more about the homeless person on the street than the rest of Lowell’s residents and businesses.
Better yet, this proposal if adopted may provide the legal cover necessary to clear out tent cities once and for all because you’ve satisfied the protocols and “housing” requirements. Do not discount that when the same folks who solicited individuals to sue the city over its panhandling ordinance in 2015 inevitably go the legal route, perhaps with the ACLU in their corner once again.
Look, there is no easy solution to these issues, especially if you insist on a hint of humanity in at least attempting to help those seeking help. I won’t pretend Lowell’s abandoned Superior Courthouse will solve the city’s problems, even if it is deemed a feasible idea. But it could very well be part of the solution and perhaps a blueprint for other state properties here and elsewhere.
Don’t fear new ideas. Explore them. If they don’t make sense, toss them aside. If they do, embrace them. You have nothing to lose, Lowell.
Except maybe a vagrancy problem.