Northeastern professor suggests commandeering private property for shelter use

BOSTON — Boston city officials and health care providers are scrambling to secure additional shelter space to house people experiencing homelessness this winter. The unprecedented number of people living on the streets this year and the pandemic are presenting a flurry of complicated challenges.

A City of Boston spokesperson told Boston 25 News that the city is working on bringing in roughly 200 beds for the winter but declined to give out specific addresses. There are still concerns across the city and state that there won’t be enough space for everyone as temperatures continue to drop.

Northeastern Professor of Law and Health Sciences Leo Beletsky is suggesting that city officials consider the controversial concept of commandeering private property for temporary shelter use.

“When you commandeer a property, there is no preliminary process. The government just comes in and takes over private property,” said Northeastern Professor Leo Beletsky. “There’s a long tradition in the United States at times of war, at times of epidemics of doing exactly that.”

The idea, which Beletsky presented to city officials during a virtual hearing last week, has generated some strong opposition. However, he believes it could be a solution to find housing quickly for all of the folks who are still living outside.

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“Lives certainly take precedence over private property interests, especially when private property owners will be compensated,” Beletsky told Boston 25 News. “This could also apply to all the hotels that are sitting empty.”

A City of Boston spokesperson told Boston 25 News that the city, “is always working with private owners,” to house the homeless but didn’t comment directly on concept of commandeering property.

“Across the UK, they are working directly with Airbnb owners, and cities and towns are leasing up Airbnb units that are sitting empty,” said Lyndia Downie, president and executive director of the Pine Street Inn. “There are different strategies that are out there.”

Lyndia Downie told Boston 25 News that Pine Street Inn is currently several hundred beds short and will likely be forced to turn people away this winter.

“In the past years, the winter would come, and we would hire additional staff and rearrange our lobby and dining room to make sure anyone who showed up after the beds were full would get a spot through the winter,” Downie explained.

Downie said congregate settings inside shelters, like Pine Street, have not been ideal housing situations during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Even if we have the space, some people may not want to come into shelters because they’re worried about COVID, especially in the larger congregate settings,” Downie said.

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Downie said about 120 men are currently sleeping at Pine Street’s main shelter. Normally, she said the shelter would house well over 300 to 400 people heading into the winter.

“We’re facing a really, really tough winter,” Downie added. “There’s no playbook for this. Every day is a new set of challenges.”

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