Shut out in Framingham October 29, 2007
Globe Editorial Boston
IN FRAMINGHAM, some residents and town officials are battling social service agencies, arguing that the town is being overrun by programs that help substance abusers, the homeless, troubled children, and ex-convicts.  And while Framingham shoulders this burden, other nearby towns don't.

It's an issue that deserves attention.  Social service agencies do the vital work of helping people recover and rebuild their lives.  And it makes sense for programs to locate in Framingham because of its transportation and its affordable real estate.  But it's also fair to ask if these programs should be distributed more evenly across the state.

Unfortunately, the issue has plunged Framingham into a bruising public debate and sparked three lawsuits, including one filed in federal district court last week by the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, a nonprofit antipoverty organization.  SMOC's suit claims that Framingham has violated civil rights laws by blocking attempts to house homeless veterans and recovering substance abusers.

"We're reviewing the allegations very thoroughly," Christopher Petrini, Framingham's town counsel, said of the civil rights charges.

Meanwhile, the public discourse has been inflammatory.  One website, www.smocing, which is out to "Stop SMOC," says that because of the group's human service programs, "If you're a drug addict, an alcoholic, mentally ill or homeless, this is as close as you're going to get to Nirvana."  The website is also wary of SMOC's attempts to house families with parents who are recovering from substance abuse, warning, "The drug addicts will bring their children with them, and these children will be placed in the Framingham Schools at taxpayers expense."

Even with the incendiary language, the heart of the issue is clear: In America, even drug addicts' children have a right to go to public school.  And in housing matters, it's illegal to discriminate against recovering drug users.

The court will have to decide whether Framingham's actions constituted such discrimination and exceeded the town's authority in reviewing SMOC's housing plans.

But settling this legal fight won't settle the larger issue of where to put social services.  SMOC, after all, isn't operating on its own behalf, but running state-contracted programs that Massachusetts officials have deemed necessary.  Ultimately it is state officials who have to grapple with whether and how to respond to towns with high concentrations of social services.  And it's also state officials who could reduce some of the need for services by investing more in prevention programs.

A lawsuit is a blunt tool, but it will do some good if it inspires more cooperation between Framingham and SMOC, as well as between Massachusetts and its cities and towns.

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