Pushing the homeless out in Boston

November 17, 2014

Judy Heithmar reports from Boston on the closure of the city's largest homeless shelter.

THE ODDLY warm weather that has wavered across Boston for the past couple of months is quickly fading, as winter creeps in. For the thousands of people without homes, this time is especially daunting. The shelters fill quickly, and other residential programs close their waitlists.

The Homeless Service Bureau for Boston Public Health Commission operates two emergency shelters--one of them, the largest shelter in Boston, with some 450 beds, is known as "Long Island Shelter." As the name suggests, the shelter, along with a dozen of other human-service agencies, is located on Long Island, located off the coast of the city in Boston Harbor.

The mass of land, often referred to as "the social service island," provides desperately needed services to an average of 1,000 people daily. But on October 8, with an abrupt order from Mayor Martin Walsh, the bridge leading to Long Island was shut down after a routine inspection concluded it was too unstable for vehicles. In a matter of two hours, everyone was evacuated.

Boston's Long Island
Boston's Long Island (Doc Searls)

The action displaced more than 700 people who had sought refuge on the island. The island contained nearly one-third of all the shelter beds for the homeless and about half of the city's detox beds. The estimated cost for repairs to the bridge is around $80 million--they will take three to five years to complete.

The evacuation happened so rapidly that nearly everyone, including staff members who worked on the island, was forced to leave personal belongings behind. For the homeless, this means not only lost the bed where they slept at night, but all of their possessions. From the shelter alone, 460 people were bussed off the island--many were left to walk the streets late at night in hopes of finding a safe place to sleep.

A fitness facility located in Boston's South End was quickly converted into a makeshift shelter. For 125 people, thin pillow-less cots were laid out across a basketball court, with just a couple inches between each. Every morning, the "beds" are rolled up and quickly replaced with folding chairs and tables in order to serve breakfast. As Jacob Smith, a resident of the facility describes it, "This place is a warehouse, not a place where people sleep."

Why wasn't the 63-year-old bridge fixed long ago? The bridge connects another island called Moon Island to Long Island, and has been in questionable shape for at least a decade. Its precarious state was one of Boston's worst-kept secrets, and former Mayor Thomas Menino did little to address this concern.

The island itself is hazardous enough that it was closed off to public access long ago. "It may look like it's safe, but there are hazards out there, such as uncovered wells and sink holes," said City Council member Brian McNamee in 2007.

That begs the question: If Long Island and its bridge are too hazardous for the general public, but were they good enough for the poor and homeless? Moreover, why were the poor and homeless forced to travel to an island to access services to begin with? Considering that Boston was recently named the second-most expensive city in the U.S., the answer is clear that maintaining the "social services island" kept rich and poor apart.

IT WASN'T until a full month had passed that a community meeting was finally organized to let people--especially those who previously had been accessing services on the island--have some input on what has taken place. On Wednesday, November 12, 300 people packed into the Blackstone Community Center in Boston's South End neighborhood to discuss the closure of the bridge with city officials.

The meeting was chaired by Jerome Smith, the chief of Civic Engagement, who was sent to represent Mayor Walsh. Before Smith could introduce the panel, many audience members shouted out "Where's the mayor?" but got no response.

Members of the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee helped to organize many people staying in local shelters to attend the meeting, and distributed a Boston Homeless Bill of Rights that advocated for "immediate access to retrieve belongings from Long Island, providing more subsidized permanent housing and rental vouchers, and giving homeless people a seat at the table," among other demands.

The panelists included Department of Public Works Commissioner Mike Dennehy, Office of Health and Human Services Chief Felix Arroyo, and Boston Public Health Commission Interim Director Dr. Huey Nguyen. Dr. Ngyun began the meeting with a slide show of the potential options for purchase to begin constructing new shelters. "We are working very hard to provide beds, and some are currently available," Dr. Nguyen lamented, as an audience member quickly responded, "It's not a bed! It's a cot!"

The panel continued to lay out their plans for opening new shelters, but the crowd continued to express anger. One person shouted, "Why did it take so long to address this? You don't care enough to be working for the people."

One issue raised early on during the question-and-answer portion of the meeting was when people who were forced off the island would be able to finally retrieve their belongings. Many people in the audience said all of their belongings, including medications and health records, were still on the island. Of course, the press had easy access to take photos of the closed facilities, but people who had been forced out were still waiting to know when--if ever--they would be able to get their things back.

Several people put forward the idea that the island was closed purposefully to aid real-estate development. The island has been desired by the super-rich for many years, including Donald Trump, who tried in 2007 to purchase the land to build a casino to no avail.

Bill Keresky, a recovering alcoholic and formerly homeless man, who not only accessed services on the island, but also worked at a treatment facility there for 20 years, stated, "The fact that this disaster has not been adequately covered in the media and the planning going forward has kept out the voices of those directly impacted gives me the idea that there's an alternate agenda. They want that island for real estate."

Others said that this was a state of emergency and should be described as such, with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and potentially the Federal Emergency Management Agency getting involved.

WITH AN incredibly high cost of living and rental prices going through the roof, Boston's homeless population has been steadily rising over the past four years, while funding for shelters and other services have been declining or stagnant.

The city claims that it has a budget "crisis" and can't figure out how to get the money to address this issue. But one way to address the issue would be to tax the rich.

The city could also take away the "voluntary" part of tax payments for Boston's esteemed hospitals and universities, and instead demand that places like the exceedingly wealthy Harvard University pay its share of state and federal taxes. That would certainly bring in the revenue needed to assist the poorest of the city, and finally begin to address the housing issue in this city.

This disaster could and should have been avoided. It's a public embarrassment that happened on Mayor Walsh's watch, and people are demanding answers, reparations and a long-term plan to end homelessness in Boston.

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