Earlier this year, DigBoston contributor Bill Hayduke visited the homeless shelter on Long Island for two nights in writing a feature about life there that continues to find thousands of new readers in Boston and beyond on a weekly basis. Since the reception to his piece has been so positive, we asked him to continue following the story, as the shelter has been closed and hundreds are scrambling for a warm place to stay this winter.
It has been a month since Long Island, Boston’s largest emergency shelter, was abruptly shut down due to bridge infrastructure issues, leaving hundreds abandoned in the streets.
Now, Boston’s homeless population is fighting back. Even more, they’re fighting for their lives as the cold approaches.
The Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee, which will demonstrate in front of Boston City Hall on Wednesday, November 19, formed in response to the closure of Long Island. The committee and other advocates for homelessness and addiction services were out in full force this Tuesday, when hundreds packed the Blackstone Community Center in the South End to share their tales of suffering and to grill city officials.
Following a state inspection in early October, the only bridge to the island where roughly 700 people receive shelter and access to addiction services was closed out of fear of a collapse. Weeks later, the situation remains a mess. There is a major shortage of available beds; many in recovery are relapsing and worse.
The Blackstone meeting was the first major community forum on the situation, and as such it drew more than 300 residents. Politicians came to mug for cameras and give lip service to advocates, notably Dorchester City Councilor Frank Baker, one of the two sponsors of the meeting, who spent most of the time looking like a bored child in time-out. In his opening statement, Baker also managed to slip in a veiled dig at the administration of Mayor Thomas Menino while defending his Dorchester pal Mayor Marty Walsh.
“I think the mayor we have in place now cares deeply about the homeless,” said Baker. “It’s difficult to come up with solutions off the cuff.”
The Walsh administration was represented by cabinet-level officials, all of whom were mercilessly heckled. “Where’s the Mayor?” shouts threatened to derail an introduction by Chief of Civic Engagement Jerome Smith, who eventually said Walsh had to skip the meeting because he was undergoing kidney stone treatment.
Smith said that the city is planning to fast-track construction of a new shelter at 300 Frontage Road, near I-93 close to the South End, that would house in excess of 400 people. The $2.1 million plan would be completed before the end of winter, though most meeting attendees balked at what they described as a “Band-Aid” on a larger systemic crisis.
“Now is the time, not in six months,” declared one of the many homeless women who spoke. “I might be dead by then. Would you put your mother outside because there wasn’t a bed available?”
Aside from shelter, many advocates spoke out in support of the hundreds of people who had been in long-term recovery programs on the island, many of which have been left to battle their addictions alone in the streets.
“I just got a call that another one of my former clients had died. That’s the third call I’ve gotten since the bridge closed. I don’t want another call,” said service worker Lynnel Cox. “My son is in relapse right now. We cannot wait for you to build this building.”
The first public comments were enough to drive out many of the South End resident association leaders, who likely planned to speak in protest of building a new facility so close to the neighborhood. Many of the residents slipped out, however, once they sensed their “quality of life” arguments would be trumped by passionate activists more concerned with people losing their lives to systemic neglect.
“In my job, if I didn’t troubleshoot a problem like this, I would be fired,” said Kara Slattery, who works for one of service programs that operated on the island.
In the immediate wake of the closure, the city designated the South End Fitness Center (SEFC) as temporary shelter housing for about 220 people. Case in point: more people than that attended the Blackstone meeting.
“The SEFC is a basketball court on the third floor of a building,” said Cleve Reas. “I won’t be there tonight because I chose to be here. This isn’t a shelter, this is a warehouse. I think we deserve more than a warehouse because we are human beings.”