As a journalist, who cringes over my career choice whenever I check my account balance, there’s nothing quite like covering a homeless advocacy rally right before Christmas. Every blog pauper and media complainer should be made to do the same, as should everyone who moans about the size of their apartment or the job they’re fortunate enough to have in the first place. As I learned on Boston Common last week, more than 100 men and women in our shelter system died over the past year alone.
Of course, I didn’t attend the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee speakout on Friday for a boost in self-esteem. I was there before the annual Church on the Hill service in memory of homeless persons who passed because, frankly, I’ve recently been both confused and aggravated in attempting to assess the current picture of despair in the Hub. Two advocates I speak with regularly said there would be reliable voices in attendance, some of whom might offer clarity on a few discrepancies between the city line about homelessness and chatter on the street.
“I’m here to support others. We all deserve a home.” One woman spoke of escaping emotional abuse through Boston’s shelter system. “If not for them I would have kept being traumatized by my ex-husband. To me, shelter and subsidized housing is like hand-in-glove.”
In some cases, people specifically spoke about critical services formerly offered on Long Island, in the middle of Boston Harbor, which was recently shuttered after the lone bridge needed to drive there was closed due to safety concerns. “I am not the only success story out of Long Island shelter,” said one man. Another seeded more specific soil, noting the difference between mattresses and backbreaking floor mats.
According to City Hall, Boston has proceeded with a “temporary system to maintain access to emergency shelter, training, counseling, and support services to those individuals formerly receiving services on Long Island.” But while officials have derided criticism of their interim plan, listening to people who actually live in the shelters, I began to understand why some continue pushing in spite of Mayor Marty Walsh claiming the marooning of Long Island and its residents was a “blessing.”
Regardless of some blessed future prospect, the temporary truth is that the closing of Long Island is a nightmare. Furthermore, while he could have handled the immediate logistics better, the underlying infrastructure fail ain’t Walsh’s fault at all. Nevertheless, on this issue the mayor has shown skin as thin as that of his predecessor, which is ironic given the circumstances. Walsh of all people should understand that outspoken homeless advocates are merely applying pressure. In his former post, representative Walsh often fought outside the system on recovery issues, even as an insider, while his gutless legislative colleagues coddled Big Pharma.
Across Beacon Street from the State House on Friday, members of the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee spoke of familiar woes—the tedious bureaucracy that one must navigate for services, the dearth of resources available for distressed married couples. For the first time since the Long Island bridge closing however, there were also some promising assessments. Earlier last week, the mayor announced a new Task Force on Individual Homelessness comprising characters from all the usual partners: Harvard Medical School, the Pine Street Inn, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, The Ghostbusters. But while the press release was full of the usual rhetoric — they’re “analyzing the City’s resources and delivery systems,” and drafting an “Unaccompanied Youth and Young Adult engagement and diversion plan”—there may be hope after all.
On Boston Common, activists who criticized Walsh harshly over Long Island acknowledged there are increasingly open lines of communication between vulnerable residents and municipal agencies. For example, whereas there was formerly no place to complain in the event that shelter management retaliated against people protesting poor conditions, individuals are now instructed to report problems directly to the city’s health and human services department.
As it turns out, Walsh isn’t as stubborn as he comes off in interviews. In light of the mayor soliciting a range of input and the new displacement shelter his administration just announced for the Newmarket area, it seems Walsh is probably in tune with what the homeless population needs. What’s as important, however, is what people in dire straits don’t need, like politicians ladeling their soup, or Hallmark Channel-worthy names for initiatives like “Bringing Boston Home.” Mostly, whether Walsh ultimately heeds their calls or not, the homeless don’t need the person who stands to be their biggest ally taking personal offense to their gripes. They’re only trying to share their stories so they don’t wind up having their names read at Church on the Hill next year.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.