The late afternoon sun dips behind a cloud over Dorchester Bay, casting a soft shade on Boston’s eastern skyline. What is already an idyllic scene looks spectacular when viewed from a bus cruising over the deteriorating bridge to Long Island – a 1.75 mile-long would-be paradise that is home to Boston’s largest emergency homeless shelter.
The Boston Harbor land mass was home to a Civil War fort before the city bought it in the late-19th century to house facilities including a home for unwed mothers and a hospital for chronically diseased patients. At one point there was also a minimum security mental institution that in part inspired the setting for Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island.
These days, Long Island is an isolated purgatory of lost souls, addicts, and survivors, home to rehabilitation clinics, a prison re-entry program, and a shelter that regularly houses more than 400 people. All this in a place that otherwise resembles a vacation destination.
“One time Donald Trump tried to buy the island because he wanted to turn it into a casino,” said Clay, a man who, after staying there for five months, has become a shelter regular. “The governor said, ‘Nah, keep it for the homeless.’ Think of the balls on that guy.”
Writing about homelessness is a dicey venture. At best. Most relevant statistics are in dispute since there is no easy way to account for people who have fallen through the cracks. Besides, what good are facts when you’re one of the hundreds of wayward individuals who spend summer nights dreaming of a way back over the harbor to a Boston that is permanent?
In short: There’s no way a relatively privileged middle-class reporter could actually know what life is like on Long Island without staying there. And so in June, that’s exactly what I did.
I’m waiting in line for intake at the Woods-Mullen Shelter in the South End when I first hear Clay’s version of Trump’s failed effort to acquire the island. At 29 years old, his friendliness shines brighter than his tired eyes. Clay is among the many shelter denizens who had nowhere else to turn after being released from jail. He makes no excuses for the drug arrest that lost him his livelihood and kids last winter. Instead, he focuses on getting his life back on track. Today, Clay promises to show me the ropes, much like some other kind person did for him when he showed up for the first time.
“When you’re on the bus, make sure you look out the window,” Clay says. “It’s the best view of Boston you’ll ever see.” His second piece of advice is that I sleep on top of my shoes and backpack to avoid theft, but I don’t have to worry about that until later.
It takes about 30 minutes to get from the shelter in the South End, out to I-93, and through the green suburbs of Quincy before reaching the island. This includes having to stop before crossing a 63-year-old bridge – off-limits to the general public – in order to let out half the passengers so they can board a separate bus, which is waiting. Hauling 38 people over the crumbling bridge would be too much, but apparently it’s safe to transport 19 bodies.
The view is a nice distraction from the fact I’m on a bridge with a 10-ton weight limit in an 18-ton bus. Once on the island, the ride crawls through a wooded path straight out of a campfire ghost story, complete with barren institutional bunkers en route. We pull to a stop in front of a four-story brick building. The shelter employees aren’t guiding us or offering directions, so I quietly follow a pack of regulars off the bus and up the wooden stairs that lead to the building.
As soon as you arrive on the island you begin the routine of claiming a bed, collecting linens, and grabbing a meal.
I follow a crowd up to the second floor and into a wide and dimly lit bunk space filled with over 150 beds – most of which are unmade with just a pale green rubber mattress and a matching waterproof pillow. Some are already claimed by sleeping bodies. There are plenty of linens though. Although there’s a cool breeze, it’s still too warm for most guests to even need sheets.
The walls of the building are covered with a variety of notices explaining what to do in the event of an overdose, when certain case workers will be available, things of that sort. I study a large sign that lists about 30 infractions that will get me temporarily if not permanently kicked out of the shelter, such as starting fights, selling drugs, or having any sort of sexual contact with another guest.
I know what not to do, but nothing indicates what I should be doing. And so I keep following the shrinking crowd.
A dull-eyed health commission staffer in what resembles a safari vest looks beyond the blue glow of his computer monitor as he assigns me a bed and gives me a ticket for two sheets, a pillow case, and a blanket. I pocket the linen ticket, along with my crumpled paper bus pass which entitles me to dinner.
On my first night and on the evening I spend on Long Island the week after, the grub consists of some kind of meat stew or chili over rice or pasta. Plus a fruit or vegetable option and bread for every one of the 2,000 or more meals produced here every day. As for accompaniment, there are in excess of a dozen round tables that make it inevitable for strangers to sit together. I try to strike up conversations, but most guys keep to themselves.
On one occasion I get to dine with a 55-year-old named Jake. He used to tackle infernos for the Boston Fire Department, which has its training facility on adjoining Moon Island. These days, Jake says he occasionally stays on the island because “his old lady throws him out.” He wistfully describes a 13-year relationship that went south, and makes it seem like the island is his place in lieu of a friend’s couch. He doesn’t mind being here, he says, because he’ll be home soon enough. But when I see Jake the next week, it’s a similar story. “I had it out with my old lady again the other night,” he says, still wearing the same worn white t-shirt and checkered hat.
There’s plenty of time to kill after dinner. The front yard, a roughly 20-by-50-foot patch of dirt flattened by years of loitering, is the only outdoor space we are allowed to roam, which seems like a waste considering the beautiful surroundings. Some people are content standing alone and smoking cigarettes, though most cluster into small groups and huddle over the four wooden tables within the fenced enclosure, or along the stairway by the entrance.
This is where Clay introduces me to some of his friends. At 61, Patrick is the elder of the group. He says he’s originally from Chelsea, and at one time made a living as a car mechanic. But then technology evolved, leaving him ill-equipped for employment. Patrick’s arthritis only worsened his job prospects. “Nobody wants to hire an old guy,” he explains, attempting to see Boston through the overgrown brush and across the bay. “The view is better during winter when the plants recede,” he says.
I ask Trey, a tall and shy 20-something, what he was doing before he wound up in the shelter, and he answers with a nonchalant smirk. “Drugs. Actually, I was doing drugs, then I was in jail for distribution.”
Buses bring guests in semi-hourly intervals until about 10pm. Some stay outside battling with the bothersome mosquito hoard, while others go to sleep or wander looking for outlets in which they can discretely charge their cell phones – the one lifeline that most shelter residents seem to have left.
Lights-out comes at about 10pm, though no one has to actually go down until midnight. “You’ve gotta watch out,” Clay says. “Not sleeping catches up to you.” The savvier guests go to sleep early so they can queue at 5am for the first bus back into Boston, but I wait until I’m one of the last remaining guests awake before crashing in my bunk at the end of a dark hall.
No one attempts to steal my shoes or backpack, though I do keep them underneath my pillow as I try to sleep. Without weeks of exhaustion to knock me out cold, I frequently wake up to sporadic coughing from throughout the room.
At 4am, an overhead intercom announcing something gets me out of bed. By 4:30, I’m waiting for a ticket on the 6:05 bus along with a few others who are lined up near the cafeteria. Most of them had enough sense to bring their rolled up linens with them to use as a cushion. I left mine on my bed upstairs. By the time the tickets are actually handed out, the line is about 50 feet long.
I collect my linen and trade it for a breakfast ticket, leaving me about 30 minutes to grab a coffee before returning to the yard to await the bus back to Boston.
“DON’T GIVE AWAY ANY CIGARETTES. YOU CAN SELL THEM”
I return to the island about a week after my first visit. Between the arrival and departure routines, I spend most of my time in the front yard learning from the group that gravitates around Clay. Back to what’s familiar.
On my sophomore trip, it dawns on me that Long Island guests are essentially trapped without access to stores. There are soda machines and snack machines available, but they only contain sugar-free options as part of a city-wide health initiative enacted a few years back. As a result, sodas with sugar and candy are popular commodities and routinely smuggled here for resale despite any commerce, legal or not, being explicitly forbidden.
In terms of low-scale entrepreneurship, I learn that the Marlboro Reds in my pocket fetch about 75 cents each. At least that’s what Clay says as Jay discreetly offers dollar Newports to people fresh off the bus as they walk past.
Later in the evening, Jay swaps his crumpled pack of Newports for a plastic grocery store bag full of assorted chocolates. Hershey’s bars, Kit Kats, and Reese’s Peanut Butter cups that he can sling for 50 cents apiece. Before long, Jay moves his entire stock to a guy who prides himself on being the go-to source for smuggled sweets.
In addition to convenience store fare, drugs are also bought and sold. With ease. In my short time I witness numerous joints traded and a casual exchange of pills for cash. A stocky man in a stained, striped polo shirt aggressively tries to sell me “Jimmies.”
The presence of drugs is no surprise to those who run the facility, which happens to be one of the few wet shelters in the system. This means that intake won’t turn away guests because they’re drunk or high. The practice is part of the health commission’s risk-reduction approach, as drug addiction and homelessness often come in pairs. For those struggling through such illnesses, it’s especially damaging to be denied basic shelter. The policy also ensures that someone is available to intervene in the event of an overdose, as opiate addiction continues to skyrocket among Boston’s homeless.
“In the last year, ODs have become common,” according to Beth Grand, Bureau Director for Boston Public Health Commission Homeless Services. When interviewed in late June after my stay, she said that there had been two near-fatal overdoses on Long Island in the last three days. In both instances, the victim was saved by the use of Narcan, which is available on every floor of the dormitory.
It’s no surprise that tragedy persists here. Spend each day losing out to the economy, your addiction, or your environment in a seemingly hopeless situation, and see how desperate you get for the slightest of victories. And hence the fights …
Before I realize what happened, the tall and aloof entrepreneur who bought Jay’s stash earlier is on the verge of a brawl after making a snide remark to an enterprising Newport salesman about owing taxes. As in local taxes. Some guests awkwardly watch the spat, but others continue with their own conversations as if there is little unusual about a shouting match. In the end, the lanky tax collector doesn’t want to lose his spot at the shelter, and so the fight dissipates before things get physical.
By nighttime I’ve declined several offers of pills, shared a joint with some people, and narrowly avoided starting my own fight with a guy who needed someone to punch. I concede defeat to the mosquitoes and go inside to sleep with about four hours left before I have to wake up and claim a ticket home.
The marketplace never closes. The following morning I resist the offer to swap my 6:05am ticket for a cigarette, a buck, and a later trip back to the city. By 6:30am, I’m back at the corner of Mass Ave and Albany Street in the South End, and free to resume life as an employed writer with a home.
After visiting the shelter, I contacted the Boston Public Health Commission with some pointed questions, and was offered a formal tour of the facility led by Bureau Director Beth Grand and Operations Administrator Liz Henderson. Of course, I accepted. The shelter is a lot different during the day when the building is mostly empty aside from a few individuals with no reason to return to Boston. Employees pleasantly greet me now that I’m on their side of the equation. The few shelter guests ignore my presence.
When discussing my experience on Long Island with friends and colleagues, I’m almost always asked about what screwed up injustices take place there, or whether or not my story will take down the Boston Public Health Commission. There’s always room for improvement, sure, but the truth is I have very little negative to report. There are certainly assholes left in charge on some nights, but there are also plenty of people honestly attempting to provide a way out of the shackles of addiction, a criminal past, or societal abandonment.
The worst part about the shelter begets the best part. There are 400-plus individuals enduring some of the lowest points of their lives, and in my two days of interacting with them I witnessed pain, aggression, and despair, but also the occasional glimmer of hope. If you found yourself in an extreme situation where you lost everything and everyone and all that was left were your own instincts, are you strong enough to survive? To rebuild your life? Most people aren’t ready for that question, but on the island there is no choice but to confront it.
Since I first met Trey, the former drug abuser and dealer, he’s entered an employment program with the shelter where he works 40 hours a week on the Long Island farm, producing vegetables for the cafeteria. The work keeps him outside all day and he says he enjoys the isolation of it. The job is part of a six-month program, but afterward he says he hopes to either continue with the work on Long Island, or find a similar gig somewhere else. “I could do that for the rest of my life,” he says.
Patrick is waiting a few more months for his 62nd birthday, which is when he’ll finally be eligible to collect retirement benefits through the Social Security Administration. “Once that starts,” he says, “maybe when I get three benefit checks I’ll have enough for a place.”
When we last spoke, Clay was about three weeks away from having enough money for him and his new girlfriend to get an apartment in Roxbury. He remains optimistic about being able to leave the shelter for good, despite the hurdles he has already faced in his battle to escape homelessness.
“There are people here who get comfortable, and they stay comfortable for 20 years,” he says. “Can you imagine that? Staying here for 20 years? Don’t ever get comfortable.”