More Than Just the Bridge: Long Island Clients and Allies Speak Out for Housing, Rehab and Improved Services

On October 8, the Long Island bridge—the only access route to Boston’s largest shelter (450 beds), roughly half the city’s detox beds, and a total of 15 programs, including recovery, transitional, and re-entry services—was closed down with only a four-hour notice. Cleve Rae, 58, who had only been homeless for a few days, remembers being on the bus when it was turned around: “I didn’t know where we were going. I still don’t know where we’re gonna go.” That night, they were “warehoused” in a waterfront building.

The city soon set up a temporary site at the South End Fitness Center (SEFC), a much smaller location, a basketball court that fits about 220 to 250 beds and mats, for male clients. Even though winter approaches, Jesse Maxwell doubts the makeshift shelter is ready for it: “The [roof] leaks, it’s cold, hard to stay warm, people sleeping on mats on the floor.”

He worries that one day, workers will find a client frozen to death, despite being indoors. Women and recovery clients are more separated and fractured. While some programs operate out of the SEFC and other shelters, there are already reports of relapses, of crowded shelters, of people just “missing” without a central location or network for them.

It went on for one month, a month of mostly silence from city hall save Mayor Marty Walsh’s promise to rebuild the bridge in three years, a $90 million project, and restore the island’s programs. Then, on November 12, the city revealed some proposed plans to relocate displaced clients and services and held a forum at Blackstone Community Center in the South End to discuss them.

That same month also saw two vocal groups come together. The Boston Homelessness Solidarity Committee formed within two weeks of the closing. Regular members represent groups like Act Up, the Mass. Alliance of HUD Tenants Association, and a number of homeless or formerly homeless individuals.

In fact, of BHSC’s four spokespeople, three are currently homeless, one is formerly homeless. Demands from this group include replacing the lost shelter before December 1 (either re-opening Long Island, possibly with ferry service, or relocating all services), increasing subsidized housing and rental vouchers, and that the city council, mayor, and governor declare a State of Emergency to resolve the issue.

The second is Hand Delivered Hope, founded by Lynnel Cox, mother of an addict who once used the Island’s services. Her organization places a bit more emphasis on restoring recovery programs, and includes former clients.

The forum

The forum was held at 6 p.m. Most shelters require clients to check in from about 2 to 4 p.m., meaning the homeless who actually did show up to speak wouldn’t have shelter that night. Liddy, who works with homeless women in the South End, called the officials out for the time, as well as the small venue, saying, “This whole forum is poorly planned.”

The mayor didn’t show, having just left the hospital that day for kidney stones. Representing him were Chief of Civic Engagement Jerome Smith, Chief of Health and Human Service Felix Arroyo, Boston’s interim Commissioner of Public Works Michael Dennehy, and interim Director of Boston Public Health Commission Dr. Huy Nguyen. Also in attendance were city councilors Ayanna Pressley, Michelle Wu, Frank Baker, and Tito Jackson.

The current front-runner for a temporary emergency shelter is 300 Frontage Road Annex, located close to Pine Street Inn, has a vague completion date of winter 2014. It will be made up of modular buildings, cost $2.1 million to build. The city already owns the land—it’s the site of a former methadone clinic, and when the plans are finished will contain 400-450 beds and program space. The runner-up locations pose other problems—a South Boston Massachusetts Port Authority building doesn’t have bathrooms, and a Boston Redevelopment Authority building, also South Boston, wouldn’t be available until August.

A few other smaller locations are being considered to house recovery and transitional programs, many of which also offer beds, mostly in Mattapan or the South End. The city has dismissed operating a ferry service, for cost and emergency concerns, even though Jack Connors, the business man who cofounded Camp Harborview, offered to fund the estimated $2 million needed to rebuild the island’s dock and $3 million for ferry operations.

The crowded hall in Blackstone wasn’t happy with the timeline. Liam Grant, a BHSC spokesperson, said, “winter is coming and these people need houses now. Not 10 months from now, not 10 weeks from now. What are you doing about it immediately?”

“Three weeks is a death sentence for an addict,” said Lynnel Cox.

Officials were also grilled about beds and space for women.

“From what I’m hearing, women have got the shaft since the closing—on your watch,” said Cherie King, a BHSC spokesperson, formerly homeless. “Women are completely underserved because of your census system that says women aren’t as homeless as men. Will you equally provide beds for women?” King also called the proposals band aids, and added that there are “so many things to take into consideration,” stressing that many clients’ belongings include paperwork and birth certificates.

Another Long Island client noted that men got to keep some sense of community at SEFC, while women were completely fractured and divided—split among different, smaller shelters, if they can even get in.

Lisa Jenkins, who profiled in the Globe recently, living in the woods because shelters are too full or are difficult to enter, also spoke. Her story detailed the struggles of homeless women, but she also stressed the difficulties faced by working homeless. She’s a personal care attendant, and notes that balancing work and shelter life is difficult. She said, “If you don’t get there in time, they tell you ‘you can’t come [in]’.”

Nguyen acknowledged the trails of women and working homeless, and said they both want to go “past this crisis” and ensure the options they present “retain and hopefully expand the services available to homeless women. We are acutely aware of the problem, and we could do more.”

No one was completely surprised the bridge was closed. As detailed in a Spare Change News feature earlier this year, the bridge was in notoriously bad shape. However, many demanded answers about the four hour evacuation notice—“why not 24 hours?” and “Why not let people get their stuff first” were common questions.

City officials said Mass. Department of Transportation played a role in closing the bridge: Commissioner Dennehy said that Boston’s city engineer and MassDOT together “determined” together to close the bridge, after reviewing an inspection report, and set the 9 p.m. deadline for closure. Chief Arroyo also said the city “got word from MassDOT” to close the bridge. Commissioner Dennehy later doubled down, saying “We were given these orders directly from MassDOT upon evaluation of this report that we had to evacuate the island.”

However, MassDOT spokesperson Michael Verseckes later told Spare Change News, “The decision to close the bridge was not MassDOT’s and the agency has no statutory authority to require its closure.”

In fact, the Long Island bridge doesn’t fall under state jurisdiction at all: “It is under the jurisdiction of the city of Boston. Also, the street that the bridge carries over the water is a private way, and access across the bridge is restricted by a physical barrier. These factors combined preclude MassDOT from having any responsibility for maintenance or authority for inspection.” A third party consultant inspected the bridge for the city, and the city engineer brought it to MassDOT. However, Verseckes says, MassDOT only offered an advisory opinion. “And to emphasize: it was an advisory opinion only.”

Not everyone is a fan of the bridge or the island’s shelter. For example, Cheryl, a woman in a wheelchair who lives outside due to the lack of beds, asked the city to “spend the $90 million for the bridge on housing vouchers instead.” Among homeless clients, opinions and hopes are more varied, and go beyond fixing the bridge.

“Shelters aren’t the answer,” said Jesse Maxwell, another BHSC spokesperson. “We need housing. Temporary housing leading to permanent housing is the answer and should be addressed. Sheltering is just a band-aid.”

A few people, like Nicole Sullivan, challenged the city’s spending on the innovation district and a new prison.

Advocates of the island’s recovery programs were in attendance, too. Lynell Cox acknowledged dissenting feelings about the island, but said, “you can build a building anywhere. The community that was on that island can’t be replaced.” She grilled the officials for over ten minutes. “Where are the medical records?” she asked, “Do you have temporal milestones for these projects?”

Dir. Nguyen said each program has stewardship of those medical records, and said they are using “all the resources we have” to build the sites as soon as possible. However, as SCN previously noted, programs are also separated from their belongings—in this case, records, paperwork, materials needed to help and refer clients.

Promises were made that night. “As you go about the planning, would you please consider putting a homeless person on your committee?” asked Cleve Rea. “We may not be the source of ideas, but we’re a great source of feedback.”

“Yes,” said Chief Arroyo. “Absolutely.” When the crowd pointed out he should have both a man and a woman, Arroyo again said “yes.” (The city did not have an update on this promise in time for press.)

When Director Nguyen was pressured to commit to consistent communication with the clients, he said, “we can do an updated communication plan with the clients… I think we could do every two weeks.”

Requests for a state of emergency declarations weren’t as well received. When Michael Kane, a member of both Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants and BHSC, asked the mayor’s reps and city councilors to declare a state of emergency, Councilor Pressley said “it would just confirm what we already now.” Jerome Smith said he would “absolutely” ask the mayor about it. Many feel a state of emergency would let the city expedite the relocation process, creating more space and opening up more funding for these efforts.

At any rate, further discussion among city officials may take more than just the current bridge crisis into account. “What was presented today is what we can do immediately to deal with the crisis,” said Arroyo. “But now we’re now thinking, how do we deal with homelessness, period?”

The rally

One week after the rally, there wasn’t much of follow up about the bridge from the city about the bridge. The belongings retrieval system went into effect on November 13, and according to McKenzie Ridings, a spokesperson for BPHC, the first barge of personal belongings arrived from the island a few days later. Clients call a specific BPHC number and provide relevant info, and their requested belongings will be held at Woods-Mullen for up to seven days. Clients can also request their items be held on Long Island for up to three months (assuming they have storage space on the mainland).

There was just as much frustration at the rally as at the forum a week earlier. Lynell Cox announced that state reps were meeting that morning about the very issue. The rally started at City Hall and ended at the State House, representing the ralliers call for both the city to act sooner and the state to get involved. In fact, the portion at the State House was planned to coincide with legislative committee’s meeting about the bridge.

Matt Gamen, a local poet who has dealt with homeless and addiction in the past, also lent support, reading two poems (one at City Hall, one at the State House). Ganem, who was a heroin addict and homeless when he was 21, said “The homeless and the addicts… are treated like we’re less than.”

Heather Benjamin is a graduate of Hello House, a recovery program on the island. She’s nine months sober, but told the crowd she fears relapsing. “I was able to put my recovery first on that island,” she says. But now, “I lost my whole routine, my foundation … my recovery wasn’t coming first off the island.” She later told me the island helped her rebuild her life—from getting sober at Hello House, to finding work in the island’s farm program, to getting a contracted bed (a specific, guaranteed bed each night) in the island’s shelter. She was slated for a bed in Project SOAR. The island closed when she was visiting her mother; all she had on her was her clothes.

State Senator Robert Hedlun, East Weymouth, made a surprise appearance at the rally. He says any solution at this point will have to come from state resources. He notes securing state funding for the bridge may prove difficult: transportation funding is competitive, the bridge serves a small constituency, and there’s a history of conflict between Boston and Quincy over the bridge.

While Boston owns the bridge and both Moon and Long Isalnds, Quincy provides the only land access, meaning they must approve all bridge repairs—a frequent source of arguments between both cities. Quincy residents and officials are also frustrated with that the islands are off-limits to anyone but Island workers and clients.

However, a compromise like opening up parts of the restricted island up for public parks or recreations (an old Quincy demand) would make it an easier sell: “It’d lend itself to a much better argument if you can prove it benefits more people,” says the senator.

Sen. Hedlund, who is on the transportation committee, admits he “didn’t realize the level of frustration” among citizens, or how little had been accomplished by Boston. “I thought there were people behind the scenes working this out, but clearly that isn’t the case.” He may not be the only official surprised by the outcry.

“If the city could do it, they’d have done it by now,” says Cox.

Jackie Smollett, a Hello House grad who now runs a sober house in Quincy, says she has already buried three friends since the closure, all of whom were using the island’s services at the time. One was Stephanie Eranio, also from Hello House, who received a moment of silence at the rally’s start. She overdosed one day before her bed opened up at Smollett’s house. A second friend, Jeff Bailey, was using the Andrew House Detox center, which has 60 beds in total. She declined to name the third friend.

Smollett stressed the need for immediate action. “Two weeks is too long,” she said. “Even two days is a death sentence for an addict.”

A sign, carried by Cheryl—the same Cheryl from the Blackstone forum—read “This is about more than the Long Island” bridge. Indeed, this is a huge intersection of housing, homelessness, addiction, recovery, dignity, funding, and infrastructure. There are over 21,000 homeless people in Boston today, a problem much bigger than 400 beds. It’s about more than a bridge; it’s about an entire system.

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