GIMME SHELTER: Mayor Walsh unveils Southampton Street shelter

Photo By Zengzheng Wang

Three months after the Long Island bridge was closed, the city has a new location for a long-term shelter. Located at 112 Southampton St. in the South End, the new facility operates in what used to be a sign store for the transportation department. The two-floor building is not fully finished or operational yet, but it will provide warmth and beds for 100 men. The shelter began admitting clients on Tuesday, Nov. 13, after declaring the first phase of construction complete. Phase two will involve rehabilitating the first floor and introducing at least another 300 beds.

It wasn’t a smooth journey to Southampton Street.

Mayor Marty Walsh’s decision to close the Long Island bridge—a decision made with the advice of the Mass. Department of Transportation—was met with an immediate backlash from the homeless and their advocates, especially over the fact that workers and clients were only given a four-hour notice to evacuate the island. The island housed the city’s largest shelter at 450 beds and the biggest detox center at 60 beds. Also located on the island were recovery resources, transitional programs and beds, and a re-entry program. Overall, the island saw 1,000 clients per day and sheltered 700. For the first two nights following the bridge’s closure, shelter clients were held in a waterfront warehouse; eventually, the city turned the South End Fitness Center into a temporary men’s shelter, placing 250 cots and mats close together on the basketball gym floor. Some island programs also operated from the SEFC. Other programs, like Safe Harbor, an HIV support program, were moved to Woods-Mullen and other sites.

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The city didn’t hold its first meeting on proposed replacement sites until one month after Long Island’s closure. Back then, Frontage Road, a fairly vacant area in the South End, was the frontrunner location for a shelter replacement. Citizens grilled city officials at Blackstone Community Center’s November forum, while the homeless demanded changes to the system—more housing vouchers, better workers and cleaner facilities.

In December, a whole month after the Blackstone meeting, the city finally announced that Frontage Road was no longer being considered as an option—South End residents had voiced strong opposition, and there was talk of using part of the site for a new soccer stadium. However, Mayor Walsh says the South End community was misrepresented in the media: neighbors argued that Frontage Road wasn’t appropriate and, as the Mayor pointed out, the new location “is a much more fitting site.”

The new site is located across the street from a fire station and is a short walk from the Woods-Mullen shelter (where shelter intake is processed) and the Boston Medical Center.

image7After approving of Southampton Street in late December, the first phase was completed within two and a half weeks. The second floor is full of bunk beds, painted walls and clean, shiny floors. However, the second phase might not be complete until the spring—meaning an extra 100 beds may be all the city can offer for the rest of the winter.

Still, city officials are very proud of the new facility and at a November 15 press event gave props to the trade workers who prepared the shelter within two and a half weeks. Mayor Walsh, Chief of Health and Human Services Felix Arroyo and Interim Director of the Boston Public Health Commission Huy Nguyen all spoke, giving thanks to the workers and tradesmen who made the opening possible.

“At one point, we had three shifts going on at once,” recounts Mayor Walsh.

John Greenip, Vice President and Operations Manager of Turner Construction—the new site’s contractor who also spoke—called the shelter the most personally rewarding project he’d worked on yet.

Beth Grand, Director of Homeless Services Bureau and the final speaker, thanked private shelters for their cooperation in sheltering clients.

The new shelter is much more spacious and less cluttered than both the South End Fitness Center and Long Island. One common complaint about the former concerned the lack of toilets and showers: six toilets, two urinals and a communal shower with six heads for 250 men. Southampton currently has five toilets and eight showers for its 100 clients. The new floor plan is still in development. Four offices are also on site to help clients with case management, including social work, placement and housing support. The shelter is a first come, first serve facility, so no beds are reserved.

It’s worth noting that the closed recovery and detox beds still haven’t been replaced. The main goal at Southampton is to replace the beds lost from Long Island, says Director Nguyen. After that, the city will look at placing recovery programs on site. However, no detox beds will come to Southampton; rather, the city is proposing to place them at Ridge Street in Mattapan, along with Wyman Reentry.

The fate of the women’s shelter is still uncertain at this point, though the future may hold big moves. According to Director Nguyen, the new Southampton site may be designated a men’s-only shelter. If that happens, Woods-Mullen will become a women’s shelter. Since Long Island closed, Woods-Mullen has often been operating over capacity, sheltering over 200 people per night—roughly one third of them women. The shelter has a baseline of 190 beds.

This isn’t the end of the story. Boston is still short of beds. The shelter will face challenges as it grows and the city knows it still has work to do. Phase two is slated for completion this spring.

Many advocates doubt whether these developments are enough and worry that they come too late. In a Boston Globe opinion piece, local religious leaders said “too little is being done to meet the escalating needs of this… homeless population.” The Boston Religious Leaders for Long Island Refugees warned that despair is rising among the displaced. “There is already more drug abuse, more alcohol abuse, more violence and the tension is rising,” says one homeless client quoted in the piece.

However, the opinion piece ends with vocal support for the mayor’s efforts while announcing the launch of a daytime shelter. Called the Boston Warm Day Center, the service begins at 9 a.m. this week and will operate out of the Old South Church until March 31. More information on the day shelter is available at OldSouth.org.

Photos: Zengzheng Wang

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