SIX MONTHS: Activists rally outside of Boston's City Hall

On April 8, six months to the day after the city of Boston closed the Long Island bridge, homelessness and substance abuse treatment activists rallied outside city hall and scored an impromptu meeting with the chief of health and human services.

The rally and a follow up press conference was organized by the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee, a group made up of homeless, activists and students. On October 8, the city closed the Long Island bridge, the only access route to the Long Island shelter—the largest shelter in Boston—and a number of other treatment, detox and reentry programs and beds. The city set up a makeshift men’s shelter of 250 cots and mats at the South End Fitness Center and three months later, in January, opened 100 beds at the new Southampton Street Shelter, a renovated building formerly owned by the transportation department. Southampton was supposed to open up another 300 to 350 beds by April following further construction (the building has three floors) but when April came, the city announced it wouldn’t be complete until summer.

Advocates say the city hasn’t done nearly enough to replace the 450 shelter beds and 250 treatment beds lost. Cleve Rae, who first became homeless just one week before the bridge closed, led the group in chants and spoke at the press conference. “The city is not doing nearly enough to rectify the situation they created,” he says. “Why is it we’re not being put into transitional housing? Why is it there is no affordable housing?”

Cherai Mills also speaks, describing overcrowded conditions at Pine Street Inn and Barbara McInnis. “We have to do a lottery every night and you never know if you’re gonna get a bed or a cot for the night,” she says. Women who can’t get into Pine Street Inn are bussed over to Barbara McInnis, where 45 cots for women are set up in the atrium. During the press conference, she also discusses the difficulty of affording rent in Boston. “Just getting a job doesn’t end homelessness,” she emotes. “Rent is too high to afford. Women are coming back to the shelter every night… And [at the shelter they’re] not getting a good rest to go back to work. I applaud those women who work every and come back.”
James Shearer, columnist at Spare Change News and co-founder of the Homeless Empowerment Project, cites the loss of over 250 addiction treatment beds lost on Long Island, and how slow the city has been to replace them. “In November, I was sitting in a meeting and I was told replacing those beds were a priority,” says Shearer. “It’s April. I have had friends die out here. For us to be talking about the Olympics while people are dying is incredible, and insane.”

Medical students from local colleges also attended the rally and voiced support.
“More than 50 percent of the addiction treatment beds were lost six months ago and most of them have not been replaced yet,” says student Rebecca Lee. “As we all know there has been a huge increase in the number of opioid overdose deaths in the past few years—this winter was no exception—and we’re fearful some of those could have been prevented if the beds had been replaced in a more timely manner.”

Other concerns included the conditions of the South End Fitness Center, which has been operating since October.

After the press conference, the group of over 20 protesters entered City Hall and tried to march into the mayor’s office. The mayor was presenting his FY2016 budget at the time, and the activists hoped to catch him or one of his cabinet members afterwards. However, they were stopped by security and told that only eight of them could wait in the office for space reasons. The eight were chosen—including Rae and Mills—and they went to the office while the rest went to sit in the city council chambers.

Once in the office, the group of eight sat tight, organizing their papers, thoughts and arguments. A different security officer then told the group that only four of them could stay in the office. The group of eight huddled to decide what to do. Some called security’s requests “divide and conquer” tactics and figured it would be better to leave or get kicked out as a group of eight than split up again. Others thought it was better to have a small presence than no presence. In the end, the security director left the office and the group sat tight, waiting.

The budget hearing ended shortly after 11 a.m. and in walked two members of the mayor’s cabinet: Chief of Health and Human Services Felix Arroyo and Chief of Civil Engagement Jerome Smith. BHSC members immediately grabbed their attention.

“We were hoping to speak with the mayor,” says Rae to Arroyo.

“I’m not sure I can do that for you,” says Arroyo. However, Arroyo himself was free to talk, and after one phone call, was ready to meet the group in the city council chambers.

There, the BHSC members told Arroyo they felt there was a lack of communication and transparency regarding efforts to resolve the crisis. Arroyo agreed, and gave some new information to the group. For example, Arroyo announced that while construction on Southampton won’t be complete until the summer, 150 more beds would be open by the end of April, bringing the shelter’s total to 250.

Jesse Maxwell asks Arroyo, “Why hasn’t Boston looked at other city’s housing success towards ending homelessness? It’s been proven that it’s cheaper to provide housing than run shelters.”

“We are doing just that,” says Arroyo. He explained that Boston and its homelessness task force (which was established at the end of 2014) has been meeting with representatives from Houston to learn more about their success on ending homelessness through housing. Houston has reduced homelessness by 37 percent since 2011 after initiating their Housing First model. “The model you see us present will look very similar to what Houston is doing,” said Arroyo.

The BHSC also expressed concern for the lost treatment beds. As one female member said, “Nothing currently available comes close to the care we received on the island.” Arroyo didn’t have any answers regarding the beds being replaced at Andrew House—the detox center was owned by Bay Cove, a private organization—but says he hears negotiations with a local hospital are underway. Bay Cove didn’t respond to interview requests from Spare Change News.

Arroyo did tell them that the Boston Public Health Commission will be opening a 75 bed residential facility in Mattapan. Forty-five of those beds will be for transitional clients, and 30 will be for Wyman Reentry clients. The facility, located at 201 River Street, will open the week of April 13, per the BPHC.

Arroyo also agreed the city needs to do a better job protecting “whistle blowers” at shelters. For example, a woman who complained about bed bugs at one site was reportedly mistreated by the shelter afterwards. “That’s obviously not acceptable,” says Arroyo.

The whole group—BHSC members and officials alike—had to clear the chambers while the city council prepared for a meeting at noon, but Arroyo promised to schedule another meeting with the group the following week.

While many seemed satisfied with the impromptu meeting, there was still an energy or tension in the air. Many learned that progress is being made, but at the same time, six months later, it still isn’t enough for most people—especially the clients who need help most.