A Tale of Two Bridges: Marty Walsh Sets Priorities with the FY2017 Boston City Budget

On Wednesday June 22, Spare Change News co-founder James Shearer and I participated in a meeting between Mayor Martin J. Walsh and the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee. Our “ask” was unsuccessful, even as I appreciated Walsh’s gracious manner. I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for Marty Walsh, who appeared to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

This was an eleventh hour meeting that Walsh agreed to when members of the Solidarity Committee forced his hand in a public forum. At issue? The need for $5 million in the FY2017 budget to fund 350 emergency housing vouchers through a program called Housing First. The goal? To prevent 350 households in crisis from falling into chronic homelessness, which usually leads to a complete breakdown of individual ability to provide for oneself. Homelessness means jobs are lost, health declines and far greater expenses are incurred for social service agencies down the road.

Armed with an impeccably researched fact sheet that demonstrated the importance of supplying the vouchers as a way of preventing 350 households (both individual and family) from experiencing chronic homelessness, our hopes were high. After all, the short-term cost of emergency housing vouchers paled in comparison with the long-term costs to social services that are added when a formerly self-sufficient household can no longer provide for its basic human needs.

Because Massachusetts is a right-to-shelter state, refusing emergency housing vouchers to individuals means that our already overburdened shelter system (which has not fully recovered from being asked to absorb hundreds of additional clients after the closure of the Long Island facilities) is legally required simply to make it work, even if the funds do not exist to do this in a humane fashion. Last winter, clients slept on rubber mats and sometimes bare floors after being stuffed from one shelter to the next.

There is no margin to absorb a growing chronically homeless population.

It was 30 minutes after the meeting’s scheduled beginning that Mayor Walsh rushed into the Eagle conference room full of affordable housing advocates and did his best to demonstrate his interest in hearing from carefully rehearsed speakers who had waited a long time to tell the mayor what was on their mind.

There was nothing haughty in Walsh’s tone when he stated plainly, “This isn’t going to happen in 2017,” before spending the next half hour politely listening to those who had high hopes for the meeting. It’s hard to dislike Marty Walsh. He makes good eye contact, nods at the appropriate intervals and doesn’t radiate arrogance.

When Walsh listens to constituents, it feels as if he completely grasps the sense of urgency they communicate. After months of being subjected to the bluster of Donald Trump, Walsh’s gentle responses make listeners feel as if he truly believes that all life has value and that he is doing his utmost to protect Boston’s neediest citizens. Yet, despite the apparent empathy, a “no” response had been decided well before Walsh entered the meeting.

Walsh referenced City of Boston budget fundamentals to explain why he could not simply add $5 million in additional expenses to the budget. Approximately 75 percent of city revenues flow in through development sources, 17–18 percent through the state and the remainder from individual taxpayers and miscellaneous sources. In other words, Walsh does not have the luxury of writing blank checks to be cashed by an ever-expanding pie of credit and wishful thinking.

Walsh’s first budget was unanimously rejected by the city council, who cited concerns that the Boston public school system was underfunded. While the Boston public school system did not get everything it wanted, it won in the sense that its slice of the city budget was expanded when the final version of the FY2017 budget passed.

Earlier this spring, students, teachers and administrators participated in walk-out strikes that ended on the Boston Common. The Boston public schools showed that they were not to be trifled with and Mayor Walsh listened. To say no to this squeaky wheel would have brought political consequences. Leverage definitely plays a role in who gets their way when a final budget is approved.

Another winner in this revised city budget that could not afford to fund 350 emergency housing vouchers include developers seeking $15 million to fund the construction costs needed to repair North Avenue Bridge in South Boston. This bridge has been closed to vehicle traffic since the 1990s and foot traffic since 2014.

According to the Boston Herald, these bridge repairs were promised as part of the “package” that ultimately caused General Electric to choose Boston as its new headquarters, and they are therefore non-negotiable. This $15 million would come from parking meter revenues, much to the chagrin of City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George who objected on the grounds that this project should be funded through capital. (Keep in mind the largest source of revenue for the Boston city budget.)

Developers won’t be paying to fulfill this promise made to GE.

The now-funded repairs of this broken bridge call to mind the closing of the Long Island Bridge in 2014. Long Island had served as a refuge for over 700 Bostonians who were either homeless, recovering addicts or in need of social services. The abrupt closing of the Long Island Bridge separated over 700 of Boston’s most vulnerable people from caseworkers who were doing their best to stabilize them.

Promises that were made to replace all the lost beds have yet to be fully realized nearly two years later. The impact on public officials of the desperation of those experiencing extreme poverty is diluted by the lack of political clout Boston’s least fortunate wield.

This is more than a little bit concerning, given the reality that Boston is ranked worst in America for income inequality according to a Brookings Institution report released in late 2015. This echoes the Boston Globe report that half of Boston’s population have household incomes under $35,000.

What this means is that half of Boston’s households must rely on social services to avoid homelessness if they experience any sort of financial crisis that jeopardizes their living arrangements as a result of being priced out of market-rate housing. There is no margin to absorb financial misfortune for half of Boston’s households.

The $5 million dollars for emergency vouchers was a small request given the scope of our growing affordable housing crisis. It would’ve meant a lifeline for households dealing with unexpected health crises, job loss, divorce or other unintended trauma. Next winter, members of 350 households would not face overcrowded shelters, trauma and the host of unintended consequences that follow when struggling individuals have no safe place to call home.

When confronted with the reality of crowded shelters, Mayor Walsh apologetically referenced the reality that many of the individuals who populate Boston’s overcrowded shelter facilities come from all over the state, yet Boston is asked to bear a disproportionate burden of the cost. The implication was that the state was not stepping up to the plate and was leaving the City of Boston holding the bag.

About 45 minutes into the meeting, which was scheduled to be one hour, Walsh left to avoid being late for his next meeting. In the quiet that followed, Boston civil rights leader Mel King spoke with quiet authority.

“There’s something missing here. Where are the faith communities? Someone must bridge this gap.” He spoke about the sleeping bodies he’d pass each morning who sought shelter on benches outside his South End Technology Center. “They have nowhere else to go.”

Boston is facing a human rights crisis as our affordable housing crisis grows. Who will stand in this gap?

Katherine Bennett is executive director of the Homeless Empowerment Project, publisher of Spare Change News. She can be reached at director@sparechangenews.net and welcomes all questions, concerns, and feedback.

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