Several years ago, many homeless and addicted individuals called Long Island home. The Boston Harbor Island was filled to the brim with social service programs. A farm helped feed those staying at a large shelter. A summer camp offered programs for adolescents from Boston’s at-risk neighborhoods. Closed to the public, the city-owned island helped 1,000 people each day.
The bridge to Long Island was condemned in the fall of 2014, and island life ground to a halt. The island was evacuated.
The island farm was run by Serving Ourselves, a Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) program that hires homeless individuals to work in a number of areas, including organic farming. When assistant farm manager Sara Riegler returned to the empty island to retrieve the farm’s chickens, she began to cry.
“From one day to the next we lost all contact with our clients,” she said. “We didn’t know where they were, we didn’t know if they had a place to stay.”
But at first the closure seemed temporary. The higher-ups told Riegler that it was likely that the farm would reopen either on the island or elsewhere in spring 2015. Those rumblings never came to fruition.
“My sense is that it’s a general lack of political will with regard to social services that seems, to me, pretty prevalent throughout the city government since the Walsh administration took over,” Riegler said.
The city worked to provide help to those who relied on the island’s services, and the bridge was demolished. Close to two years after the closure, the city is working on a cost-benefit analysis to decide whether or not to rebuild the bridge.
“The closure still has impacts. It really hit the community hard,” Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless’s Director of Legislative Advocacy Kelly Turley said. “The rug was taken out from under their feet.”
This summer, the farm that once fed the homeless is being revived, but it bears little resemblance to the Serving Ourselves farm. The land will be run by b.good, a Boston-based chain that delivers fast food made with natural ingredients, based on a partnership with Camp Harbor View, the summer camp serving at-risk youths.
The mayor’s office explained that because b.good’s work will benefit Camp Harbor View and no one else would be using the land, b.good will have access to it free of charge. There was no public bidding process for use of the land.
Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee member Jim Stewart described the city’s deal as nearing corruption.
“It seems really scandalous that the mayor would say ‘Oh sure, we’ll have a for-profit organization engage in a public relations campaign’ on a site that has a lot of significance for people who are trying to meet basic survival needs,” he said.
The b.good-run farm, to be named Hannah Farm, will donate 75 percent of its produce to Camp Harbor View. b.good expects 80,000 pounds of organic produce each year, and the harvest will be delivered to the campers’ families when camp is not in session.
Camp Harbor View suggested the partnership, according to the mayor’s office. The farm will not only provide the camp fresh produce but will also create educational opportunities. Campers will learn about healthy eating and urban agriculture and will help out on the farm.
“From learning how to incorporate healthy ingredients into their everyday habits to how to start their own business, we want to inspire these incredible kids and get them excited about real food,” b.good Co-Founder and Chief Financial Officer Jon Olinto said in a statement.
But many question whether the deal does enough.
“You can simultaneously applaud that good but still point to the greater injustice,” Stewart said. “To get some crispy vegetables for a certain segment of the poor and working poor seems a pretty lousy trade off for all the services and the basic protection for homeless people that was available out there.”
Serving Ourselves did not respond to requests for comment, but the BPHC is on board with the partnership.
“We’re thrilled to pilot this program that will bring the farm back to life and make it part of the Boston community once again,” Executive Director of the BPHC Monica Valdes Lupi said in a press release.
After the pilot license agreement ends in November 2017, the city will reevaluate the long-term use of the land and may put forth a request for proposals, which would allow the city to publicly bid out the land.
Riegler fears that the partnership with b.good is a stepping stone for the city to sell off the land to private developers.
“I think they’re sending a message that they’re interested in promoting private interests pretty directly at the cost of social services,” she said.