The first big news item that inspired the rally was the revelation that fast food chain b.good will now manage a farm on the island that once benefited the homeless. The farm was originally part of the city-run Serving Ourselves job program for shelter and recovery clients. The farm also produced 50 percent of the city shelter system’s food, according to the farm’s assistant manager, Sara Riegler.
Under b. good, 75 percent of the farm’s produce will benefit the kids at Camp Harborview—a summer camp held on Long Island. However, the takeover raised concerns about how easily the city handed over public land to a private company.
Riegler, who also spoke at the rally, described some of the benefits of the Serving Ourselves program, which consisted of 5 to 10 workers at a time.
“We could give them some space for their own physical and mental well-being,” said Riegler. “Each of them was assigned a case worker, and they were all working on housing. They could also build up a resume, train and could get a job later.”
While the city still offers work to shelter clients, Reigler doesn’t see the same focus on development and training. Riegler also said that there was a push to reopen the farm for the homeless, but this never panned out.
Riegler lost her job after the city shut down the Long Island bridge in October 2014. The bridge was the island’s only access route and was closed after city officials deemed it unsafe. The whole island was evacuated in a matter of hours and all services were closed. Eventually, a new shelter opened in Newmarket months later. Some recovery programs relocated to city shelters, while others took over a year to reopen (if they reopened at all).
Ralliers were also spurred by Fox 25’s report that the city spent $5.5 million in taxpayer money to maintain Long Island’s abandoned buildings. Additionally, the prevalence of drugs in Newmarket has concerned recovery advocates and South End business owners alike.
All this considered, activists believe reopening Long Island is an obvious decision.
“[The] site is in the epicenter of the opioid crisis,” said Cassie Hurd, member of the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee (BHSC), which organized the Monday afternoon rally. “That’s not setting people up for success in their sobriety. [Boston] has had difficulty with sitting, and yet here’s this site that residents are paying $5 million for… I think it’s a logical solution.”
“People are dying left and right,” said Aubri Esthers, a former client of the island’s services and a member of the BHSC. She argued that the closure had worsened the opioid epidemic after the state’s largest detox center, Andrew House, was closed for almost two years. (Andrew House is now based in Shattuck Hospital.)
It’s unclear if the Long Island bridge will be replaced or when, but activists believe that ferries could be a solution in the meantime.
Responding to some of the ralliers’ concerns, Boston Public Health Commission spokesperson Ché Knight said “nothing is off the table” when it comes to Long Island. However, the city feels confident in its mainland efforts. “We have better coordination now and find that bringing these services closer together in this area has been beneficial,” said Knight.
She also points to achievements outlined in Boston’s Way Home report—a survey on Walsh’s efforts to end chronic individual homelessness by 2018. Highlights from the report include: a name-by-name list of chronically homeless Bostonians; housing 101 individuals since January 2016; and the creation of a centralized database to better match people with their housing needs.
Knight didn’t dismiss concerns about the availability of drugs in Newmarket, but she also thinks people overestimate the island’s environment. “Everyone seems to think Long Island was this oasis… but life on the island was still tough,” she said. It was still possible to sneak drugs onto the island, after all. The Newmarket location consolidates many shelters and clinics and places them close to hospitals.
But advocates argue the island provided a safer distance from drugs and better concentrated service programs. As Spare Change News has previously reported, clients noted they could graduate from one island program and join another, rebuilding their lives—something the city seeks to replicate on the mainland.
Knight wasn’t sure why the island’s farm didn’t reopen under Serving Ourselves, but she praised b.good’s commitment to community. As for ferries, Knight repeated the city’s usual concern that it would make emergencies more difficult to handle.
Nevertheless, activists like Michael Kane of the Massachusetts Alliance of HUD Tenants point out that Long Island had a clinic and fire department and that the city could use ambulance boats. “The island was used long before the bridge was built in 1950,” said Kane, referencing its long history as a social services site.
Kane added that Jack Connors, who owns Camp Harborview, once offered to rebuild the docks for the city. “We hope that offer still stands,” he said.
While Long Island’s future is questionable, for many former clients, its past programs were an obvious lifesaver.
John Lerner told ralliers about a men’s program at Long Island that helped him sober up and find housing. Eventually he earned a spot in a YMCA program that provided housing, and he even went to college afterward.
“That program that I was able to take advantage of is no longer there for the next person walking in my shoes,” said Lerner. “It was taken away.” Lerner had a friend who was on the island at the time of its closure. She disappeared soon after. Lerner eventually found out that she died in the streets earlier this year, in February.
“This is not what we expect and are looking for from government officials,” said Lerner.