Evacuation of Elderly Chinese Immigrants from Condemned Chinatown Building Underscores City’s Lack of Elder Homeless Services

Noelle Swan
Spare Change News

When the Boston Fire Department and Boston Inspectional Services condemned a building in Chinatown earlier this month, some 40 people were immediately displaced, sending the city officials scrambling to find emergency housing for the mostly elderly, non-English speaking residents.

Some officials called Adrienne Beloin, Outreach Director at HEARTH—a nonprofit organization aimed at eliminating homelessness among the elderly. She did not have any easy answers.

“The fact is there’s not an easy way for anyone to relocate instantly into housing,” Beloin said. “I’m afraid they’re going to be homeless—not unlike the elderly homeless that we serve in the shelters every day—until that magic room becomes available or a subsidy is approved for them.”

Although the residents of Harrison Avenue will likely receive some degree of priority because they suddenly became homeless through no fault of their own, their names have been added to already lengthy waiting lists, Beloin said. In her experience, advocating for individuals in similar situations, it can take up to a year to connect an individual with an affordable subsidized apartment.

For now, the City of Boston has made a concerted effort to find safe and adequate shelter for these newly displaced people. The Office of Emergency Management put many of them up in hotels for the first several nights. Since then, half of them have moved to area shelters and the other half are living at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.

Sheila Dillon, housing advisor to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said that the city has made efforts to connect these residents with elder services and made sure that the residents are registered with the Boston Housing Authority. Many have already secured a spot on the waiting list for subsidized housing, but that wait can be very long, especially if there is need to live in a specific neighborhood.

For both recent immigrants to the United States and those who have been here for a while, Chinatown holds a scent of familiarity and a chance of employment in a country where they do not speak the language. Executive Director Courtney Ho of Chinatown Main Street has provided translation for the Cantonese-speaking residents during closed-door meetings with city officials and area service organizations to try to figure out where to place them temporarily. She said that many of the residents told her that they work in the neighborhood until the early hours of the morning, after the MBTA has stopped running. Both temporary housing and their eventual homes must be in Chinatown. She added that many of them hope to return to the same building once the landlord addresses the safety issues.

A Larger Problem

There was a time in Boston when seniors experiencing homelessness had a place to go. Pine Street Inn set aside a separate space, as a dignified shelter for older men and women experiencing a housing crisis through a collaboration with Boston Medical Center’s Elders Living at Home Program. Budget cuts in 2008 resulted in the collapse of this program, leaving few options for seniors seeking emergency housing.

Director Eileen O’Brien, of Elders Living at Home, said that she also received a number of requests for assistance from both city and state agencies hoping that she could offer help for the residents from Chinatown. “All we were able to do was say, ‘Well, that’s something we could have helped with and we can’t anymore.’ We have developed a really successful model for care that no doubt would have served them greatly, but the fact is, we are unable to do it because we lack the resources to do it.”

While the Elders Living at Home program still provides vital support services to formerly homeless seniors, this represents only a fraction of the services it once was able to provide. This particular incident may have shed light on this hole in Boston’s safety net; however, O’Brien said this is not a new problem. The city has gone to great lengths to find the residents of 25 Harrison Ave. shelter where they can be together as couples and as a community. However, people end up homeless all the time as the result of a fire or some other crisis, and for many of them, the only place to go is a general population emergency shelter. Couples must separate and shelter residents often have to leave during the day.

O’Brien explained that emergency shelters tend to be crowded and chaotic. Many shelter residents suffer from severe addiction and substance abuse issues. “For older people in that mix, the likelihood of being very afraid, being victimized, or getting lost in the shuffle is very high. Those things really happen.” Many find that the safest course through the shelter is to stay on the fringe and attempt to blend into the woodwork. That same defense mechanism keeps them from accessing assistance.

“The ironic thing is people over 62 are eligible for benefits and housing by virtue of their age. The solution isn’t difficult. There just haven’t been consistent resources to see it through.”

Sidebar: A building waiting to be a disaster

When the Boston Fire Department responded to a fire alarm at 25 Harrison Avenue in Chinatown, on Feb. 8, firefighters were unable to locate the source of problem on the fire alarm control panel, requiring a total walkthrough of the building. They did not find a fire, but they found tremendous potential for one. Building owners Alexander and Julie Szeto of Southborough have since received numerous citations from the Fire Department and the Department of Inspectional Services and may face fines or criminal charges if concerns are not adequately addressed.

Steve MacDonald, spokesman for the Boston Fire Department, said that while sprinklers were present in the first two vacant floors, there were none in the three floors that functioned as living quarters. Certain structural supports appeared to be missing entirely and the some emergency exits required a foot and a half step up to access the door. The owners were unable to present any record of inspection of the fire alarm system.

MacDonald described the interior of the building. “The third through fifth floors each has 11 rooms for rent and that’s what they are, they are each just one room. You had a common bathroom on each floor, which consisted of a small sink, a shower stall, and a toilet. That was for all 11 rooms to use. Then you had, I wouldn’t even call it a kitchen, you had a sink and a four-burner cook top. No oven, no refrigerator.”

This style of housing is called a boarding house or Single Room Occupancy (SRO) and can be an affordable option for low-income individuals. According to Sheila Dillon, housing advisor to the mayor, the Szetos did not secure the appropriate license to run this kind of residence. The Szetos could not be reached for comment.

Caption: Boston Inspectional Services shuttered the entrances to 15 and 25 Harrison Avenue in Chinatown on Feb. 8, rendering some 40 residents homeless. The residents, mostly elderly Chinese immigrants, have been relocated to area emergency shelters. Photo: Noah Fournier






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