By Seth Daniel
Homeless advocates are calling the continued closure and uncertainty around the Long Island Shelter – and particularly the plan around rebuilding the bridge – one of the most glaring, but unreported, problems facing the city and its most vulnerable population.
On Monday afternoon, about 50 activists and former residents of Long Island Shelter gathered on City Hall Plaza to try to drum up support for returning the shelter to its 100-year-old mission of serving the homeless, while also connecting the disastrous situation in the South End’s Methadone Mile to the Long Island closure.
“Long Island saved my life,” said Aubrey Esters at the rally. “It’s awful walking down Mass Ave now in the Methadone Mile and seeing these folks walking down the street with nowhere to go and not being able to get a detox or get a bed or get the services that I got on Long Island. Long Island took me out of my addiction and gave me a clear path to permanent housing and employment. Without Long Island, those programs don’t exist.”
The Long Island Shelter closed two years ago in the fall quite abruptly when the expansive bridge connecting Quincy to the Island was condemned. The replacement of that bridge has been the subject to a lot of discussion since that time, and the City has recently indicated that they’re weighing all of their options.
“Right now, a cost-benefit analysis is underway in order to determine the future of the Long Island bridge,” said Bonnie McGilpin of the Mayor’s Office in July. “No final decisions have been made yet. However, it is important to look at all of the progress the City has made in housing the homeless since bridge was closed.”
That progress came in a report issued in July regarding the long-term plan to move homeless veterans and the chronically homeless into permanent housing.
At the same time, residents in the Worcester Square area were called upon to endure a temporary situation whereby a second homeless shelter was established to replace the Long Island shelter. That has morphed into somewhat of a permanent situation now, with Wood-Mullen Shelter serving women and the newly-created Southampton Shelter serving men. The addition of the new shelter and elimination of Long Island has exacerbated the homeless population in that small area of the South End and Newmarket areas – often spilling over as far as Tremont Street and Ramsey Park.
Cassie Hurd of the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee – which formed right after Long Island closed – said on Monday that there are plenty of solutions to get people out to Long Island, but none are being explored.
“There was a just a report on television that it cost the City $5.5 million to keep everything working on the Island even though no one is out there,” she said. “If taxpayers are paying that much money, the public good isn’t being served because people are walking Methadone Mile with no services and nowhere to go. There is no reason a ferry couldn’t be used or a Fire or Police boat to help in this emergency situation. This is an emergency. We’ve heard that it’s too expensive, but our argument is it should be a priority. I you can build a $15 million bridge for General Electric out of the City’s capital budget, we should be able to go build the bridge again…There are other interests on Long Island.”
Hurd said her group and the homeless population is growing frustrated with the situation, as it was supposed to be temporary, and seemingly is not going that way.
A major concern for them recently in the battle to take back Long Island – and the spark that flamed the protest on Monday – was the two-year contract given to B.Good Restaurants to operate the farm on Long Island.
The contract began this summer on a farm that was formerly operated by Serving Ourselves and it was staffed by homeless people in a special program. The vegetables grown were sent to City homeless shelters and soup kitchens and Farmer’s Markets. The program was discontinued and the farm shut down when Long Island was closed.
Earlier this summer, it was revealed that the City had entered into a contract with B.Good to operate the farm. The restaurant was to staff the farm and provide 75 percent of its crop to Camp Harborview – a summer camp program for inner city kids. The remaining 25 percent was to go for use in the restaurant chain.
Sarah Reever, who formerly was the assistant director of Serving Ourselves, said she and others are worried about what is going to happen to Long Island – and some were saying the B.Good contract was a “stepping stone” to inviting private development on the Island.
“The camp is only open eight weeks so we’re still trying to figure out how 75 percent of the crop is going to the camp,” said Reever. “They keep 25 percent for their own private use. Even if it’s just that 25 percent, they are using taxpayer public lands for furthering their own private business. They are not paying rent and they are not employing homeless adults like we were. They are employing B.Good employees. For Boston’s homeless community, so much was lost with Long Island. It was a sanctuary for people living on the streets. I want Long Island returned to the services it has provided since the late 1800s.”
Part of the platform called for in the protest on Monday was to cut the contract short, ending it after one year instead of two, and then returning the Island to homeless services and supports.
There were no greater advocates than those who had benefitted from Long Island in the past.
“In 2006, I realized I was too old to live on the streets and I knew I couldn’t survive in Pine Streets general population,” said John Lana. “I got help on Long Island. I might be one out of 10,000 people, but I am a success story. That program I benefitted from is no longer there for the next person who was in my shoes. When the Island closed, I lost touch of a friend of mine. I looked for her. On February 19, I found her and she had died on the streets. It’s not what we’re looking for from our government officials. Housing is for everybody. We need that Island back.”