Agreement Shocks Neighbors, Some in City Hall
By Monday morning, tables, lamps and other hotel amenities were being taken out the front door of the Best Western Roundhouse Hotel on Mass/Cass in the South End to make way for a controversial new homeless shelter, but many in the neighborhood – and some in City Hall – had just found out about the plan last Friday.
When the news leaked out on Friday, neighborhood groups in the South End quickly began meeting to digest the shocking information and figure out what to do. Several neighborhood groups put together quick meetings to analyze the shock factor of adding a homeless shelter in place of a hotel in an area that wasn’t supposed to get any more human services – period.
The period has been replaced with a comma, though, as Pine Street Director Lyndia Downie this week said they are moving forward and will transfer approximately 180 individuals into 92 rooms at the hotel – which they have leased for one year. The clients are being transferred from a Suffolk University dorm they have been in since the pandemic hit the homeless population hard in April and the City moved fast to find alternative housing in empty dorms across the City. To socially distance its population, Pine Street had used the Suffolk dorm, but Downie said they have to be out by the end of July – and their choices came down to the Roundhouse or nothing.
“This is a decision between two bad choices,” she said. “I understand people’s frustration. I do. I’m grateful for the people in the South End we’ve worked with. We do see this as a bridge to housing and as a way to a supportive housing system. In the short-term, this is the solution. This pandemic has forced a lot of decisions quickly that I don’t think any of us want. Unfortunately we’re still in this. The numbers have leveled off, but we’re still watching the numbers very closely.”
She said she knows it is a compromised area, one that no one thought would be the site of an additional shelter to spread out clients – as many in the institutional community and residential community (including Pine Street) have met monthly for years trying to figure out how to reduce services like shelters and Methadone clinics in the area. Adding one there is not what Downie wanted to do, but she again stressed there was no other option.
They did hire a hotel broker, and made tons of phone calls. She said the search was hampered by hotels that weren’t interested, and those that had better, more lucrative offers, from colleges and universities looking to supplement dorm space.
She said it was apparent that spreading out clients worked in reducing COVID-19 numbers. She said they had more than 35 percent positive tests in the homeless population at the end of March. After they spread them out in the dorms, that number went down substantially and is now below 2 percent. She said the hotel was a rushed situation, and they need to be in there by Aug. 1, but she said the other option is that these folks would be on the street, likely on the street in the South End.
“We would have had to say not everyone can go back to the shelter and good luck,” she said. “In our opinion, a significant number of those people would have ended up on the street in the South End. We understand this isn’t what anyone wanted, but the pandemic has forced us to make short-term decisions and try to put long-term solutions into place.”
That might be the situation, but few in the neighborhood are impressed with the outreach and transparency in the matter – something Pine Street has done excellently to date. Some have said not even Mayor Martin Walsh was fully aware this was happening, and likely wouldn’t have supported it had he known it was coming to Mass/Cass.
A request for comment from the Mayor’s Office was not returned by press time.
Some neighbors said a private meeting of elected officials, Pine Street officials and other stakeholders on Mass/Cass did not go well earlier this week, and though the plan seems to be going forward now, Pine Street has not won any friends – and has likely disappointed many ardent supporters.
Bob Minnocci, a board member for Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA), was outraged by the plan, and he said he counted himself a supporter of Pine Street before.
“Pine Street Inn couldn’t have chosen a worse location for placing nearly 200 highly compromised individuals,” he said. “They’re putting these individuals in the middle of the worst open air drug market in the city and these people will be in harm’s way…These individuals could have been placed in separate locations, such as shelters that had space. Pine Street had been thought of as being a good neighbor…In a major respect, I feel they have been disingenuous and it will be difficult for them to recover their reputation, which previously had been stellar.”
South End Forum Moderator Steve Fox said the decision was a “gut punch” and was something that went against years of community meetings with Pine Street and other providers working to stabilize Mass/Cass. Those meetings, known as the Opiate Working Group, have taken place almost monthly for four years, and this is the type of plan everyone at the table – including Pine Street – sought to prevent, he said.
“From a public health perspective, selecting a place where vulnerable homeless or those struggling with addiction or in recovery or suffering from mental health issues are placed in the most active opioid trade area in the city defies logic,” he said. “It is true that Pine Street has enjoyed a terrific reputation and partnership with the South End, but for those of us who have been working Mass and Cass issues for over a decade, the selection of this location for a new shelter operation is a gut punch in terms of our initiatives to try to reduce the concentration of services and activities in this part of the South End. Before this announcement by PSI, I do not think that a single member of the Working Group would have supported the addition of any new provider or service at Mass and Cass.”
Fox said he hopes that the greater community will resist making it a NIMBY issue, especially since the plan has been to reduce services at Mass/Cass for years – and that the South End has been so accommodating to new services located there over the past 15 years. But enough is enough, he said, and without any outreach until last Friday, it’s a bad idea.
“This is not about meeting need,” he said. “All of us who have been working on these issues for many years, were not only surprised, but incredibly disappointed – including our local elected officials – that notice was only given to us last Friday.”
Bob Barney of Claremont Neighborhood Association agreed with Fox, and said they are in alignment on the issue.
“This siloed decision by PSI is disturbing and disappointing,” he said. “I hope this decision is re-evaluated.”
Downie said the shelter is not a long-term solution, but rather a bridge to get these 180 clients into supportive housing without putting them out on the street. She said the Housing Placement team will be working in the Roundhouse with clients to help locate them to permanent, supportive housing during the year-long lease. Some have said there is a plan for Pine Street to buy the Roundhouse for permanent, supportive housing – which would fall more in line with published plans for the Mass/Cass area. However, Downie said there isn’t a plan for that now, and it is too early to say if that could happen.
She said the push has to be getting housing for very low income people in a much faster way than has been done in recent years.
“We’ve done everything we can to reduce shelter beds, reducing our beds by 30 percent,” she said. “We’ve moved towards housing in an incremental way. I don’t think we have the luxury of incremental anymore.”
City officials have indicated that with the plan going forward, they would institute some sort of agreement to protect the neighborhood, including no backfilling rooms when clients leave, providing detailed statistics about housing placements and potentially providing a shuttle service for clients.