South End neighbors call out the cavalry to stop Roundhouse shelter lease

Janey holds private meeting of elected officials to introduce idea

Several members of the South End are calling on neighbors to pick up their pens – or their computer keyboards – and flood City Hall and elected officials with opposition to a plan being pushed that would partially lease out the Roundhouse at Mass/Cass for low-threshold shelter space – a plan that some in the neighborhood believe is the first volley in transforming the former Best Western Hotel into another full-time homeless shelter in the troubled area.

The details of the plan, which the City won’t yet fully disclose, include the non-profit Victory Programs leasing 15 to 30 units in the former hotel for low-threshold housing space under a state grant. That would leave a lot of open units in the Roundhouse, and some worry the City’s health officials want to use the rest of the building as a third full-on shelter (in addition to Woods-Mullen and Southampton, but not counting nearby Pine Street Inn and Rosie’s Place).

The matter has been the subject of several inside discussions throughout the community, and even “stakeholder” meetings amongst those in leadership positions within the neighborhood, but it got its first public airing on Tuesday night at the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA) meeting and the message was – get ready for a neighborhood battle.

“It appears to us the City is behind this, but we don’t exactly know who started it,” said WSANA President George Stergios, who has attended several stakeholder meetings over the last three weeks. “For a lot of us, this represents a violation. We have been talking for the last five or six years about a moratorium on new social services. We have 55 percent of the shelter beds, and 70 percent of the Methadone clinic traffic and the only brick and mortar needle exchange. We believe it’s time for other areas of the City, and especially the state, to step up…They aren’t going to be using the whole building under this lease, and many think they may be looking at using the whole building as a shelter…We believe everyone needs to get very active and let all of the reps and councilors and officials know that we believe this is the absolute wrong place for such a facility.

“It’s hard for me to believe that people would get better (in recovery) if you provide them a bed…only a block from their friends and where they’ve been shooting drugs openly for the last few years,” he continued.

The plan is being pushed by Victory Programs, a recovery services non-profit, and it’s leader Sarah Porter has been talking with many neighborhood officials about the plan. She did not return a phone call from the Sun, but many in the neighborhood have said the attitude is one that suggests this is already a done deal.

The Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) told the Sun last week that they were not yet ready to speak publicly about the plan, but did confirm the City is not purchasing the building – which had been a rumor circulating. The building is still owned by the hotel, but had been controversially leased last year during the COVID-19 emergencies to the Pine Street Inn for emergency overflow shelter space for unhoused people. That ended July 1 and all Pine Street guests have vacated into better housing situations.

South End Forum Moderator Steve Fox said on Wednesday, he received an invitation to a follow-up July 30 meeting of “stakeholders” from Victory Programs, which stated that there will be no discussion about finding alternative sites. He said the messaging consistently from Victory Programs is there will be no process with the community and that the die is cast. The e-mail indicated the program has City and state support and will not be looking at other locations, but will be moving forward at the Roundhouse.

“They are telling all neighborhoods that the die is already cast and you are welcome to talk to us about what we plan but we’ve already decided,” he said. “Among the most insulting and arrogant messaging I have seen in 30 years and a complete surprise coming from a respected organization like Victory Programs.

“I am working with colleagues and neighborhoods, but it’s now clear that the South End Forum, Newmarket Business Association, Roxbury and South Boston neighborhood groups and business associations will need to call a public meeting – together with members of the Mass/Cass Task Force who have not been included in any discussion of this proposal – to talk about this plan and the complete lack of any kind of serious and respectful community engagement.”

Fox, like others, has been very vocal in his concern that the additional unused units in the former hotel could eventually be used by the City for a traditional shelter situation – and that being just a few short steps from the Atkinson Street “Comfort Station” where intravenous drugs are openly used and sold since at least last summer.

State Rep. Jon Santiago told WSANA that the plan had been floated to him about two weeks ago, and he said it has all happened so fast. He said Acting Mayor Kim Janey has approached him on it, and she was to have a private meeting with elected City and state officials Wednesday afternoon, he said.

He said he has clear concerns because this would certainly violate the promise of de-centralization of services in the South End and Mass/Cass, but he is also going to find out more information.

“We’ll see what she has to say,” he told WSANA. “I live one block from Mass Ave. I’m a long-time advocate of de-centralization of services here. I don’t think this project adds to that promise…The thing that also concerns me is the lack of communication.”

The news hasn’t been a secret to those in and around WSANA or Mass/Cass, but many on the meeting were stunned that the plan was being presented so resolutely by officials.

“The situation is not manageable now,” said neighbor Fernando Requena. “It’s not helping the people they want to help. It seems to clear to me, but it doesn’t seem clear to Kim Janey…It seems she’s trying to play all sides. That’s really unfortunate to me. We need to let Kim Janey know that once and for all, we are not going to take this.”

Andy Brand said maybe it might be wise to reach out to the many mayoral candidates and see if this cannot be stopped within the context of the upcoming election.

“They all have de-centralization on their website platforms, other than Kim Janey because she doesn’t have a position,” he said. “We need to be helping people get clean and this isn’t. One fear I have is the Roundhouse will become another shelter…That would just make it harder for places like the Hello House to survive and help people get clean.”

Stergios said he and other South End leaders are encouraging residents to flood City Hall and the State House with letters of opposition to the matter.

“While we all believe in and support Housing First models, we believe this is the worst possible place to put this,” he said.

“It’s been presented to us as a done deal and there’s nothing we can do to stop it,” he continued. “I don’t think that is true and I don’t think it’s too late.”

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