Nowhere To Go


Boston’s Long Island Shelter abruptly closes.

Imagine you are coming back to your house after a long day of class only to be told that Harvard officials deemed your residence unsafe. You are unable to go to your room and gather any of your belongings or important documents. Harvard has made no concrete plans to relocate you and the other 450 displaced residences from your house. While the eleven other houses have a few open beds, navigating the system to gain access to them proves incredibly difficult, especially because you do not have the necessary paperwork to apply for housing. It is November, and you know that New England’s harsh winter is fast approaching. When you ask around, trying to gather clues as to why your house was closed down, Harvard offers no response. Was there a fire? Did some sort of natural disaster happen? When can you return?

This sounds like an extreme hypothetical out of some sort of apocalyptic film, right? Unfortunately, this situation is real, and just happened in Boston. On Wednesday October 8th, in what appeared to be a doomsday-like situation, Long Island Homeless Shelter officials were given 4 hours to close down their facilities, pack their belongings, and leave the island. The island, home to 450 shelter guests and 265 people in residential substance abuse treatment programs, was closed after the bridge that connected the island to Boston through Quincy was decommissioned.

For the large number of homeless people who were not at the shelter at the time, important possessions were left behind. Items such as medication and documentation were left stranded on an island they could not return to. In a recent Boston Globe article, a nurse from the detox unit of the shelter says, “These are the most vulnerable people in our society, and they were just put out, like trash.”

Within the last five years, homelessness within the state of Massachusetts has increased by 40%. Massachusetts is believed to have the fastest growing homeless population in the nation. For the 450 homeless people displaced from the shelter, the city of Boston has failed to provide adequate interim housing. While an estimated 200-300 temporary beds have been created in the city, this is not sufficient to house those displaced from the shelter. Moreover, a number of issues have been raised with the setup of these emergency facilities. The South End Fitness Center, where 250 of the emergency “beds” are, has only 3 bathrooms, and 50 of the “beds” are actually mats on the floor. There are only 45 emergency beds reserved for women, down from 68 on Long Island. The current state of affairs fails to uphold current “right to shelter” legislature that has been a hallmark of Massachusetts’s commitment to the homeless.

Without promise for an increased number of emergency beds in the city, advocates continue to push for the city to reopen of Long Island’s shelter, and provide ferry service for travel to and from the island. While this continues to be debated, what remains clear is that a quick and adequate solution needs to be made within the next few weeks to secure winter housing for Boston’s large homeless community.

Currently the city has shut down the Long Island shelter for the foreseeable in order to make repairs to the bridge. It is estimated that this bridgework will take between five and seven years to complete. In the meantime, many activist student groups on campus are organizing various events to engage the greater Harvard community and work with Boston officials to outline a plan of action. The Phillips Brooks House Association along with representatives from its Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and Youth Housing Initiative, and members of Harvard’s Partners in Health Engage chapter attended a meeting on November 12th at the Blackstone Community Center in Boston to have an open forum with city officials, which was to have included Mayor Marty Walsh. Yet despite several officials in attendance stating that Long Island’s closing is Mayor Walsh’s number one priority, Mayor Walsh did not attend the event, the cries of “Marty! Marty! Marty!” throughout the event reflected the crowd’s frustration at his absence.
The mayor’s leadership is needed because the plan that was presented had some important failings. None of the replacement shelter beds will be reserved for women. Several homeless women at the community meeting made their displeasure about that clear. While prior to Long Island’s closing, there were 265 addiction treatment beds, city officials only presented plans to open 75 replacement program beds. Finally, while City Councilors Tito Jackson and Ayanna Pressley spoke eloquently about the needs for affordable and mixed housing in Boston in order to decrease the need for shelter beds, city officials presented no plans to build affordable housing.

The poignancy of the lack of affordable housing was brought home by a homeless woman who stood up to speak at the event and described herself as a professional—she works full-time as a patient care assistant. Despite working, she is homeless because she can’t afford rent. When she was staying at Long Island Shelter, she could get up early, eat breakfast, shower and change for work, get there on time, and get back in time to be assured a bed. Now, because of the bed shortage, finding a shelter bed requires getting in line early in the afternoon. However, she can’t afford to leave work early to wait in line, so she’s forced to sleep outside in order to maintain employment. With many state officials and non-profits advocating for more shelter beds — Boston can do better.
Even though city officials seem to be trudging their feet on taking action, various student groups on campus are working hard to spread the word about the Long Island Shelter. These groups are also trying to engage other major student organizations to continue discussions on meeting the needs of these displaced shelter guests.

For more information and to learn how to get involved, contact The Indy hopes Boston can accommodate the needs of these individuals very soon.