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Adrian Walker

Worthy battle for homeless ends in victory

Bob Taube sounded like a man who had won a drawn-out battle he never really expected to fight, which is exactly who he is.

Taube runs Boston Health Care for the Homeless, a group that provides medical care in clinics and shelters across the city. It serves about 12,000 patients a year, and has won kudos for its service to a population that is beyond needy.

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When the decision was made to renovate an old shelter in Jamaica Plain and turn it into permanent housing, the group thought it had lined up support in the places where it was most needed — the mayor’s office and the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

But Taube’s group ran into opposition from a pocket of well-heeled Jamaica Plain residents who tied the project up in court for two years. The long-running battle ended for good last week when the Supreme Judicial Court refused to take up an Appeals Court ruling backing the project. Finally, the legal battle is over.

Which means that the good things can now begin. Later this year, construction will begin on 30 efficiency apartments for people who are now homeless. The project will also include 20 beds for hospice care.

The need to help patients get off the street had become obvious. In seeing the same patients return for services over and over, Taube saw how much their medical problems contributed to the lack of stability in their lives. People with diabetes couldn’t store insulin. Patients receiving chemotherapy missed sessions. People taking injectable medications had their syringes stolen.

“I think our core understanding is that ultimately what the patients we serve need — in addition to responsive health care — is a stable way to live,” Taube said last week. “The cure for what ails them is housing. What we provide is important, but housing is really in the long run what changes lives.”

The project is a joint venture with the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp., which will renovate the property, and the Pine Street Inn, which will manage it. All of their expertise came in handy in shepherding the idea of homeless housing through a legal maze no one expected at the outset.

I’ve written before about the opponents of the project, well-meaning but clueless people who claimed that the presence of formerly homeless people would represent a blight on their neighborhood and property values. Led by one property owner — a lawyer, of course — they insisted that a handful of sick homeless people would bring crime and general distress to their street.

After several losses in court it was clear that they had little hope of prevailing legally, but they then offered to raise money for the project if Taube would just put it anywhere else.

The opponents weren’t necessarily representative of the neighborhood, much of which always supported the idea.

“A lot of folks said what has made JP a great community over the years is that this is a welcoming community,” said Richard Thal of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation. “We wouldn’t have gotten as far as we did without their support..”

Of course, 30 apartments will barely make a dent in the messy business of giving health care to the thousands of homeless people who need it in Boston. No one pretends that this is a large-scale solution.

On the other hand, it will mean everything to the lucky people who get one of those 30 units, and will make a huge difference in their ability to address their health issues.

It is on their behalf that this battle was worth waging for as as long as it took. The $12 million project should open in about a year, not one day too soon for the people who need it.

It will be a psychological boost to their advocates, too. I asked Taube what it means to him to finally get a chance to move forward.

His response: “I’ve come out more hopeful that good things are possible.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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