A proposal to turn a historic former fire station on Beacon Street in Newton’s Waban section into studio apartments for chronically homeless people has drawn sharp criticism from neighborhood residents, who say the facility would bring a bad element that would put their children in danger and fracture the calm of their quiet village.
“We live in a community where our kids walk to school, they walk to get ice cream or go to the deli. And I want to know why we shouldn’t be worried about our kids walking on their own through the community” if the housing proposal is approved, Jill Balmuth said Thursday night during a packed public meeting in the Waban Library Center. The tenants, Balmuth said to a round of applause, “are not gonna be accepted in this community. So I’m not sure it’s not fair on either side.”
The “Engine 6” project, proposed by a private nonprofit, Metro West Collaborative Development, calls for the old brick firehouse at 2042-2044 Beacon St., currently in use as nonprofit office space, to be converted into 10 affordable housing rentals that would be managed by the Pine Street Inn organization. Nine of the units would be rented to formerly homeless people, and the 10th would be used by an on-site house manager.
Emotions ran high at Thursday’s meeting, with residents occasionally shouting over speakers, and bursting into applause and hoots after comments, both for and against the project. But while many said they were flatly opposed, others called for open minds, and said fears of violence or break-ins by the tenants were overblown.
“I would like to think that our community would be willing to step in and support people who need our help so much more than other people do,” said David Jones, who also received an ovation. “When you think about this from the point of view of human rights, these people are suffering, these people deserve a better life.”
The tenants would be “chronically homeless,” which means they have a disabling condition and have been homeless for a year or more, or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years, according to information posted by the Pine Street Inn on the city’s project website.
Metro West would work with the permanent housing arm of the Pine Street Inn to select residents, who would have to pass “stringent screening.” An applicant with a history of addiction must show he or she is in recovery or treatment, and capable of living with support, and residents of the property would not be allowed to use alcohol.
An applicant with one drug-related or violent criminal incident in the past year, or multiple incidents including drug trafficking and personal drug use or possession, would not qualify to live at Engine 6.
On Thursday night, many residents voiced concern over Pine Street’s published admission criteria that indicated level one sex offenders would be eligible for housing at Engine 6, though level two and three offenders would not be.
On Friday, Pine Street’s director of permanent housing, Ralph Hughes, said that in response to those fears, the criteria will change: now, anyone with a conviction for any sexual offense at any point in their life, he said, would be ineligible for housing at Engine 6.
Anyone who has been convicted of murder or manslaughter would also be denied a spot, he said.
“Basically these are people who are trying to get their lives back together,” Pine Street Inn spokeswoman Barbara Trevisan said in an interview Thursday. “For the most part, our tenants do very, very well. A lot of them work, some of them volunteer. They just sort of blend into the neighborhood.”
Pine Street, she said, has about 800 formerly homeless clients living in housing in Boston and Brookline. It is not uncommon, she said, for neighborhood residents to be wary of the newcomers at first.
“There’s an initial fear of what are these folks going to be like?” she said. “But I would say in almost every case, people keep to themselves, some people go out and garden, some do volunteer work. We have one fellow who works at polling places.”
When there are problems, she said, they are typically minor, such as residents getting into a disagreement, or someone being loud. According to Pine Street’s statistics, 90 percent of people entering permanent housing remain there for at least a year. About a third of all tenants are women, and the average age is 53.
According to city officials, Newton already has 57 units of permanent supportive housing, including 28 units for single men at the West Suburban YMCA. Police Lieutenant Bruce Apotheker said the city does not have a problem with repeat calls to any of those units.
Still, residents at the meeting said that allowing a group of chronically homeless people, mostly male, who could suffer from mental illness or drug addiction to live in their neighborhood was a terrifying thought.
“My sister operates a small dental practice at the house. The door is open during the day. My daughter lives in the house, she’s young,” said Charlene Zion, who lives on Beacon Street. “I have many concerns about nine chronically homeless individuals living within such a short distance of my home. . . How can I be assured that they will not find an unlocked doctor’s office an attractive area to search for drugs? How can I be assured that my daughter, who comes home late at night from work in our dark driveway, is safe from these individuals?”
The aldermen moderating the meeting, Deborah Crossley, Brian Yates and John Rice, said they would get answers to residents’ questions from Pine Street. The former fire station is not owned by the city, and the city is not involved in the sale, though project developers have requested city-administered funds in order to move forward.
The Engine 6 development, projected to cost about $3.1 million, would be funded by a mix of private and public money. It has already cleared several hurdles, with the Newton Housing Partnership and the city’s Planning and Development Board both voting to recommend giving it nearly $1.4 million in federal funds managed by the city. The recommendation is to be forwarded to Mayor Setti Warren after a 30-day public comment period that ends July 2.
If Warren approves funding, Metro West plans to purchase the building on Aug. 12. The project would still need a comprehensive permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals to set up the apartments.
Many at the meeting said they had only recently learned of the proposal and felt railroaded; there were calls to kill the project altogether.
“They really would be better served being in area such as, I hate to say this, but in Waltham. Because they would have a streetscape where they can find services. Like coffee, restaurants,” said Leonard Sherman. Waban is a family neighborhood, he said, and Engine 6 could bring crime and lower property values.