John C. Messinger
Harvard Medical School student who works at Northeastern University School of Law’s Health in Justice Action Lab
When the bridge to Long Island was demolished in March of 2015, so too was access to a range of services for individuals struggling with addiction and lack of affordable housing.
While many promises were made in the wake of the closure, much more could be done to aid the most vulnerable in Boston and surrounding cities. Rebuilding the Long Island bridge would be one such positive step, a view I share with Leo Beletsky, a professor and faculty director of Northeastern University’s Health in Justice Action Lab.
The closure of Long Island could not have come at a worse time. In recent years, housing and addiction crises have continued unabated. Homelessness remains an ever-present reality, while nationally the number of fatal overdoses has surged since the start of the pandemic. In Boston these issues came to a head when the city recently shut down the encampment of people living unhoused at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
Prior to its closure, the facilities on Long Island were expansive: The island, owned by Boston, for many years was used to house people struggling with homelessness and to provide drug treatment and other services. At the time it closed in 2014, the island was home to about 440 shelter guests a night, along with 250 to 300 individuals who were receiving services through the Boston Health Commission and other agencies, the commission said at the time.
Access to housing and treatment for addiction are critical to addressing the ongoing overdose crisis. A national survey in 2020 found that only 6.5 percent of individuals 12 and over struggling with addiction received treatment for their substance use. For those with alcohol and opioid use disorders, access to medications and medical care can dramatically reduce the risk of death. Additionally, stable housing appears to be a critical piece in preventing the development of addiction — one study found that early experiences of homelessness were predictive of subsequent drug use.
We must exhaust all options to provide a long-term, humanitarian option for those currently unhoused and struggling with addiction in the Greater Boston region. Reopening the Long Island bridge is just one small but necessary step as we seek to combat the ongoing overdose and housing crises in our state.
Bruce J. Ayers
State representative, Quincy Democrat
Expanding access to addiction treatment and recovery services is a key goal shared by both Boston and Quincy. However, dedicating significant public resources to rebuilding the Long Island Bridge while ignoring common-sense alternatives only prolongs the boondoggling that has come to define the entire issue.
Questions with Long Island have persisted over the years and remain unaddressed. The facilities on the island, which have gone unused since 2014, are structurally deficient and in need of major work, the scope of which is unknown. There are also serious concerns with the existing pier structures, left over from the old bridge, which a 2018 study found to be rapidly deteriorating.
In other words: rebuilding the bridge would become merely the first step in a massively expensive, years-long process. The price tag here could very well be in the hundreds of millions, before a single person receives any sort of treatment.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has an opportunity to reset this protracted debate, correct the mistakes of the past, and return the focus to ensuring access to recovery services for those in need. Viable alternatives exist to accomplish this goal.
The alternative that makes the most sense is a ferry service. The city’s own study in 2002 — conducted by the Cecil Group — supports this. It concluded that access to Long Island “should be provided via an established water transportation system rather than relying on an inadequate and deteriorated land-based connection.”
Boston could also look to establish drug treatment services closer to home, following the example of the Roundhouse Hotel, which is being used for transitional housing with services for people relocated from the Mass. and Cass encampment. Moving forward, Boston should conduct a thorough audit of vacant buildings that may be conducive to hosting these services more permanently. This is fiscally responsible and time-effective, and would place the patients closer to public transit, hospitals, and emergency services.
Addiction is a multi-faceted problem that requires a multi-faceted approach, and we all share the same commitment to supporting effective solutions. At the end of the day, Boston has many options that make far more sense than rebuilding the bridge. The city’s due diligence would save on costs, save on time, and most importantly, save lives.
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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