LONG ISLAND — For decades, the city-run recovery campus here in the middle of Boston Harbor served as a refuge for those in need of a place to stay or treatment for addiction. On some nights, hundreds of people slept in rows of tightly spaced beds.
Today, eight years after the city abruptly closed the Long Island facility because the bridge that connected it to the mainland was deemed dangerous, all that remains are decaying brick buildings ― boarded up and pockmarked by broken windows, with ceilings crumbling because of water leaks and walls splattered with graffiti.
That’s the scene that greeted a team of Globe journalists who recently explored the 225-acre island that has been closed to the public. They traveled by sea ― a half-hour boat ride ― because the bridge was razed in 2015.
The campus once housed full-service treatment programs, ranging from detox beds for those in recovery to a farming program for juveniles engaged in the criminal justice system. It also was the site of a homeless shelter for men and women. As many as 800 people received care at any given time. A chapel and fire house were built as well.
A recent tour through some of the dozen buildings found clothing and bedding strewn about, mixed in with unused needle packets and empty bags of chips and crackers. Rodents, raccoons, and coyotes — it appears ― roam the structures, leaving paw prints and droppings.
In one room, a yellowed copy of The Boston Globe from Oct. 8, 2014, remains on a couch. That was the last day the campus was open. By that evening, residents, patients, and staff had been evacuated, bused to a city that really had nowhere to put them. Many left their belongings behind. They are still here — prescription bottles, Nike sneakers, tooth brushes, shampoo, suitcases, stuffed animals — serving as an eerie reminder that people who once depended on Long Island to keep their lives in balance now must seek help elsewhere. If they can find it.
Much of the focus on Long Island has been about whether a new bridge can be built. The City of Quincy, concerned about traffic that has long run through its neighborhoods to get to a bridge, is waging a protracted legal battle to fight it. But the deteriorating condition of the campus highlights another herculean hurdle: the immense time and resources that would be required to rebuild the campus itself.
An analysis done in the waning weeks of former mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration in early 2021 pegged that cost at more than $500 million to just rebuild the campus, a figure that would almost certainly be more today because of inflation and supply chain issues. And without a bridge, construction costs would be considerably higher because materials and workers would need to arrive by boat.
All of this poses an enormous dilemma for Mayor Michelle Wu, who made it a priority to address the humanitarian crisis in the area known as Mass. and Cass. Is the development of a state-of-the-art recovery campus, like the one her predecessor envisioned roughly two years ago, a realistic option for dealing with the urgent problems of opioid addiction and homelessness?
“Long Island is a foundational jewel that we have to leverage,” said Charles Gagnon, chief executive of Volunteers of America of Massachusetts, a nonprofit that operated three recovery programs on the island. “We are in this unprecedented position. We have more resources on the local, state, and federal levels than in the history of community-based services.”
Indeed, as time has passed, potential funding sources for a re-imagined Long Island campus have grown. Municipalities and the state are not only awash in federal COVID-19-related relief money but are also divvying up a $525 million settlement with drug companies that made or marketed opioids that were found to have contributed to the addiction crisis. Funds from the settlement — brokered by Attorney General Maura Healey, the Democratic candidate for governor — are to be spent on harm reduction, treatment, and prevention.
After the closure of Long Island, Volunteers of America bought a building in Dorchester to help make up for the loss of recovery beds. Other organizations did likewise. The city opened a new homeless shelter at 112 Southampton St., by the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. But many question whether those efforts are enough to compensate for the loss of services when Long Island shuttered.
Gagnon doesn’t view Long Island as the only solution, but rather an opportunity to hit the reset button in Boston and the region on how to address homelessness and substance use disorders.
“We can do systemic transformation with these resources,” he said.
But it can’t be a Boston effort alone. The city will need support from the state and federal governments beyond the rebuilding of the campus, including accounting for transportation costs to and from the island — whether it be by bridge, or by ferry, an idea Wu seems to favor.
Healey said she supports restoring the recovery campus.
“We need to do everything we can to expand access to long-term treatment, recovery, and care for substance use disorder — and reopening Long Island should be a part of that,” she said in a statement.
In his 2019 State of the City address, then-Mayor Walsh began laying the groundwork for reopening Long Island by explaining how the plan “is not about rebuilding a bridge. It’s about rebuilding a life, by getting that person, and thousands of others across our region, the care they need to get well.”
With the help of outside consultants, the Walsh administration spent the next two years analyzing and developing a master plan, but those blueprints were never shared publicly, as Walsh was on his way to Washington, D.C., to serve as US labor secretary.
His administration’s January 2021 presentation, obtained by the Globe, outlined a plan to “transform the island into a state-of-the art, comprehensive, integrated and seamless system of care for people with substance use disorders (SUD) and co-occurring mental health and medical disorders, including infectious diseases.”
The campus, in this vision, would feature 500 recovery beds and 440,000 square feet of space, a mix of short- and long-term residential treatment services that would allow some people to stay for up to 18 months. While the plan said many of the existing buildings could be rehabbed, it called for construction of a new health center and other facilities.
In January, shortly after she took office, Wu and a team of public health, public works, and safety crews boarded a Boston Fire Department vessel and toured the campus to examine its potential use.
Wu did not commit to a plan at the time, though she said that any use of the island would require a long-term strategy. In the meantime, her administration has focused on immediate responses to the crisis at Mass. and Cass, primarily by getting people out of tent encampments and into transitional housing.
Still, on any given day, more than 100 people are on the streets by Mass. and Cass, some of them openly shooting up drugs, or selling them, under makeshift tents that are resurrected as often as they are taken down by city workers. Sex trafficking and prostitution are rampant. Residents and business owners continue to raise concerns about public safety, vandalism, and vagrancy.
All the while, a potential remedy, at least a partial one, remains — rotting away just off the coast.
During a recent interview on a Facebook livestream, Wu acknowledged that any efforts to address Mass. and Cass are “going to feel like treading water until we have the root causes addressed with the space and services available immediately.”
As for Long Island, she remains “skeptical about a bridge,” noting that it could take five or more years — and costs could soar as high as $300 million — to repair its footings and replace the span, which was roughly two-thirds of a mile long. The city will continue to pursue permits for the bridge, Wu said, but she suggested a ferry service would be more efficient.
Wu also budgeted $20 million in the current fiscal year for building stabilization and preservation on Long Island, but it’s not clear if and when a shovel will hit the ground. That’s a modest figure, given the city once estimated it would take $100 million to stabilize the buildings.
“The number one thing is renovating the buildings to be able to house services that we need, and we can figure out the transportation,” she said during the interview with James Hills, who runs the Facebook page “Java with Jimmy.”
A ferry service may be closer to reality than some might think.
A little-known provision tucked in the state transportation bond bill Governor Charlie Baker signed in August includes $10 million for ferries to Long Island. That money would pay for two boats and infrastructure improvements such as new docks on the island, said state Senator Nick Collins, who inserted the language in the bill.
Collins, who last toured Long Island several years ago, said the buildings “had decent bones” and could still be operational. Some of Long Island’s strongest proponents have rejected the idea of ferries, saying it would be difficult to evacuate people quickly in case of an emergency. And the waters get pretty rough in the winter.
But Collins said the funding could pay for service to and from the island three times a day — morning, noon, and evening. And the City of Quincy has been supportive of a ferry service.
Even though Boston has yet to formalize plans for Long Island, Collins said he pushed for the ferry line item to remove “a barrier on why something can’t happen.”
Despite the neglect that has caused the recovery campus to fall into disrepair, it’s not hard to see the underlying attraction of being on Long Island. It’s a tranquil setting, removed from the chaos and temptations of a scene like Mass. and Cass. Water laps at the shoreline. The views across the harbor to the skyline are magnificent. This could be a place to turn a life around.
Brendan Little, a former policy director for Walsh’s Office of Recovery Services, who helped draft the mayor’s 2021 master plan, recalls his time on the island helping counsel troubled youth. He also went to the island for recovery services nearly two decades ago, when he was 14.
Little said the island can’t be viewed as a cure-all. He worries that the energy and resources it would take to reopen the campus will distract from dealing with the root causes of the homelessness and opioid epidemic.
Still, finding transitional housing is the biggest challenge. He believes the island could make a major difference in getting and keeping people off of the street.
“There’s an opportunity here because there’s a blank slate, and there’s ability to think in a new way and do it differently than it was in the past,” he said. “Long Island would be ideal for that.”