When the temperature fell below 32 degrees, homeless people were once allowed to stay inside South Station past midnight, turning the cavernous train hub’s concourse into a refuge during the day’s most frigid hours.
The arrangement was part of a 2015 agreement brokered between the city, state, and a private management company that oversees the South Station concourse. That winter was especially harsh, with Boston setting a record for snowfall.
A transit hub isn’t an ideal refuge for people living on the streets, but at least it was somewhere for them to go. Today, however, sheltering in the concourse area is not an option. “They’re closing up the station and locking it at 11 o’clock at night,” said Dr. Jim O’Connell, who stops by South Station once a week during his rounds caring for the chronically homeless who choose to live on the streets rather than seek a shelter bed.
“Places where people who are real street folks can go are getting fewer and fewer as time goes on,” O’Connell said. “The net result is it’s really hard, we think, for some of the very vulnerable street folks to find a safe place to be at night other than outside on the sidewalk.”
It’s an ugly truth about Boston, a city where the gap between the rich and poor grows ever wider by the year. How do the haves and have-nots coexist? Where’s the line between compassion and pragmatism? We’ve seen a similar scenario ― on a bigger scale ― play out for years at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
For more than three decades, O’Connell has had a front row seat to witness a changing city as cofounder of Boston Health Care for the Homeless. His life’s work is the subject of “Rough Sleepers,” a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder.
Rough sleepers is an old British term for the chronically homeless, and one that O’Connell says people living on the streets prefer.
There are many heart-rending parts of the book, but one that stuck out for me involved the role South Station played on brutal winter nights.
That’s why I was shocked and angered to find out from O’Connell recently that a public space like South Station has been made off-limits to homeless people when they most need it. That “keep out” approach will likely become more entrenched after the completion of a 51-story luxury tower above South Station that will feature offices and Ritz-Carlton condos.
In an e-mail, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo insisted that “the station is not ‘locked up’ at 11 p.m.” Pesaturo would later add that the property management firm confirmed to him that it’s “a 24/7 operation.”
I decided to see for myself and went with a Globe photographer to South Station one evening earlier this month. Shortly after 11 p.m., as the last of the day’s commuter trains departed, we heard a message over the public address system: “This building and the commuter rail will be closing soon. Thank you.”
We watched two private security guards tape up signs on the station’s main doors on Atlantic Avenue that read: “STATION CLOSED 12 AM-5 AM DO NOT ENTER.”
They then used what appeared to be plastic garbage bags to tie a couple of the doors shut.
The half-dozen homeless people still in the station seemed to know it was time to go — or risk being hassled by security.
Some of them did not venture far. As a light snow fell, I counted at least 10 people sleeping along the perimeter of South Station, swaddled under blankets.
While some doors at the Atlantic Avenue entrance remained unlocked, by 12:30 a.m. you could only enter if someone first exited. We tried to remain inside and were soon told to leave by security guards.
A spokesman for Ashkenazy Acquisition, the New York firm that holds the long-term lease to manage the concourse, said the station is “open 24/7 for all passengers on trains arriving, tenants, and employees. All station services — ticket counters, sales, and almost all retailers — are closed by 11 p.m.”
In Kidder’s book, South Station is described as being a “favorite informal wintertime shelter.” O’Connell and his team routinely ride the Pine Street Inn van that brings soup and blankets to homeless people who remain on the street at night. South Station is one of their stops because they know homeless people gather there in the evening.
“By then, the last trains would have departed and the drugstore and kiosks and the restaurants would be shuttered, and yet the place would be rush-hour crowded, the men and women at the tables next to Starbucks like stranded travelers, staking out sleeping spots for the night,” Kidder writes. “One woman in her eighties never left; she bought a bus ticket every month, and because she was a ticketed passenger, the station security let her stay there in all seasons.”
On another night, in 2018 when Marty Walsh was still mayor, O’Connell counted 127 homeless people inside South Station. As a light freezing rain fell outside, he feared they would be forced out if the temperature rose above 32.
“And once it had risen, at 10 o’clock, a squad of Transit Police came in and started escorting all the homeless people out, a cop on each arm of the difficult ones,” Kidder writes. “A representative from the mayor’s office was on hand, and he protested the eviction. The officer in charge rebuffed him: The cop didn’t have time to argue, he had his orders, he had to get everyone out before midnight.”
According to the book, no one was roughed up, and the Transit Police offered everyone a ride to a shelter.
Of course, homeless people staying overnight at South Station was never an ideal situation. The book describes how some left the bathrooms a mess and broke into restaurants to cook up meals for themselves. Sometimes fistfights broke out, and there was drinking and drug use.
“The owners of the station could say with some justice that the traveling public shouldn’t have to put up with that kind of behavior. Jim agreed with some of those arguments,” writes Kidder. “But the mass eviction left him sick at heart. He had thought the days were gone when an event like that would have been called regrettable but necessary.”
Rather than allowing homeless people to remain inside all night, the city, state, advocates, and the MBTA all agreed about five years ago that Transit Police would provide transportation to take any homeless person from South Station to a shelter after hours.
Before winter starts, officials and advocates work together to ensure there is adequate shelter, especially in frigid conditions. More than 300 additional beds have been set up this winter, including at a warming center in Cambridge.
O’Connell’s focus has been tending to the medical needs of homeless people who do not feel comfortable or safe at a shelter. Historically, train and bus terminals have been a place where they could go. These days, the policy seems all or nothing.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a team of outreach workers there 24 hours to help take the burden off the MBTA police?” O’Connell said. “It seems like what we don’t have is anything in between. So the net result of all this is that it has been too much of a problem and so the only solution is to stop people from being there.”
“South Station is so perfect because it’s the middle of everything,” he added. “It just feels like ‘Wow, I wish we could do something more.’ "
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.