For more than five years, homeless people have not been allowed to stay overnight at South Station, but Governor Maura Healey says she will now open up the state-owned transit hub during periods of extreme weather.
Healey’s decision follows a front-page Globe story last week on how South Station gets locked up at 11 p.m. Homeless people who have been in the station begin to leave at that hour, as private security guards post “DO NOT ENTER” signs at the main entrance on Atlantic Avenue and use garbage bags to tie some doors shut.
During a Tuesday segment of “Ask the Governor” on “Boston Public Radio,” Healey said that after reading the story, she called up Dr. Jim O’Connell, cofounder of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, to learn more about the situation.
O’Connell first alerted the Globe about South Station because he was concerned that the current policy is too rigid. In the past, when temperatures fell below 32 degrees, homeless people were allowed to stay past midnight.
“We talked to the private security company, and you saw the garbage bags are off. They’re not locking the doors that way,” Healey said on GBH. “I’m going to be clear that if we face extreme weather, we’re going to allow people to stay there overnight. It’s a matter of basic humanity in my view.”
The policy reversal comes as the National Weather Service forecasts an arctic front will move into the region with “a dangerously cold airmass” late Friday night that could send wind chills as low as 40 degrees below zero.
Details about how and when homeless people can stay overnight at South Station continued to be worked out, the governor’s office said Tuesday afternoon.
For more than three decades, O’Connell has been tending to the medical needs of the city’s chronically homeless who do not feel comfortable or safe at a shelter. His life’s work is the subject of “Rough Sleepers,” a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder.
In the book, Kidder described South Station as being a “favorite informal wintertime shelter.” Years ago, the train, bus, and commuter rail hub would teem with homeless people sleeping there overnight. But the situation eventually became untenable, with bathrooms left a mess, food taken from restaurants, and occasional fistfights.
So in recent years, city and state officials working with Ashkenazy Acquisition, the New York firm that manages the retail concourse under a long-term lease, agreed that homeless people would no longer be able to stay past midnight and MBTA transit police would provide transportation to a shelter. Still, on recent visits to South Station, nearly a dozen homeless people chose to sleep on the station’s perimeter.
In an interview, O’Connell said he was “blown away” to get a call from Healey. He had gotten to know her during her time as attorney general, when she would visit a clinic for transgender homeless people, or when she wanted an update on homelessness at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
During last week’s call, O’Connell said Healey listened and asked a lot of questions.
“I am elated,” he said. “Having South Station for some people will be life-saving.”
O’Connell said he understands that not everyone thinks South Station should function as a shelter, but it makes sense when frigid temperatures could mean frostbite and hypothermia for those living on the streets.
“It’s difficult on all sides,” he added, “but it’s a nice community compromise that’s going to help the most vulnerable.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.