Though it was more than 20 years ago, I still clearly remember my first scenic drive over the bridge to Long Island. The sharpness of this memory stands out because this wasn’t a particularly lucid time in my life. I was in the midst of deeply destructive substance use disorder and homelessness when I, lost and desperate, was driven over that rickety bridge. I was 14.
The debates about whether the city of Boston should rebuild the bridge to Long Island have gone on for nearly a decade, since the bridge was deemed structurally unsound in 2014. There have been multiple lawsuits about it, an abundance of news stories, and countless political battles. However, to the people like me who received treatment and worked on Long Island, there is a deeper, more visceral understanding of why it is important to rebuild the bridge and resume treatment services on the island. To us, it is much more than just another fleeting media headline.
I was born and raised in Boston in a low-income family, and my substance use and street homelessness started when I was very young. Throughout my teen years, I was court-ordered to various juvenile detention and drug treatment programs. One that impacted me more than the others was Project Rebound on Long Island.
In the weeks before being sent to Project Rebound, I had been sleeping in highway tunnels and on sidewalks in Boston. In comparison, the expanse of ocean on all sides and green terrain of Long Island felt inviting and immediately calming — something that my young, troubled mind and body desperately needed. The air was clean and nourishing. The quiet was disarming. My first night, I slept in a comfortable bed with an ocean view, a world away from the dirty gravel of the dark Copley Square off-ramp tunnel.
The most important effect of me being on that beautiful island was that it made me briefly consider that I was worthy of that space — a consideration that was the first step in my recovery journey. This, to me, is the most crucial element of Long Island: Its beautiful surroundings charged the people who received care there with a deep sense of worth. And those people happened to be the region’s most vulnerable — the underserved, the overlooked, the poor.
They were not only Bostonians. They were from all over Massachusetts, including Quincy, the city that is most aggressively fighting the rebuilding of the bridge. Long Island was not another exclusive island retreat for the wealthy but an accessible jewel for the public good. Most of the people who received care there (including me) were in desperate need of knowing that they were worth something to themselves, to their friends and families, and to their communities. The tranquil surroundings of the island perpetually reflected worth back to us, so that is what we believed.
As an adult, I worked for the city of Boston supporting high-risk youth who were in the same juvenile detention centers I was in as a youth. For a few summers, I worked with these youth on the farm on Long Island — again able to drive that scenic bridge, this time as a healthy, housed adult in recovery, working to support the next generation of people who needed the island’s healing properties. I saw dozens of underserved young people from the poorest neighborhoods of Boston let their guard down as they harvested carrots, played basketball, or walked down to the beach for a work break. I saw them being charged in the same way the island charged me.
The services that existed on Long Island were far from perfect. They were scattered, served varying populations and ages, and there was no cohesive vision for the space. Boston is better positioned now to strategically plan a continuum of programs, something that didn’t happen when the island was operational, and to make the public health services there better.
In the years since the bridge was closed, the loss of Long Island has become a Rorschach test, an ambiguous inkblot that is either the root of all our substance use and homelessness problems or the only solution to them. The reality is more complicated.
Will a recovery campus on Long Island help the humanitarian problems at Mass. and Cass? Yes — but it’s not like everyone will be packed up from the street and shipped to the island. Long-term recovery campuses like the ones proposed for Long Island will close a huge gap in the recovery continuum. Right now, people seeking treatment can find a detox bed for a couple of days, but they’re often back on the street or in a shelter waiting for the next step in their treatment because there is a bottleneck at the back end of the continuum. A new Long Island campus will allow people time to regain their mental and physical wellness, potentially learn a new trade or skill, and grow within a healthy community of like-minded peers.
I know some progressives who think that placing people on Long Island is isolating and not conducive to wellness. I understand this concern, but I never felt that way, and neither did anyone else that I knew who received services on the island. With an intact bridge, one could drive from the farthest end of the island to the heart of Dorchester in 20 to 25 minutes.
While Long Island can be a fun house mirror in the public dialogue, or seem like just another political football, to me and countless others like me who received care there, Long Island will always be the warm bed with an ocean view, the beautiful place I was worthy of. Rebuilding the Long Island bridge will ensure that future generations will know that they are worthy of this special place too.
Brendan Little is a consultant, harm reduction advocate, and documentary filmmaker.