It was about 4:30 on Wednesday afternoon when the five nurses and six aides working at Andrew House on Long Island got their first inkling that their world, and the world of their patients, some of the most vulnerable people in the city, was about to turn upside down.
They were told they had to drive off the island, but would not be allowed to drive back on. No one could drive back on. The bridge linking Long Island to Moon Island and the mainland was suddenly, inexplicably, irreversibly deemed unsafe.
Meredith Cunniff, a nurse at Andrew House, looked at Tracey Briggs, another nurse.
What the heck is that supposed to mean? They could drive off but no one could drive on? They had 60 patients in detox. Who would look after their patients? Who was going to relieve them?
But that was just it: No one was going to relieve them. No one was going to look after their patients, many of whom spend every day with the singular mission of keeping out of reach of a needle.
Merri Cunniff, Tracey Briggs, and the other nurses and aides went into mission mode. What they accomplished in the course of two needlessly hectic, chaotic hours, while higher-ups gave them the runaround and cops screamed at them to evacuate, is nothing short of Herculean. The staff at Andrew House got nearly 60 people places to stay in a pinch, as the dark and the cold set in like a smothering fog.
A handful of people at Andrew House refused treatment and just walked away, into that cold, dark night, into the streets, and Merri Cunniff choked back tears because she knew what awaited them on those streets was a cheap bag of relapse. Those tears grew hot on her cheeks, because she was furious.
“This didn’t have to happen this way,” she said. “These are the most vulnerable people in our society and they were just put out, like trash. It’s wrong; it’s so wrong.”
The sorry state of the Long Island bridge is the worst-kept secret in town, something evident to anybody who’s driven over its creaky, shuddering grate, something evident to thousands of suburbanites who take the commuter ferries passing under it every day on their way to jobs downtown.
The idea that suddenly, late in the afternoon on a Wednesday in October 2014, the bridge was too unsafe to use and everybody had to run for their lives like it was the London Blitz makes no sense to anyone — I mean everyone — who works on that island, home to as many as 600 people who are homeless, in recovery, or in transition from prison or some other place where none of us want to be.
I’ve talked to more than a few people who work for those homeless, transition, and recovery programs, and they say some of their organizations knew as far back as February that the bridge was eventually going to be deemed unsafe, that everybody on the island was going to get the bum’s rush at one time or another. They say some of those organizations had evacuation plans, but they weren’t shared with staff, and certainly not with clients.
The Department of Youth Services “shut down during the summer and brought the kids off the island,” Merri Cunniff said. “We wondered why back then. Now we know why.”
Another program that helped mostly older, medically compromised men also moved off the island in the summer.
“Children and the elderly were moved,” Merri Cunniff said. “The homeless and young drug addicts were left on the island.”
Do the math.
Imagine if Long Island was, instead, nearby Marina Bay, a place of privilege, of people with boats and bank accounts. How do you think this “evacuation” would have been handled?
“A lot differently,” Merri Cunniff said.
They had a big meeting on Friday on Canal Street at Bay Cove, the social services agency that runs Andrew House. The suits at Bay Cove told the assembled crowd that they had no advance warning about the chaotic closing of the bridge and island. The suits told Merri Cunniff and the other workers that they’ll get one more week’s pay, but that’s it. Of the 10 nurses at Andrew House, there’s a job for one of them somewhere else with Bay Cove.
Merri Cunniff, a single mother, should be worrying about herself. But she’s like so many of the people who work with the forgotten, those shunted off to an island in Boston Harbor that is now, like so many of its former residents, homeless. As an LPN, she was making $38 an hour in a job she liked when she chucked it and took $23 an hour for a job she loved, helping people in the grip of addiction.
As she tries to figure out how to feed herself and her son for the next few weeks, Merri Cunniff, like so many of her colleagues, thinks of the people who walked away into the night Wednesday. In the week before the evacuation, she said, six former patients died from heroin.
Before Long Island shut down, there was treatment on demand in and around the city for opiate addiction. Now, since Wednesday, the wait is up to three days. Three days is a death sentence for a lot of people addicted to heroin.
“There was an older gentleman,” Merri Cunniff was saying. “He thanked me for getting him a bed. He said it was the longest he was ever in detox. He was really trying. And then, after the evacuation, he just walked away. He is on the street, somewhere, in the rain. . . ”