On Long Island, haunting signs of a hasty departure
The pieces left behind at island’s shelters highlight uncertainty
In a newly vacant halfway house, a remodeled kitchen with granite counters, stainless steel appliances, and cherry cabinets no longer serves homeless women. Buzz saws, hard hats, and other construction supplies have been abandoned on the newly sanded floors of another recovery home that may never reopen. In an old tuberculosis ward refashioned into a state-of-the-art treatment center, beds for drug addicts remain empty and toys in a well-appointed nursery will soon be sent elsewhere.
City taxpayers and nonprofit groups have spent millions of dollars in recent years refurbishing the stately old buildings on Long Island, the refuge on Boston Harbor where until this month about 700 homeless people sought shelter and other services every day. But all that work — repointing brick, replacing windows, and the wholescale renovation of programs — may have been for naught.
Since city officials condemned the rickety bridge to the mainland and ordered an immediate evacuation on Oct. 8 — an abrupt decision that came after the rusty span had been deteriorating for decades — Long Island has become a veritable ghost town.
With its long-deserted bunkers that hid gun batteries and Nike missiles, a dusty chapel that hasn’t held services in years, a shuttered morgue, a 150-year-old cemetery, and ghost stories that have persisted since the Revolutionary War, the 225-acre island has often felt like a spooky anachronism to visitors.
But in recent decades it had become a thriving community of its own, home every night to hundreds of homeless people, addicts, and troubled teens. Two farms have produced some 25,000 pounds of produce a year — potatoes, parsnips, cilantro, and much more — as well as eggs and honey. And there had been enough traffic that police monitored speed limits.
Many of Boston’s social services — about one-third of all shelter beds for the homeless and about half the city’s detox beds were based on the island — are now in limbo, as city officials decide whether to spend an estimated $90 million to replace the bridge.
“We have no idea what’s going to happen,” Stephen O’Brien, director of property management of the Boston Public Health Commission, said while providing an exclusive tour of the island.
Over the past two weeks, traveling by charter boat, O’Brien and his staff have tried to prepare the island for a long winter bereft of its mission.
In the beginning, they went from program to program turning off televisions, trashing dinners left partially eaten, lowering thermostats, and emptying refrigerators. “People just picked up and left,” O’Brien said.
Since then, they have begun draining pipes, baiting rodent traps, discarding trash in an old compactor, arranging for a barge to take back stranded vehicles and many other belongings, and stockpiling rock salt, sand, and other supplies to get through the cold months.
“The quietness of the whole place is almost eerie,” said Pati Millerick, an administrative assistant in O’Brien’s department who accompanied him to the island. “It’s very different to be walking around and see absolutely nothing or anybody.”
Much of the island now looks frozen in time.
In the sprawling dorms of the emergency shelter, where about 450 people stayed on a regular night, mangy mattresses on rusted bunk beds retained the impressions of those who last slept on them. Old cellphones, prescription drugs, wool socks, unopened Bibles, and dog-eared novels were left on beds. Beneath signs warning that wearing hoods were grounds for being barred, there were trays of cups filled with liquid soap and abandoned IDs.
In the men’s dorm, beneath a ceiling that sprinkled flakes of white paint, possessions spilled out of one open locker, including a junior deputy sheriff’s badge, morphine tablets, condoms, an inhaler, loafers, a cane, and a shoe-shine brush. In the women’s dorm, there were old fashion magazines and other inspiration to envision a better place, including a book titled “Wonders of the World.”
At the Hello House, a haven where 28 women struggling with addictions lived for several months at a time, the rooms reflect how the residents fled so quickly, with cigarettes left on night tables and full wardrobes still hanging in closets.
Annette Geldzahler, director of the program, which is run by Volunteers of America, stood in the shelter’s gleaming new kitchen — among several major investments in the space that have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — wondering what will become of all the displaced women.
“They now have no place to call home,” she said.
She and a colleague had come to take stock. They’re looking for a new home, but without the unique tranquility and isolation of the island and the challenges of securing the right space, the program will never be the same, they said.
“Nobody wants a recovery home in their backyard,” said Stephanie Paauwe, director of development for Volunteers of America.
On the farms, hundreds of cherry tomatoes were rotting on their vines and other crops from sorghum to arugula were left to harvest. Without anyone left to feed on the island, employees were struggling to take back what they could to the mainland, even recruiting Fire Department trainees to help carry their chickens over the bridge.
At the Andrew House, which had 60 of the city’s 135 detox beds, employees were combing through freshly painted offices, uninstalling air conditioners, and breaking down beds.
Sherry Davis was in tears as she boxed up books, records, and other keepsakes, including a framed picture of a nurse who had died. All around her were memories, including inspirational signs that urged residents to recall that “Birds sing after a storm.”
With the future of the program as uncertain as everything else on the island, she worried that some patients may not survive their next overdose.
“Now, I can’t help them,” said Davis, director of Andrew House, which was the state’s largest detox facility. “It’s terrifying. It’s very sad.”
She added: “It’s hard not to be angry about what happened.”