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For displaced homeless women, no refuge from misery

Evacuated from Long Island, women decry lack of resources, facilities

In the hours before dawn, when five layers of clothing, two blankets, and the crucifix around her neck no longer blunt the cold, Lisa Jenkins rises from the faux leather couch she has hidden in the woods and paces in the dark.

Sleeping alone outside stirs other concerns, aside from frostbite. She has set booby traps to protect against potential stalkers and feeds the possums, raccoons, and other wildlife to keep them friendly.

Jenkins has slept in her forested nook in Jamaica Plain nearly every night since city officials last month condemned an old bridge leading to Long Island, the location of the city’s largest shelter, and ordered her and hundreds of other homeless people to evacuate their refuge on Boston Harbor immediately.


That afternoon, the 52-year-old former lab tech at Harvard Medical School became one of many displaced women thrust into more dire circumstances.

Many of those people had to leave medication, vital documents, and all their clothing and other keepsakes on the island. Others have been wracked with anxiety by their persisting limbo since Long Island closed, fearing attack as they roam the city with the few possessions they have left, exasperated by tight quarters and uncomfortable cots in the city’s improvised shelters, and confused by how to navigate a new system where women who arrive late are lucky to get a mat to sleep on a kitchen floor.

Lisa Jenkins has slept in a forested area of Jamaica Plain nearly every night since being evacuated from a shelter on Long Island.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Many said they have it harder than the displaced men.

“It’s really hard for a lot of women to be out here on their own,” said Jenkins, who carries her resume wherever she goes in hope of finding a new job. “My life changed that day.”

After years of staying on Long Island, a relatively peaceful place with a host of services, a recreation room, and real beds, she couldn’t adjust to sleeping in the cramped spaces the city has used over the past month to house homeless women.


“It’s tough to be out in the cold,” she said, “but the conditions inside the shelters are worse.”

On a recent night at the Barbara McInnis House in the South End, where the city has put up 45 homeless women in the old city morgue, the staff hurriedly sought to assemble rows of government-issued aluminum cots. Some were broken; others weren’t set up properly.

When the women arrived, some raced for a corner spot.

“You try to get what privacy you can,” said Jade Chagnon, 25, after pushing several nearby cots as far away as possible.

She and others complained about the noise, the cold temperature, and the strict rules in the medical facility’s atrium, where they said they are only allowed to use the bathroom in groups and at specific times.

On a nearby cot, Whitney Dalessio, 20, complained about having to wake up before 5 every morning, when she and the others are required to return to the streets in the dark. “It’s killing me,” she said. “It’s really stressful.”

Many of the women were eager to share their complaints. “Unbearable — just unbearable,” said Sarah Johnson, 45, about her experience since being evacuated from Long Island. “There, we had no worries about where we would sleep.”

Simple things are more challenging now, like taking a regular shower, searching for housing, or avoiding fights. “We’re all on top of each other here,” she said. “There’s a lot of arguing, screaming, and physical altercations. It’s a bad situation.”


Officials at the McInnis House empathize with the women’s frustrations and say they’re doing the best they can as the city searches for a more permanent solution to more than 700 displaced homeless people, including the women.

They have boosted security and maintenance and have given up vital space for their patients.

“It’s too many people stuffed into too small a spot,” said Dr. James O’Connell, president of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, which runs the McInnis House. “You can feel the tension. It’s barbaric.”

At the St. Francis House, where the city is housing 30 women who were on Long Island in the shelter’s cafeteria and atrium, the staff is struggling to keep up with a surge in demand for its services.

“I left clothes and other things there, but what I really left behind was my stability,” Beatrice Rivera (right), 46, said about the closing of the Long Island homeless shelter in October.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Typically open from the morning until the afternoon, the site now has extended hours as the number of homeless people lining up at their doors for breakfast every morning has more than tripled over the past month.

They are providing more showers, clothing, and mental health services — so much that they now routinely have to turn away people.

“We’re stretched in every way,” said Karen LaFrazia, executive director of the St. Francis House. “We can’t meet the demand.”

Preparing to sleep on a cot last week at St. Francis House, Beatrice Rivera was thankful for everything the shelter had done. But she remained livid about how she was forced to leave Long Island so suddenly.


“It was like being evicted all over again, but even an eviction requires notice,” she said. “I left clothes and other things there, but what I really left behind was my stability.”

She pined for a place to spend days out of the cold or rain — without anyone pressuring her to move on — as the homeless could do on the island.

“We’re shunned everywhere we go,” said Rivera, 46, who is studying to take the high school equivalency exam in hopes of going to law school one day. “We’re tired and want something more permanent.”

She and other women said they’re getting less help than the displaced men, most of whom are being housed in a sprawling gym at the South End Fitness Center, where they have more beds and easier access to showers, health care, and housing services.

“Not having a guaranteed bed anymore is the scariest thing in the world,” said Shelley Duarte, 34.

Like others, she now spends her days wandering the streets and worries about sexual predators. “I’m overwhelmed by fear,” she said. “The island shutting down is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”

City officials said they understand the urgency of the problems and vowed to release a long-term plan for the homeless at a public meeting Wednesday.

“We want to provide the community some stability while we discuss the plans for the bridge,” said Jerome Smith, the city’s chief of civic engagement, adding it remains to be decided whether the city should spend an estimated $90 million to replace a bridge that city engineers found to be structurally deficient in October.


Jim Greene, commissioner of the Emergency Shelter Commission, said the city’s contingency plans for the displaced homeless, about a quarter of whom are women, are working as well as could be expected.

“It has come together,” he said. “People are getting shelter.”

Not everyone.

After being evacuated without her psychiatric and blood pressure medication, Salene Burey has slept most nights in the entrance to a Back Bay T station.

The 47-year-old mother, who first became homeless a decade ago after her son was killed, curls into a warm nook so small that she sleeps with her legs pressed against a wall and her head against a metal grating.

In the past month, she said, she has been robbed, had rats skitter over her feet, and suffered major chest pain, which she attributes to the stress.

She feels invisible, forgotten.

“When they closed Long Island, they did a lot of injustice to a lot of people,” she said. “There’s so much suffering, so much heartache.”

She sleeps outside, she said, because there’s too much competition for the cots.

“We need help,” she said.

More coverage:

Cullen: Homeless adrift, alone, and invisible

Mayor Walsh hopes to reopen Long Island Bridge in three years

On Long Island, haunting signs of a hasty departure

Displaced Long Island homeless crowd South end shelter

Cullen: A society’s vulnerable citizens, out in the open

Cullen: The human issue in Long Island evacuation

Cullen: Rushed closing of Long Island bridge takes a human toll

As Long Island bridge closed, a long night led to purgatory

Harbor bridge closing brings hunt for new shelters, services

Bridge closure forces evacuation of hundreds

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.