A chance missed to help those in need

Kathy and Bonnie aren't surprised some people in Roxbury want them to stay as far away as possible.

"I can't take it personal that they don't want people like me walking around their neighborhoods," Kathy said, sitting in a cozy, rose-walled living room at a transitional home on a recent morning. "There's a stigma, that we're dirty. I dealt with that stigma a long time."

The heroin addict, 47, is 14 months into her recovery. She had somewhere she could call home until Oct. 8. That is when Mayor Marty Walsh gave the order for the hundreds of homeless and addicted people housed and treated on Long Island to evacuate immediately — after a bridge everybody knew for years was decrepit was finally closed.


Now she and Bonnie, 33, and seven months clean, are sleeping on couches in the basement at Valentine House, a Roxbury home for women trying to escape their demons, run by Friends of Boston Homeless. Others are squeezing into other at-capacity facilities, or sleeping on cots and floors in makeshift shelters. They have all become the subjects of bitter debate as the city decides what to do with them.

On Wednesday, the city, which appears to have been taken by surprise by the local opposition, backed off plans to turn the former Radius hospital in Roxbury into a facility that would have served Kathy, Bonnie, and 200 others.

"We heard from the neighborhood," said Walsh spokeswoman Kate Norton. "We are going to go in a different direction."

Project SOAR, the women's program, may now end up in a former city treatment facility in Mattapan. But in the fiasco that is the Long Island bridge closing, nothing is certain.

The irony is, when Kathy and Bonnie were using, they were often in Roxbury, hoping to score their next hits, climbing into johns' cars even when they knew they'd get hurt.


The risks were always worth it. Heroin was all. Kathy's addiction took everything from her, including her daughter, who eventually began using, too. Bonnie isn't allowed to see her two young daughters. Faithful only to their addictions for years, they know they've hurt a lot of people.

"It used to be if I got arrested, it was a relief," Bonnie said, crying. "I'd get to sleep. I'd have a blanket."

Kathy was first into rehab. Bonnie followed. After detox, they got into routines and work training. Kathy has a job at a Dunkin' Donuts in Quincy, where her mother lives. It takes an age to get there, but it feels safer, away from too-familiar streets. Neither of them have been off drugs for this long before. Every day is almost impossible.

"We're wicked pray-ers," Kathy said. "Both of us get down on our knees."

Maybe if people opposed to the Radius plan could see how hard these women are striving, they wouldn't have been so angry about them moving in.

"There were sick people there before," Bonnie said. "We have a disease. It's not cancer, but we're sick, too."

"People can change," Kathy said. "We didn't think we could, but other people thought we could."

A lot of people in Boston don't believe that. Or at least, not enough to risk having addicts move into their own neighborhoods. The city's clumsy handling of the crisis hasn't helped.


The bridge closing is forcing the city to confront the limits of its compassion. So far, we've learned it's way easier to care about people like Kathy and Bonnie when they're living on an island in the middle of the harbor.

And, in a way, being out there was easier for them, too.

"Sitting there at night, it's so peaceful." Bonnie said. "There were so many times I wanted to leave, but I'd sit on the pier and think about the consequences. There's a serenity out there."

At night, Kathy would go outside to pray. "I'd look up at the stars," she said. " 'God, I know you're out there.' "

Wouldn't it be nice if this blessed city were a place where Kathy could feel that presence, too?

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com