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City set to scrap top plan for shelter for Long Island homeless

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

After weeks of tense meetings and protests by neighbors, city officials have decided they are likely to scrap their leading plan to house hundreds of homeless people who have remained in limbo since Mayor Martin J. Walsh ordered the bridge to their Long Island shelter closed in October.

City officials on Friday said they're now considering a new location in a city building with fewer neighbors, but they declined to say where.

The decision, which homeless advocates say raises new concerns about the city's long-term plans, comes after city officials this week also rejected a separate site in Roxbury to house many of the recovery programs that had been based on the island in Boston Harbor.

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The officials said the new homeless shelter, which would house at least 450 men and women displaced from Long Island, could be ready earlier than the modular buildings they had initially proposed to build this January on a city lot on Frontage Road in the South End. But they wouldn't say when that might happen.

The advantage of the new plan, they said, is that they would only have to renovate the building and not construct a new one.

"We continue to explore any option that will ensure a safe, stable shelter, as quickly as possible," said Kate Norton, a spokeswoman for the mayor.

She called the decision to nix the Frontage Road site "almost certain," but she said the plan depends on whether the city can change the zoning of the new building and whether it is economically feasible to get it ready this winter.

"The mayor is pushing hard to make this happen," she said.

She said she expects the city to announce the new location next week.

City officials said there has been intense pushback from neighborhood groups in the South End and others who didn't want to see an infusion of more homeless into their community. They also considered concerns that a shelter on Frontage Road would interfere with a proposal by the family of Robert Kraft to build a soccer stadium for the New England Revolution in the same area.

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The South End is already home to hundreds of homeless people who stay at the Pine Street Inn, on the other side of Interstate 93 from the Frontage Road city lot. The city used to run a methadone clinic on the property.

But the booming neighborhood in recent years has also become home to hundreds of high-end condominiums and a new Whole Foods.

"In all of the plans we've put forth so far, we've yet to find a strong voice of support," Norton said. "But we're confident we won't run into the same issues that we've had with the new option."

Those who opposed the Frontage Road plan were happy to hear of the administration's changing plan but are worried the new location might also be in the South End.

"It seems like the mayor has made a smart decision, because that location was fraught with problems," said Liz Cahill, co-executive of the Old Dover Neighborhood Association in the South End.

She and other neighbors met with Walsh and other high-ranking officials last week to express their concerns. She worries her neighborhood is becoming a "dumping ground for Boston's homeless."

"But until we know what that location is, and they speak to us and communicate with us, I can't say whether this is good news," Cahill said.

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Another neighbor, Northeastern University professor James Alan Fox, president of the Union Park Neighborhood Association, said he was "relieved that they're not going to put 450 homeless people in our neighborhood."

When city officials announced their plans last month for housing the homeless, they said they had been also considering a renovated Boston Redevelopment Authority building near the Black Falcon Cruise Terminal in South Boston, but the space, once used to repair ships, wouldn't be available until August. They also had considered another South Boston spot in a slightly smaller Massachusetts Port Authority building, which has been used as a garage and for container fumigation. But that space lacks bathrooms and showers and would have to be vacated by June.

City officials said the Frontage Road site had a number of advantages, including that it's on city-owned land, doesn't abut any residential buildings, and is secured by fences. They estimated it would cost about $250,000 to build and that it would have been easy to service with buses.

"It's the best option right now," said Jerome Smith, the city's chief of civic engagement, last month.

Advocates for the homeless said they're concerned that the decision could lead to even longer stays for the displaced at the city's improvised shelters, where hundreds of men and women are now sleeping in cramped conditions on cots and floor mats.

They said they hope the city's new plan is better than its proposal to house more than 200 recovering addicts from shuttered programs on Long Island at the Radius Specialty Hospital in Roxbury, which recently closed. City officials eliminated that proposal this week after a backlash from neighbors.

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"I'm appalled and disappointed that it has already taken this long," said Michael Kane, executive director of the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants and a member of the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee. "The governor and mayor should be treating this as the emergency that it has been since day one."

Karen LaFrazia, executive director of the St. Francis House, where 25 women from Long Island are sleeping on cots in their atrium and dining room, said she hopes the new location means the homeless will live in better conditions soon.

She noted the city will soon be struggling to cope with its annual winter surge, when more beds are needed.

"I'm very concerned," she said. "I don't see a plan to deal with this."

Among those struggling since Long Island closed is Cleve Rae, a 58-year-old unemployed software developer, who has been living with 250 men packed into the South End Fitness Center, where they have just two toilets.

He blamed the city for not sharing more information with the community about its plans.

"The conditions we're living in is an outrage," he said. "The city says this is high on their priority list, but it seems to us that they're not really doing anything."

RELATED:

11/11: For displaced homeless women, no refuge from misery

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11/13: Passionate crowd urges Boston to do more for homeless

11/15: Lawrence Harmon: Long Island homeless programs should be built elsewhere


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