The bridge to the homeless shelter and drug rehabilitation programs on Long Island — the largest island in Boston Harbor — is structurally unsound and out of commission. Also unsound are the longstanding policies that have led to the shuttling of homeless men and women across the decaying steel structure while barring the general public from enjoying the 214-acre island.
Long Island is part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area that includes popular spots such as Georges Island and Spectacle Island. But the general public can’t get there from here. Guards blocked access to the roughly 3,000-foot bridge to Long Island even when it was safe to pass. There is no ferry service to the island, no tours, no public toilets, no camping, no picnic areas, and no refreshments. For many decades, the island has served as an almshouse, chronic disease hospital, and more recently as a domicile for the homeless and addicts in need of detoxification and treatment. Since 2007, several hundred kids from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods have been attending summer camp sessions on the northern end of the island.
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh is focused on finding alternative beds for 450 homeless men and women who slept on the island until its abrupt closure last month. But that shouldn’t blunt a wider conversation about the future of Long Island. The failure of the bridge represents an opportunity to integrate Long Island into the national recreation area without giving short shrift to the homeless. But it is going to be a difficult conversation.
Homeless people and their advocates verbally eviscerated members of the Walsh administration at a public hearing on Wednesday. They castigated city officials for the absence of a contingency plan and for not allowing shelter users to gather their meager belongings before the mandatory evacuation from Long Island. Conspiracy theories filled the air, with some speakers suggesting the closure of the bridge was a ruse to open the island for condo development. It wasn’t pretty. But several speakers stressed that sleeping in downtown doorways on frigid nights isn’t pretty, either.
Felix G. Arroyo, the city’s chief of health and human services, promised that the Walsh administration would replace the bridge and reestablish the shelter and drug rehabilitation services on Long Island. That quelled the crowd, somewhat. But the plan is short-sighted. Reopening a homeless shelter surrounded by water — at enormous cost — isn’t the best course.
City engineers estimate that replacing the Long Island bridge would cost $90 million and require about three years to accomplish. Boston taxpayers would take the hit. But the picture would look different were the island to be integrated fully into the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area created by Congress in 1996. The National Park Service, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, the US Coast Guard, and the nonprofit Boston Harbor Island Alliance are among the dozen or so managing partners responsible for providing better access to the historic sites, scenic walking trails, and beaches in the 34-island recreation area. And Long Island is rich in such amenities.
Ninety million dollars to replace a bridge is a formidable figure. But it is less intimidating when tackled by federal, state, and local stewards whose mission is to make the most of the $4 billion clean-up of Boston Harbor.
“Partnerships are forged in tough times,” said Giles Parker, superintendent of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. “And these are tough times.”
No one is proposing to abandon the homeless. The Walsh administration has offered a thoughtful plan to build a large, temporary shelter along the Southeast Expressway at the edge of the South End. The location has several advantages, including proximity to social services. But why stop at building a temporary shelter from prefabricated materials? The construction of a permanent shelter capable of accommodating 400 to 500 homeless people on the site would offer a long-term solution without the need to return to Long Island. And the South End site or one nearby could still be used to provide temporary beds until the permanent shelter is complete.
It’s a tough challenge. But Walsh is uniquely suited to tackle it. As a former union official in the building trades, he understands tight construction schedules. And as a recovering alcoholic, he knows the importance of delivering timely social and medical services.
But first, the mayor and the city’s homeless population need to accept that the island should be a place of respite for everyone.