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Help the Long Island refugees

One of several postcards sent to the mayor by homeless men and women after the closing of the Long Island shelter.Charles Stang for Religious Leaders for Long Island Refugees

This call for action was written by religious leaders in the Boston area concerned about the consequences of the closure of the Long Island Bridge:

There is a crisis in Boston. It doesn’t erupt; it doesn’t boil over. Instead it simmers on low, night after night, week after week, in storefront alcoves, vacant lots, makeshift spaces in the lobbies and dining rooms of privately run health care and homeless centers. It happens at the margins. If we, the comfortable, register its effects at all, we see them peripherally, out of the corner of our eye. But for those caught in the middle of this crisis, homelessness is deadly.


Since the closure of the Long Island Bridge on Oct. 9, and the consequent loss of the island’s shelter, detox and recovery programs, 700 of our city’s most vulnerable men and women have been warehoused in conditions that are straightforwardly inhumane. Crammed into inadequate and unstable spaces for more than three months now, these men and women are moving ever closer from despair to hopelessness. The city opened a new shelter this week on Southampton Street with 100 new beds; additional beds will not be ready for use until sometime in April. In the meantime, too little is being done to meet the escalating needs of this now doubly homeless population.

Is it necessary, at this point, to remind ourselves that we are talking about persons, human beings, no less intrinsically valuable than you or I? Shamefully, it appears that it is. Life at the South End Fitness Center — where 220 men attempt to sleep on cots lined up in rows on a basketball court, with the lights on 24-7, sharing three bathrooms and two showers — fails even the most basic measures of dignity and safety.

“It’s a problem for our basic mental health right now,” said Richard G. White, one of the residents, on Sunday at a regular gathering for homeless men and women at the Cathedral Church of St Paul. “The way they have us in there, with no space and nothing to occupy our minds, everybody starts just plain flipping out. One person starts, and it starts a chain reaction.” “That’s right,” agreed Daniel McCormick. “And when folks are miserable this way, they’re going to go out and do stuff that otherwise they would not do. There is already more drug abuse, more alcohol abuse, more violence, and the tension is rising.”


Staff members at the Fitness Center have stretched themselves to make life bearable for the residents, but feel they cannot speak out about their frustrations. It falls to the rest of us, therefore, to again urge the city to provide additional and improved temporary shelter for the Long Island refugees, both at night and day, especially with frigid temperatures. If the situation is not rapidly addressed, the backed-up rage and exhaustion it is producing will be the stuff of tomorrow’s headlines.

City authorities are not facing this predicament alone. Our group, Religious Leaders for Long Island Refugees, has made repeated offers of space and money to help with the interim provision of a more humane situation for the Long Island refugees, but these offers have been ignored or turned down. This is disappointing. Private nonprofits are doing all they can, spending huge amounts of time and treasure to run additional emergency shelter programs in an attempt to fill the potentially lethal gap in services. The entire city owes them a debt of gratitude. Next week Religious Leaders for Long Island Refugees will add our own small contribution: an additional day time drop in center, with access to secure lockers, 5 days a week at a church centrally located in Boston. We are doing all we can to raise money and train volunteers to open our Shelter by next Monday. We beg the city to join with us, and others who seek to help, to provide more of the same.


Mayor Walsh has our support. We welcome his determination to do right by all of our city’s people. But if his administration continues to not give the current situation the attention it deserves, we fear that the prediction of another rec center resident, Roberto Casiano, will surely come to pass. “The whole thing is deteriorating,” he says. “It’s going to blow up, that’s what I’m worried about.”
One of several postcards sent to the mayor by homeless men and women after the closing of the Long Island shelter.Charles Stang for Religious Leaders for Long Island Refugees

Cristina Rathbone is a missioner at Cathedral Church of St. Paul. James Parker is editor of The Pilgrim at Cathedral Church of St. Paul. Nancy Taylor is senior minister at Old South Church in Boston. Laura Everett is executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Burn Stanfield is pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church and president of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. June Cooper is executive director of the City Mission Society. Nahma Nadich is associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Jep Streit is dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral.