Of course Mayor Marty Walsh cares about the homeless and the addicted.
But his pledge to rebuild the bridge to Long Island and restore it as a “recovery campus” is largely a response to business owners, who complained loudly about the burdens of living with a homeless shelter on Southampton Street and two methadone clinics on Melnea Cass Boulevard.
For Walsh, it’s a lesson in the push between the ideal of creating a community that integrates haves and have-nots — and the reality that mixing them together is difficult. Especially in a city where property values soar against the value of a broken life.
And now that Walsh has promised to reopen Long Island, he has to find a way to rebuild a bridge he closed three years ago. It will cost at least $80 million and faces opposition from Quincy, the connection point between the old bridge and the homeless shelter and rehabilitation programs that used to operate out of the harbor island.
For Walsh, it all began in October 2014, when the Long Island Bridge was condemned, and 400 homeless people and as many as 300 others in recovery programs were forced to relocate with nowhere to go. A month later, Walsh announced plans to construct a temporary shelter for the homeless on city-owned property along Frontage Road between the South End and South Boston. Then he changed his mind, saying a city-owned building on Southampton Street in the South End was more suitable. At the time, Walsh and private backers of a Summer Olympics were also pitching the Frontage Road parcel as the best location for an Olympic village and stadium.
“We knew there would be difficulties,” said Susan Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, which represents 235 businesses in an area that includes Southampton Street and “Mass and Cass” — the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. But merchants went along with it at first, she said. Meanwhile, advocates for the homeless marched and rallied to protest the sudden shutdown of Long Island, but the mayor showed little interest in reopening it. Then the business association started advocating for a “campus-style facility” to treat addicts.
“I don’t have access to his heart, soul, and mind,” said Jim Stewart, a Walsh critic, who runs the First Church Shelter in Cambridge and helped organize the protests against the shutdown of Long Island. “But it would appear the mayor was responsive to the Newmarket Business Association, which was complaining about the presence of these people in their neighborhood.”
Sullivan rejects the idea that relaunching recovery services on Long Island is an “out of sight, out of mind” solution. “I hear that, but you know, that is so far from the truth I can’t even lend credence to that. . . . If you live or work where I do, you wouldn’t say that,” she said. The current situation “is not good for anyone,” she explained. “It is inhumane. These people are out there day in, day out, weaving out of traffic, sleeping on the sidewalks, not being taken care of.”
While Sullivan was pleased to hear Walsh’s inauguration day pledge to rebuild the bridge to Long Island, she warns, “The devil’s in the details. How’s that going to be paid for? How is that going to happen?” According to Commonwealth Magazine, the Walsh administration has earmarked $58 million in funding. That leaves at least a $20 million gap. Finding the money may be easier than convincing Quincy to go along with the bridge rebuilding plan. Residents there are supposedly worried about an influx of traffic and want any future recovery clients to use a ferry.
It’s no secret, after all, who usually has the power to persuade City Hall. Even with a mayor in recovery for alcoholism, it’s not those who carry what little they own in trash bags.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.