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As winter approaches, Boston must replace homeless shelter

The recent closing of the dilapidated bridge leading to the Long Island homeless shelter in Boston Harbor set off a community crisis, made even more urgent by the advent of winter. Mayor Martin J. Walsh has responded well. The administration has been hustling to find alternatives, which in turn has put enormous pressure on mainland shelters and clinics.

But it remains to be seen how the wider community will respond to the upheaval. A scheduled public hearing Wednesday in the South End should reveal a lot when city officials recommend alternative sites. The Not-In-My-Backyard contingent is likely to erupt. But the public should try to keep sight of the bigger picture: This is a matter of survival and human dignity for the homeless. The closure of Long Island left more than 400 people scrambling for a place to sleep while cutting off another 300 needy men and women from vital social and medical services — including drug rehabilitation.

Yet even in the midst of this crisis, city officials have taken steps to respect the quality-of-life concerns of potential neighbors.


The best site for constructing a homeless shelter with 400-500 beds, according to city officials, is on city owned property on Frontage Road near the public tow lot on the border of the South End and South Boston. By using prefabricated building materials, administration officials estimate that they could construct a shelter inside of 10 weeks. And the relatively remote site should not infringe in any significant way on surrounding residential neighborhoods.

City officials believe that the former site of the Boston Specialty and Rehabilitation Hospital along River Street in Mattapan represents an excellent opportunity to house the displaced social services and in-patient rehabilitation programs. The formerly abandoned land, which is owned by Boston’s Public Health Commission, has been redeveloped with an eye toward supporting both affordable housing and health-related uses. Residents who live on the property already have benefited from millions of dollars in city subsidies. They could show some beneficence in return.

Walsh still needs to decide in the long term if it makes financial and operational sense to invest tens of millions of dollars to repair the Long Island bridge. But that can wait. The immediate task is to replace lost beds and medical services, which can be accomplished without undermining neighborhoods.