The plight of the city’s homeless population has taken on a new urgency in Boston this Thanksgiving, after the sudden closure of the city’s main emergency shelter on Long Island. Inspections last month revealed that the only bridge reaching the island was unsafe, forcing the city to shut the facility and several other related social-service organizations. That decision, while necessary, has taken a severe toll. Without the beds, other shelters in the city hastily took in hundreds of “Long Island refugees.” Some former residents are now sleeping in hallways and lobbies — or on the streets.
But the crisis has also created an opportunity the city should seize: it’s time to permanently relocate the city’s homeless beds to more convenient locations in the city, closer to welfare agencies, churches, and public transportation, in order to give the residents better access to services, build stronger pathways to permanent housing, and eliminate the possibility of a single freak accident again cutting off the range of services that were housed on the island. The city is in the process of doing that anyway, as it plans a temporary shelter in the South End, and should start studying permanent mainland locations, too.
Under normal practices for homeless shelters, the city probably never would have located a facility on remote Long Island in the first place. The choice seems to say more about squeamishness regarding the homeless than concern for their welfare, or any desire to give them ocean views. Residents need to take a half-hour bus ride to get to the island, and line up as early as 5 a.m. for the return trip back into the city. Serving as many as 700 people a day, the shelter is also larger than some experts recommend; overly large shelters can begin to feel like warehouses.
Most of the opposition to reopening the Long Island shelter has come down to economics — it would cost about $90 million to build a new bridge — or the belief that the island is more suitable for other uses. Those are legitimate considerations. But the decisive factor is that Long Island is probably not even the best the city can do for vulnerable residents.
Apart from inertia, the best explanation for why the city might return the shelter to the island is a sad piece of conventional wisdom: a belief that putting homeless shelters in or near residential neighborhoods always runs into community opposition. For municipal authorities, that’s part of the appeal of out-of-the-way places like Long Island:
The quality of services provided at shelters will always be more important than their street address, of course, but moving the city’s facilities off Long Island could have both a practical and symbolic value if it’s accompanied by renewed emphasis on permanent housing. Two months ago, the trauma to residents from relocating from the island might have been enough reason to keep the shelter where it was. But since the people who count on Long Island have had to evacuate anyway, the city should try to make the best of this unexpected crisis.