Boston bridge

November 27, 2014; WGBH News


Long Island is one of the islands in Boston Harbor pressed into government use to house the dispossessed. It is accessible by bridge, and for decades a portion of the city’s homeless population, transported by bus, have bedded down there, some participating in on-site treatment programs.

The bridge, however, was deemed critically unsound and closed abruptly on October 8th, stranding almost a thousand residents, many of whom had left their few personal belongings there. Since then, service providers and the city have struggled to find placements for all of those displaced by the move, to reunite people with their belongings—something happening only now, after eight weeks—and consider longer-term plans.

The repairs to the bridge are expected to require somewhere in the area of $80 million and will take many years.

James Shearer, who is a founder of the city’s newspaper of the homeless, Spare Change News, says the problems with the bridge are longstanding and that the city should have had public meetings and worked with the 700 residents of Long Island to make plans. Caregivers report that the incident has resulted in some contacts between themselves and homeless people being lost and that this puts people at serious risk going into the winter.

On the eve of Thankgiving, the mayor’s office released the following statement, which provides a sense of the reorganization that needs to be completed. We have reprinted it in full to shows its complexity, but it cannot come anywhere near to expressing the human toll:

On October 8th, Mayor Martin J. Walsh—under the advisement of various City departments, agencies and leaders, and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT)—made the decision to close the Long Island Bridge and evacuate the programs located on Long Island. 

“This was a difficult, but necessary, decision that was made in the interest of public safety. This bridge has been a source of grave concern for many years, and I was not willing to risk the possibility of disaster for one more night, with the data presented to us about the serious condition of the bridge,” said Mayor Walsh. “In the weeks following the bridge closure, a light post fell down and crashed onto the bridge, directly where vehicles traveled to and from the Island. My team made a series of tough judgment calls in the interest of public safety, and we are confident that we made the right decision.” 

There was not one incident, injury, or any bridge collapse that led to this decision. The decision to close the Bridge was made in an abundance of caution, following long-running concerns about the structural integrity of the Bridge. 

Following the decision to close the Bridge, the City activated its Continuity of Operations Plan to ensure that all needs of the clients who utilize the programs at Long Island are met while the Bridge is closed. Since the bridge closure, the City and partners have maintained an equal, or greater, number of beds for our homeless and recovery guests.

The following is a comprehensive update on the status of the Long Island Bridge, programs, and operations.

Community Outreach

On Wednesday, November 12, the City of Boston co-hosted a community meeting at the Blackstone Community Center. Over a period of four hours, representatives from the Mayor’s Office, the Health & Human Services cabinet, the Public Works Department, the Boston Public Health Commission, and City Council engaged in discussion with advocates, displaced clients, and concerned community members. 

On Wednesday, November 19, representatives from the Mayor’s Office, the Health & Human Services cabinet, and the Boston Public Health Commission met with elected officials from the Boston delegation to discuss the bridge closure, current status, and upcoming plans.

The City will be holding two community meetings:

  •  Tuesday, December 2, at 6:00 p.m. – Mildred Ave Community Center Auditorium, 5 Mildred Avenue, Mattapan
  • Thursday, December 4, at 6:00 p.m. – Trotter Elementary School, 135 Humboldt Ave, Dorchester

Mayor Walsh has met directly with members of the BPHC service provider network, and with residents in the Roxbury and South End neighborhoods. Constituents are always welcome to reach out to the City through the Mayor’s 24-Hour Hotline, 617-635-4500, or by emailing [email protected]

Client Belongings

Any emergency shelter guest seeking to retrieve their locker items should call 617-823-7676 between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Callers should be prepared to provide a name, locker number, and a contact number. 

City staff have traveled to Long Island and retrieved all client items, returning them to the Mattapan campus, where they will be stored. When a guest requests their belongings, those possessions will be brought to Woods Mullen Shelter at a pre-determined time when guests can pick them up. If guests are unable to pick up items during those times, alternative options will be made available by contacting 617-823-7676. 

Current Programs 

On a typical night, Long island is home to approximately 450 shelter guests as well as approximately 250-300 individuals who receive services through the Boston Public Health Commission and other nonprofit organizations that operate programs on Long Island. Approximately 150 people work on Long Island during a typical day.

BPHC operates four programs on Long Island:

  • Wyman Re-entry Center is a transitional housing program for 30 individuals
  • Transitions is a 30-day stabilization program for 45 individuals
  • Project SOAR is a transitional housing program for 20 individuals
  • Safe Harbor is a transitional housing program for 20 individuals living with AIDS

Our homeless population is currently being served at a number of City-run and independent community programs, providing over 500 beds across Boston. In addition, the BPHC provider network is working to expand capacity based on needs for the cold weather. They include:

  • South End Fitness Center – capacity 250 men’s beds
  • Woods Mullen – capacity 60 men and women’s beds
  • Boston Healthcare for the Homeless – capacity 45 women’s beds
  • New England Center for Homeless Veterans – capacity 50 men’s beds
  • Pine Street Inn – capacity 90 men and women’s beds
  • Valentine Street – capacity 5 women’s beds
  • St. Francis House – capacity 25 women’s beds
  • Children’s Services of Roxbury – capacity 30 men’s beds
  • Boston Rescue Mission – capacity 30 men’s beds 

A number of privately-run programs also call Long Island home. They include: 

  • Hello House, a residential treatment program for 28 individuals
  • Joelyn’s Family Home, a women’s residential recovery program for 47 individuals
  • Andrew House / Bridge to Recovery, a detox program for 60 individuals
  • Rebound, a youth-focused recovery program for 15 individuals

The City is committed to working with each program to find temporary services for their clientele.

Temporary Facilities

The City has explored a number of options for a temporary, long-term facility to replace the Long Island homeless shelter during the time period needed for bridge repairs. Each facility had to meet certain criteria to be considered a possible location, with attention paid to size, access to water and electricity, timeframe for availability, ownership status, and current zoning status. In the interest of stability and consistency, the location also must be available until the close of bridge construction, which is estimated to take approximately 36 months.

Two facilities are currently under restoration to replace some of the recovery programs. They include:

  • BPHC Building N in Mattapan – 74 beds; approximate cost $91,000; operational in the beginning of December 2014.
    • The BPHC’s food pantry was previously located at this site. It has been relocated to a different area on the Mattapan campus, nearby.
  • BPHC Adult Daycare Building in Mattapan Campus – 50 emergency beds or 20 program beds; approximate cost $22,500; operational January 2015. 

The City is in the final stages of confirming a location for homeless clients, and a location for the recovery programs. 

In addition, shelter and program guests have indicated that the locker system on Long Island was a valued resource. Our Homeless Services staff, in partnership with Property Management, is examining the feasibility of reinstating this service once a new facility is established.

Bridge Replacement

The Long Island Bridge was opened in 1951 and has been in a state of limited operational use for over a decade. In August 2014, the City of Boston issued a Request for Proposals for a design of a new bridge. The design is expected to cost $9 million; funding has been allocated, with half provided by the City of Boston and half from MassDOT. The design process can take an estimated 12 months. 

Construction on a replacement bridge is likely to cost approximately $80+ million, and—if expedited, given emergency circumstances—can be completed in an estimated 24 to 36 months. 

In examining long-term plans for the programs on Long Island, the City carefully evaluated two ferry options to replace a bridge. These options would require significant infrastructure investments, equipment and vehicle purchases, and maintenance and operational costs. 

Walsh showed up to carve turkey at the annual Thanksgiving dinner at the Pine Street Inn, and was quoted there as saying, “We’re going to take this opportunity to really improve services and truly deal with the issue of homelessness in the city of Boston.” But in the short term, many who used to seek shelter on Long Island are crammed into temporary facilities where there is barely room to stand between cots.

Noting that the city also plans to open two facilities on Boston Public Health Commission property in Mattapan for people who were in recovery programs on Long Island, Walsh said, “I also think we have an opportunity here to deal with the issue of addiction. At the end of the day, the closing of Long Island could be a blessing for the homeless community in the city of Boston and the recovery community in the city of Boston. I think we’re going to come back stronger with programs.” Meanwhile, a facility providing twenty beds for women with substance abuse issues was closed completely by the bridge closure. Re-siting programs like this will take time on the mainland.

Walsh is, of course, Boston’s new mayor and is himself a self-described recovering alcoholic. The closure of the bridge effectively cut access to about half of all available substance abuse treatment beds.

Some are looking at this situation as a test of Walsh’s capacity to handle or potentially avert crises. Advocates and homeless activists in Boston have pledged to keep the heat on the city until adequate resolutions are reached.—Ruth McCambridge