New Bridges to Hope in the Wake of Long Island

On October 8th of last year, I had to make a painful but necessary decision. The Long Island Bridge, after years of neglect, had to be shut down. The decaying 63-year-old structure posed imminent danger to the clients and staff of the shelter, transition, detox, and treatment programs housed on Long Island in Boston Harbor.

That decision hit me hard, because I knew at a very personal level the impact it would have. You see, Long Island played an important role in my own recovery from alcoholism. For years I drove out there, every other week, to share a message of hope. For years in the State Legislature, I fought to protect those programs against wave after wave of budget cuts. The clients and providers are not just statistics to me. I know many of them, and I’ve shared some of their experiences. I have worked, in every way I know how, to help them.

I haven’t been alone. Dedicated public servants, nonprofit providers, and people of faith have been working day and night to keep homeless men and women safe, and find new homes for the Long Island programs. The hard work of this compassionate community is making a difference. I want to update you on our progress, and share with you why it is giving me hope that Boston can turn the tide against homelessness and addiction.

Throughout the fall and winter, City and private shelters stepped up to serve every person who sought help, every night. Outreach workers went the extra mile to make sure everyone had access to shelter. New overnight drop-ins and daytime warming centers opened. In a winter that went down in history as the harshest on record, I’m deeply grateful that—unlike most years—we did not lose a single homeless person on our streets.

By January, we opened a new shelter on Southampton Street, in a City-owned building close to Boston Medical Center and various service providers. Currently offering 250 beds, by July it will replace the more than 400 that were lost on Long Island. In addition, we are creating space in that facility for housing services, case management, healthcare, and mental health and addiction counseling. The support services at Southampton Street will be more abundant and better integrated than in our Long Island shelter.

In addition, the Boston Public Health Commission’s four transitional housing programs are being preserved at full capacity in new locations. The Wyman Community Reentry and Transitions stabilization programs are already up and running at our River Street campus in Mattapan. Safe Harbor and SOAR will move from their temporary site in the South End Fitness Center to the new Southampton Street facility once the renovations there are complete.

We are also providing relocation help and renovation funds to the four privately operated programs that were housed on Long Island. Volunteers of America’s two residential recovery programs, Hello House and Rebound, will be re-opening in newly renovated facilities very soon. Bay Cove Human Services is close to securing a new home for its Andrew House/Bridge to Recovery detox center. And we are working actively with Victory Programs to find a site for Joelyn’s Family Home.

In short, all the former Long Island programs are on the road to full restoration.

This work has been about more than overcoming a disruption. It has afforded us a long-overdue new look at homelessness and addiction services. It has allowed us, with our community and provider partners, to begin building better, more permanent solutions.

This isn’t just a city issue. It’s a worsening regional crisis. Boston has 10 percent of the state’s population, but our homeless census counts about one-third of the statewide total. Meanwhile, between 35 and 50 percent of our city’s shelter guests on a given night come from communities outside Boston. Our shelter network, like our addiction programs, serves the entire region.

I’m proud to say that in the City of Boston, we are committed to sheltering everyone, every night: no matter where they arrive from, no matter what issues they bring, no matter what. But people in trouble need more than a safe bed. They need pathways to health and homes. That’s what we are focused on providing.

We may have lost the Long Island Bridge. But we are building many more bridges to new life for our most vulnerable neighbors. Some of those structures are nearly complete. But the work won’t be finished until we end homelessness and stem the addiction crisis for good.

Martin J. Walsh is the present Mayor of Boston.

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