By Jose Castillo, news staff

A year after the closure of the Long Island Bridge forced 700 people out of the island’s homeless shelter and drug treatment facilities, protesters gathered at City Hall to demand more support for Boston’s homeless population.

“[First], we want the city to train workers better, making them more aware of the trauma experienced by these people,” Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee (BHSC) member and former Long Island resident Cleve Rea said. “Secondly, we were following up on the loss of 260 recovery beds from Long Island. There are probably still a hundred beds short of the number we had.”

The Long Island Bridge’s closing on Oct. 8 of last year shuttered the largest homeless shelter in the city, along with several addiction treatment programs. Last week’s protest, organized by the BHSC on the anniversary of the bridge’s closure, focused on the inadequate replacement of such services.

“At the time, at the shelter, there were 450 people [plus 260 in recovery programs] who were evacuated immediately, all in one afternoon,” Rea said.

Boston now finds itself in the center of a homelessness crisis as 22 percent of emergency shelter requests went unmet in 2014, according to a report released by the US Conference of Mayors.

Homelessness has risen within the state by 40 percent since 2007, and family homelessness has risen by 25 percent in the past year despite a two percent decrease nationwide, according to the Boston Public Health Commission’s (BPHC) annual homelessness census.

In June, the city unveiled a shelter for homeless men at Southampton Street with nearly 500 emergency beds, intended in part to replace Long Island’s facilities. But the new shelter is not enough to meet the needs of those displaced, homeless community organizer Lenny Higginbotham said in a BHSC press release.

“Southampton Street already turns away people every night, and winter’s not even here yet,” Higginbotham said.

In addition, the Southampton Street Shelter has raised issues with the surrounding community. A preliminary police report given to The Boston Globe on Oct. 9 indicated that violent crimes rose 30 percent in the past year in the surrounding Newmarket area, along with a 55 percent jump in drug violations and a 47 percent rise in aggravated assaults.

Rea said Bostonians experiencing homelessness are frustrated by what they feel is a lack of communication from city officials about the path they will take to house more people.

“Some people say we should go back to rent control, some people say we should spend more money on vouchers and some say that there are enough buildings in Boston that the city could renovate for low income people,” Rea said.

Advocates also focused on a burgeoning opioid abuse problem, which he said severely impacts people experiencing homelessness.

“We had brought out 1,400-plus cardboard cut-outs [to the protest],” Rea said. “Each one represents a person who had died from overdose in 2014.”

The latest count by state officials put the toll at 1,256 deaths from opioid overdose in 2014, an increase of more than 300 since 2012.

The city should actively work to raise funds for treatment programs, according to John Ulrich, constituent services coordinator for South Boston under City Councilor Bill Linehan.

“What we have to do, which I believe is the right approach, would be working on putting a two percent tax on alcohol in order to fund recovery programs,” Ulrich said. “We can put people in shelters; however, if we do not address their underlying issue, be it mental illness or substance abuse, we are not going to solve the problem.”

Amidst these issues, politicians on both the city and state level have worked to provide breathing room to those without homes.

Massachusetts is the only state in the nation that has a right-to-shelter law in place, a mandate that holds the state responsible for finding shelter for those who are able to show they are homeless due to situations out of their control.

Governor Charlie Baker has stated he doesn’t want families to stay in hotels and motels when shelters are full. Since the beginning of his term, Baker has reduced the number of such families from 1,500 to 1,259, according to the homeless census conducted by BPHC.

However, part of the decrease is due to Baker’s push to narrow eligibility requirements, according to some advocates who fear problems facing homeless families will worsen as a result.

“The governor’s proposal is thoughtless and cruel,” James Shearer, co-founder of the homeless newspaper Spare Change News, said in the BHSC press release. “We ask the governor to increase funding for state rental vouchers to provide permanent housing for homeless families instead.”

Boston, meanwhile, has recently seen a reduction in homeless veterans: more than 400 have been housed in the past year. Mayor Martin J. Walsh has pledged to end chronic homelessness by 2018, a task he has promised to complete by introducing a housing-first model and a centralized online database of those experiencing homelessness.

“We must do more as a community to better connect Boston’s homeless individuals with the resources available throughout the city,” Walsh said in a statement on Oct. 7. “By using technology to create a more efficient and streamlined process, we are continuing to use innovation to tackle some of our city’s most complicated challenges.”

One factor complicating Walsh’s efforts is the arrival of homeless people seeking help from nearby communities, according to Ulrich.

“When they count the number of homeless people in Boston, many, many of those people are not from Boston,” Ulrich said. “They come here because we have services.”

Students at Northeastern University say another problem is a lack of awareness of homeless people’s needs. Understanding those needs must come first in order for services to be implemented successfully, according to Resident Student Association (RSA) Co-Vice President for Programming and Collaboration Jessica Goodman. RSA organized a Homelessness Awareness Week from Oct. 4 to Oct. 8.

“It’s really important for awareness to come before the help,” Goodman said. “You don’t want to go into community and say, ‘Oh, I know you need this’ and then help them with something that they don’t need; a community knows what they need best.”

For now, homeless advocates said one of their biggest needs is to be taken seriously by local officials.
“If we are not out there fighting for the rights of the homeless, then there will never be progress made for the homeless, much less limiting the problems,” Rea said.

Photo by Scotty Schenck