On a city lot beside the Southeast Expressway, somewhere between massive piles of rock salt and rows of garbage trucks, city officials have found a site to house hundreds of homeless people who have lived in limbo since engineers last month condemned the bridge to their shelter on Long Island.
The unsightly spot on the edge of the South End where the city used to run a methadone clinic is the leading candidate among a range of facilities that city officials have vetted in recent weeks to provide the homeless with a “temporary long-term solution.”
They have also considered—and rejected—the idea of running a ferry service to the refuge on Boston Harbor, even as one local businessman promised to pay for renovating the island’s docks to accommodate larger boats and raise millions of dollars to subsidize the service.
City officials, for the first time since quickly evacuating the island of more than 700 of the city’s neediest residents, will unveil their plans Wednesday night for how to house them. Since the bridge was closed on 8 October, most of the homeless have been staying in improvised shelters, where they have been sleeping on cots and mats. Others have slept outside.
“We know this has placed enormous pressure on our partner organizations who have absorbed the displaced population here,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement. “While this is a challenging time for everyone, I remain fully committed to finding long- and short-term solutions as quickly as possible.”
The city has yet to decide whether to spend an estimated $90 million to replace the bridge so the Long Island shelter can reopen. That replacement project could take up to five years.
City officials haven’t ruled out other potential locations for an emergency shelter that can house as many as 500 men and women every night.
They have looked at a renovated Boston Redevelopment Authority building near the Black Falcon Cruise Terminal in South Boston, but the space, once used to repair ships, wouldn’t be available until next August. They also have considered another South Boston spot in a slightly smaller Massachusetts Port Authority building, which has been used as a garage and for container fumigation. But that space lacks bathrooms and showers and would have to be vacated by June.
Knowing they will probably face resistance in any neighborhood where they open the shelter, city officials said the spot on Frontage Road has a number of advantages. It’s on city-owned land, doesn’t abut any residential buildings, and is secured by fences. It’s also across the street from another large homeless shelter, the Pine Street Inn, and would be relatively easy to service with buses to and from the city’s intake center in the South End.
The shelter, which would cost an estimated $250,000 to build, would be made with modular buildings so they could be used later as offices for the Department of Public Works.
“It’s the best option right now as we continue to evaluate others,” said Jerome Smith, the city’s chief of civic engagement.
Frontage Road is something of a no-man’s land, bounded by the interstate and commercial yards, but hundreds of high-end condominiums and a new Whole Foods supermarket are rising a few blocks away in the old Herald Square.
No one could be reached Tuesday at the property management companies, but some of the long-term neighbors said they could live with another large shelter in the neighborhood.
“We’ve been here eight years, and we’ve never had any trouble with the homeless,” said Karole Moe, manager of Mohr & McPherson, a rug and furniture store across the street. “I think it would be perfectly fine. We have a lot of security around.”
Officials will move a prison re-entry program and recovery home for alcoholics to the Public Health Commission building in Mattapan.
Lyndia Downie, president of the Pine Street Inn, said she was looking forward to getting more information about the city’s plans.
“I’m sure every neighborhood has concerns, and those concerns will have to be addressed,” she said. “But it’s not like the Public Health Commission hasn’t run a shelter before.”
At the public meeting Wednesday night at the Blackstone Community Center in the South End, city officials will also discuss their plans for housing the addiction recovery programs that treated more than 250 people on Long Island.
They have already started breaking down walls, refinishing floors, and doing other work to move a prison re-entry program and recovery home for alcoholics to a sprawling Public Health Commission building in Mattapan. The building is now the site of a food pantry and a shelter for homeless families.
“We feel very good about being able to do this without incident,” said Felix G. Arroyo, the city’s chief of Health and Human Services. “People have been more helpful than not.”
Arroyo added that the city also is considering purchasing the recently shuttered Radius Specialty Hospital in Roxbury. With 207 beds for patients, it would probably be large enough to house all of the recovery programs that were on Long Island.
But Radius, the old Jewish Memorial Hospital, is near schools and parks and could spark a serious political fight. It’s also unclear how much it would cost.
“It’s promising, but we’d have to do it with some sensitivity,” Arroyo said. “We’re looking for what’s the best fit.”
At the meeting, city officials also will probably discuss the possibility of running ferry service to the island. They have estimated it would cost about $2 million to retrofit the island’s docks and about $3.3 million to run ferry service over the next five years. (That would only be enough to cover the cost of ferrying the residents and staff of the recovery programs, or about 250 people a day.)
Jack Connors, a businessman who built a camp for city children on the island, told Walsh he would pay to rebuild the dock and raise the money to cover the costs of the ferry service.
“I have a more than passing interest in the island,” Connors said in an interview. “The homeless are my neighbors. I want to help them.”
Also, the Boston Foundation recently gave the Public Health Commission $25,000 to help the homeless, and more probably will be coming.
But city officials said the state Department of Public Health has told them programs on the island are not licensed to use a ferry as the only regular means of transportation.
They said residents were routinely evacuated by ambulance, sometimes several every night. They also worry ferries might not be able to operate on the coldest nights of the year, when shelter is needed the most.
“It’s just not feasible for the homeless population,” Smith said.
Photos: Home page, Long Island Bridge linking the island to Boston’s mainland; this Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh speaking at the Boston Long Island Homeless Shelter on 31 January 2014. Source: Garrett Quinn, MassLive.
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