One Year Later, Long Island’s Homeless Demand Dignity at City Hall

'I feel like Boston let us down. I felt like nobody cared about our suffering.'

One year ago, around 5 p.m., the nightmare began for Brenda Jarvis.

Back then, she was working at a laboratory during the day and retiring to the homeless shelter on Long Island in the evening. She still remembers what she was wearing—a pink sweatshirt and blue jeans—when she heard the news that the city had abruptly ordered the island closed. She had to wear it for the next week.

“At that point, I began to say, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do? I only have books in my bookbag. I have no toothbrush. I have no underwear. I have nothing,” Jarvis said. “And there I was—homeless from the homeless shelter.”

Jarvis was one of the dozens of former Long Island residents, along with other homeless people and their advocates, who rallied outside City Hall to mark the one-year anniversary of its closure Thursday morning. Though she has since found housing in Lynn, Jarvis said she’s still fighting for those whose luck has yet to improve.

“As a result of the pain and the suffering, I’m now an advocate because I feel like Boston let us down,” Jarvis said through stifled tears. “I felt like nobody cared about our suffering, and I think that was the hardest part for me—I felt like nobody cared. And Boston, I think, is an awesome city. To see how the city came together for the Boston marathon [bombing], I felt like we suffered that same trauma. I felt like nobody came together for us.”

In a statement, Mayor Marty Walsh thanked advocates for bringing attention to the issue and touted the action plan his administration developed last year to end veterans and chronic homelessness by 2018.

“A year ago we made the painful but necessary decision to shut down the Long Island Bridge,” Walsh said. “That day was a turning point, it allowed us to look at the services we offered and figure out how to make them better so that Boston is a city that leaves no one behind. I’m proud that we are a city that is committed to sheltering everyone, every night no matter what.”

George Caponigro used to live in the Boston Common, and received treatment for substance abuse on Long Island. He said a disruption like last October’s closing had the potential to send some addicts, who benefit from structure and routine, spiraling into relapse.

“I think it’s absolutely inhuman what they did. Just in two hours, just close down the facility. No belongings, no contingency plan, just stuck in a warehouse,” Caponigro said. “And the sad truth is, it probably resulted in the deaths of one or two of them…They created an emergency. I guarantee there were many relapses.”

City Councilor Charles Yancey, whose district is comprised of Mattapan and parts of Dorchester, offered brief remarks bookended by the refrain, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

“Housing is not a privilege. Housing is a right. Housing is a human right,” he said. “And we must do more in this city to ensure that everyone is treated with dignity. We need to move beyond the concept of warehousing people, and move to the concept of providing housing for everybody.”

More than 700 homeless men and women dispersed across the city as a result of the Long Island shutdown. Some were relocated to the cramped gymnasium of the South End Fitness Center. Others took refuge at one of the city’s several homeless shelters: Woods-Mullen in the South End, St. Francis House on Boylston Street, Barbara McInnis House on Albany Street, and the newest facility on Southampton Street in Newmarket.

“In less than a year we built a state-of-the-art shelter with space for housing services, case management, healthcare, and mental health and addiction counseling,” Walsh said. “The City assisted the private providers on the island with relocating and funding for renovation. But we know that there is so much more to do, homelessness is worsening throughout the region.”

Not all shelters are created equal, as some in the crowd outside City Hall attested. “Woods-Mullen is a hellhole. The windows are nailed shut. It’s a hellhole,” said an elderly woman named Freda, who carried with her in a mauve rolling suitcase her belongings. Another woman named Gina complained of a rodent problem at the shelter on Massachusetts Avenue. Jarvis praised the St. Francis House for the help she received there, but took issue with how she was treated by the staff at Barbara McInnis.

“Housing, more than anything, is about dignity. Homeless people are people,” Caponigro said. Now 24 years in recovery, he lost his 37-year-old daughter to heroin abuse last Christmas. To him, the relationship between the state’s growing opiate epidemic and homeless is deeply personal.

“So your Honor, the Mayor, with all due respect; your Excellency, the Governor, with all due respect; get off your asses and do something about this,” Caponigro said. “People are dying.”