Boston focuses on Long Island as it plans to address addiction, homelessness

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The remnants of Long Island Bridge. A trial is underway regarding allegations of abuse at a shuttered youth services facility on the island. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The remnants of Long Island Bridge. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

City leaders in Boston say they're a step closer to rebuilding the bridge to Long Island in Boston Harbor where they hope to once again offer services for those struggling with homelessness, addiction and mental health issues.

They also say they're developing a new public-safety focused strategy to deal with the violence at the tent encampment near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, or "Mass. and Cass."

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said the state approval this week of what's known as a Chapter 91 license is a key step toward rebuilding the Long Island bridge, which was demolished in 2014 because it was structurally unsafe. Several social service programs were shuttered when the bridge closed.

"We are now taking this as a sign that the city will move ahead with the reconstruction of the Long Island Bridge," Wu said at a press briefing Thursday. "We can't waste any time, any more time, on this project. This is about creating an island of opportunity that will connect people to the lives and community they deserve."

Rebuilding the bridge requires two more permits: a consistency review by the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management and a bridge permit from the U.S. Coast Guard. Wu expects the permitting process to be completed by the end of this year and said the bridge could re-open in four years.

The city is still outlining what services it will provide on the island. Wu said officials are working with social service providers and others to develop what she calls a 35-acre "regional public health campus" that would eventually serve several hundred people struggling with homelessness, addiction and mental health issues.

The campus is expected to become a place where people can access long term care that includes mental health treatment, housing assistance and workforce development. Boston Public Health Commissioner Dr. Bisola Ojikutu said the city wants to improve on services that were offered on Long Island before the bridge was shut down in 2014.

"We believe that we can and will do better," Ojikutu said. "The new Long Island campus will be a hub for innovation and will provide an integrated continuum of care that I believe and I think we all believe, will strengthen our system to promote the health and well being of the people who inhabit the campus."

Ojikutu said right now, with the opioid overdose death rate in Boston up 36% since 2019, the city is facing a crisis that she said, "overwhelms our system of care." She said too many people who go into short term treatment or detox never make it to long term recovery because there is no coordination of services, especially for substance use and co-occurring mental health issues.

Representatives of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program and the Pine Street Inn were both at the announcement and pledged to work with the city to develop comprehensive treatment that could be integrated with services on the mainland.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild a recovery campus that we sorely need, and we have sorely missed," said Lyndia Downey, president and executive director of the Pine Street Inn, one of the city's main agencies to address homelessness.

But Quincy officials are promising to continue their fight against the bridge, which would have to be accessed through the city's Squantum neighborhood. Despite losing legal battles over the bridge before, Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch said his team is drafting an appeal of the state permit, citing traffic and environmental concerns. Koch said Boston "has not been a good neighbor" and should consider ferry service, instead of building an expensive new bridge.

"I'm gonna do everything in my power to put roadblocks and obstacles in the way of Boston building that bridge," Koch said. "I'm OK with what they want to do with the island; I find it offensive that the only route they choose is by car."

Boston officials don't expect an appeal to from Quincy to derail their plans. They say they'll move forward with preliminary work, which includes shoring up the old bridge's piers and building pieces of the bridge on the mainland to install later.

Chris Osgood, Mayor Wu's senior advisor for infrastructure, said the city has already been successful in fighting Quincy's appeals during the permitting process.

"In every single case, the city has been successful in those appeals," Osgood said. "We have similar confidence that if there is an appeal in this case, we would in the end still be successful in receiving a Chapter 91 license for the bridge project."

Osgood said the city earmarked $81 million in its budget for the bridge and another $38 million to rehabilitate the existing buildings on the island. He said the city is also working with other agencies and philanthropies for more funding, but the full cost of the project is still unclear.

The potential for services on Long Island comes as Boston faces increased challenges in the area of "Mass and Cass." Hundreds of people are now living in a tent encampment that Mayor Wu cleared a year-and-a-half ago. Wu said it's "clear that the area has become more dangerous lately" and public health agencies are no longer sending their workers to the neighborhood.

Wu said the city has helped more than 4,000 people from the area access recovery services in 2022 and 2023, including 150 people in the past month. More than 250 people who were staying on the streets there have been placed in housing. But Wu said hundreds more people have flocked to nearby Atkinson Street recently. Many of them, she said, are not seeking shelter or help, but engaging in violence and drug dealing.

The mayor said her office is working on a strategy that will likely include a focus on public safety and making sure Boston police are permitted to deal with the tents.

"We're really looking to codify that in an ordinance that would empower the Boston police to have clear authority and ability to help manage what our public health outreach teams have been asking for, " Wu said. "Which is to help make sure that we're not shielding and creating opportunities for weapons and trafficking and other types of criminal activity to happen in the area."

Wu said she expects to outline the new strategy for Mass. and Cass in the coming weeks.

This article was originally published on August 10, 2023.

This segment aired on August 17, 2023.


Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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