Protesters in Boston rally for homeless services, addiction treatment

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BOSTON >> Marking the one-year anniversary of the closure of a bridge that led to shelter and recovery programs on Long Island, advocates for the homeless gathered outside the Statehouse Thursday to demand the restoration of services and access to housing.

The group, which included people who are or had been homeless, clergy members and medical students, carried signs with the slogans "House keys not handcuffs," "Housing, not warehousing" and "Homeless = human." Protesters called for construction of more affordable housing and increased capacity at shelters and addiction treatment programs.

On Oct. 8, 2014, Boston officials condemned the bridge connecting the Boston Harbor island to Quincy, cutting off access to a 450-bed homeless shelter and social services programs there, including detox facilities.

Brenda Jarvis, who had been living in the Long Island shelter when it was evacuated, said the closure threw her life into chaos.

"I was already homeless, but then that day I became homeless from the homeless shelter," Jarvis told the News Service. "I was a full-time student and I went to class that day as I normally did, and at about 5:00 that afternoon I was informed that the mayor had closed the bridge because it was deemed unsafe, and at that point the chaos in my mind, I began to struggle, because everything I own — all my belongings, my makeup, my personal items — were on the island, and the only thing I had with me were books."

A month after the island closed, Jarvis got into a rooming house she had been on the waiting list for, she said.

Though new shelter beds have opened up in Boston since the Long Island closure, advocates say there still are not enough beds for the city's homeless population, and that at-capacity detox programs have turned away thousands in the past year.

Demonstrators distributed flyers printed with a "Boston Homeless Bill of Rights," calling for reopening of the Long Island recovery programs, restoration of lost treatment beds, city-funded housing vouchers, equal access to shelters for women and upgrades to emergency shelters.

Jim Stewart of the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee, the group that organized Thursday's event, said the state should be able to provide sufficient addiction recovery services at public hospitals and find the resources to address homelessness.

"These things are not simple, but they're not all that complicated," he told the crowd.

After rallying outside the State House, protesters gathered tombstone-shaped signs representing the 1,047 opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts last year.

Chanting "Narcan just won't get it done, treatment now for everyone," in reference to the overdose-reversal drug, they marched around the corner to One Ashburton Place, where they planned to deliver the signs to the office of Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders.

Among those who made the march were members of the group Medical Students for Long Island, including two UMass Medical School students who drove from Worcester for the demonstration.

"Hearing from patients who have been affected by the closure of the Long Island Bridge, people talk about how it's scarier on the street," said Helen Jack, a Harvard medical student. "People say, 'It's scarier out there, I'm using more drugs because there's more people on the street, and it just makes me more anxious and I can't get into treatment.' Doctors are calling and calling and calling to get people into treatment and just can't find beds."

Earlier in the day, the solidarity committee held a similar rally outside Boston City Hall and an observance at the Church on the Hill sanctuary.

Antonio Caban contributed reporting.


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