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Outcast Island

October 9, 2014 marked the end of an era for Boston’s homeless, ill and marginalized residents when the sole bridge to Long Island was closed.

October 9, 2014 marked the end of an era for Boston’s homeless, ill and marginalized residents when the sole bridge to Long Island was closed after a state inspection declared it too unstable for vehicles. One of several small islands (“Harbor Islands”) of the Massachusetts Bay, Long Island’s geographic separation from the mainland has made it a prime location for isolating social outcasts over the years. In 1882, the City of Boston purchased property on Long Island for an almshouse, a residence for unwed mothers, a chronic disease hospital, a nursing school and a “Home for the Indigent.” In subsequent decades, a treatment center for alcoholics was added. Recently, it’s the site of homeless shelters, Boston Public Health residential facilities and a variety of residential programs for “recovering” addicts and people involved with the Courts.

Reachable only by limited shuttles, Long Island effectively served to keep homeless and sick people out of sight and out of mind for over a century. In recent years, people who stay at the various shelters cannot get to the Island before 2 PM or after 9 PM; once there, they cannot leave if the shuttles aren’t running; and on most days, shelter residents must depart the Island no later than by the 9 AM mainland-bound shuttle.

According to reports in the Boston Globe, the decrepit state of the bridge was well-known to government officials. But it’s been years since the City or State has invested resources in replacing or fundamentally repairing the bridge to the metaphorical “nowhere” of shelters for the homeless and other social undesirables.

Elizabeth, a woman who has navigated what she calls “the homeless life” for ten years explains, “Everyone knew the bridge was dangerous. I always went on the bus [that crosses the bridge to the shelter] with my heart in my throat and just prayed to God that we’d get across. But I had nowhere else to go.” Francesca, insecurely housed for nearly as long as Elizabeth, declares, “I hate that bridge. I always felt that if it went, I’m gonna be swimming with the fishes.”

The bridge’s closure has elicited far more attention than the on-going miseries of life on Long Island ever did. It’s been covered in Boston area newspapers and local television news shows. A public meeting held at the Blackstone Community Center in Boston’s South End was attended by more than 300 homeless people and supporters demanding solutions for the hundreds of people displaced by the Long Island closure. Many of these people are now sleeping on cots crammed into gymnasiums, cafeterias and other make-shift spaces. Others are sleeping on the streets.

With a few exceptions, public attention to the misery caused by the bridge’s closing ends with advocating for a speedy repair and a return to the status quo. But for the thousands of men and women who have traveled that bridge to nowhere, Long Island is far from an ideal solution to their struggles with housing, health and the correctional system.

I first met Daisy in 2008 at a drop-in center for poor and homeless women who had few options for where to spend the day when the shelters are closed. An Asian woman in her fifties, Daisy began her Long Island sojourn ten years ago when her husband died. Mildly cognitively impaired since childhood, she was not able to support herself or pay rent after his death. She began drinking, suffered several assaults and robberies, and her health deteriorated.

A few years after I first met Daisy, she called to tell me that the Long Island staff had sent her to the hospital the previous night. “I felt depressed and couldn’t stop crying. I was talking to my boyfriend – he stays in the men’s dorm – and they said it was time I had to go to the women’s dorm. I was crying hard and couldn’t stop. I felt panic and cried for help. They called an ambulance and took me to the hospital.” I asked her what had set off her crying. “I can’t be with my boyfriend. I am anxious and want to sleep with him.” It slowly emerged during our conversation that she was worn out from sleeping in a room full of strangers, from eating food she neither liked nor chose, and from being separated from her sole source of emotional support.

At the Long Island shelters, like at shelters around the country, men and women are strictly segregated. While this policy serves to protect women from sexual abuse, it fails to respect the personhood of transgender and gender queer people, and it forces heterosexual individuals like Daisy to live as celibates. Is this a carryover from the days of monasticism? A punishment for the crime of homelessness? Are we afraid that homeless people will procreate, or that they’ll have fun? Many women in shelters have been victims of sexual abuse and intimate partner violence, but surely there are better ways of protecting women’s rights than by forbidding all heterosexual and hetero-amorous affection for people like Daisy who are in dire need of human warmth and support.

A few months later, Daisy’s depression escalated and she tried to commit suicide. After a stint in the hospital, she tried to go back to Long Island, but was barred from there because of the suicide. In the middle of the night, the shelter staff arranged a ride for her to go to Woods-Mullen Shelter (a less well furnished facility) with instructions to stay away from Long Island for at least a month. Having attained a new level of pariah-hood, Daisy was no longer welcomed even on the Island of Outcasts.

Most of the time, Daisy smiles and is agreeable to everything she is told, but when she’s pushed too far, she pushes back. As a consequence, she repeatedly has been barred from Long Island for fighting with other women (over use of the sinks or for making noise in her sleep) and for other infractions. She also has run into trouble with the police. Her most bizarre police encounter came when she was arrested for habitual littering at the shuttle bus stop. Not allowed to store her possessions at the shelter, she carried them with her as she walked through the streets of Boston each day. The shuttle drivers wouldn’t always let her bring all her bags onto the bus so she often left what looked like trash at the shuttle bus stop (where there was no trash can.) The police warned her to stay out of that area; she disobeyed because the shuttle was her only means of getting to the Island; they took her down to the station where they didn’t charge her, but kept her long enough to miss the last shuttle. She ended up spending the night on the street.

Today, after far too many years on the streets and in shelters, Daisy lives in a fairly stable situation in a rented room. When I called her up to ask her what she thought of the bridge closure, she simply laughed.

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