Homeless organize in Boston

An overflow crowd of 300 homeless people and their supporters rocked the Blackstone Community Center in Boston’s South End on Nov. 12. Many were among the 700 homeless people who were thrown out of Boston’s biggest shelter — Long Island Shelter in Boston Harbor — on Oct. 9, after the only bridge leading to it was declared unfit for transportation of any kind.

People had been given four hours to vacate the island. They were dispersed among several of Boston’s already overcrowded shelters and one hastily outfitted gym.

“It’s not a shelter, it’s a warehouse,” testified Cleve Rae, a member of the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee, formed in October to respond to the crisis. He and 220 other men sleep on cots and mats on the floor in what was once a gymnasium, with access to just two toilets.

The unemployed and homeless people packed into the auditorium constantly shouted down representatives of Mayor Marty Walsh, as well as city councilors Frank Baker and Ayanna Pressley. Many have not been able to retrieve their few belongings from the Long Island Shelter. People also lost their medical records in the displacement.

Lisa Jenkins said she has been living in the woods since she lost access to the shelter on Long Island, declaring: “I could have frozen to death last night. It’s wrong for women to be overlooked, because we are as human as men,” said Jenkins, who also works as a personal care attendant.

She and Cherie King, a member of the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee, said that the biggest problem is “the lack of access to shelters for women.”

Several people — including at least one woman — have perished on the streets since the shelter closed and several major recovery programs were shuttered, including the Andrew House Detox Center, the biggest in all of Boston, with 60 beds. Clients were abandoned in the middle of their medical treatment and have been without a detox program ever since.

A group of men in a prison pre-release recovery program on the island became reincarcerated when the program shut down.

The homeless and their supporters have been holding mass meetings for the past month and reaching out to city shelters in a passionate organizing drive reminiscent of the Unemployed Councils of the 1930s. Massachusetts — despite its much heralded safety net — has the fastest-growing homeless population in the U.S. People are being thrown out on the streets to suffer and die, thanks to the real estate developers and banks that initiated the current crisis in 2008 with bad loans and a $17-trillion government bailout.

Although conditions have only gotten worse during this crisis of capitalism, the organized people power of Boston’s homeless population can be seen in a struggle for deep change that shows no sign of slowing down.