The Need to be Neighborly

James Alan Fox

June 14, 2008

The problem of homelessness in Boston, numbering almost 7,000 people by latest count, has been longstanding, as it has in other cities around the country. It hardly takes a rocket scientist or an urban plannner to anticipate that today’s economic crisis, particularly in the real estate sector, will make the problem even more acute.

Unfortunately, our city’s plan - to use the term generously - for responding to the homelessness issue is chaotic rather than strategic. In the long run, lack of logic and foresight may produce unintended and unfortunate side effects.

As an official card-carrying liberal, it pains me to advocate against any initiative of the Pine Street Innkeepers to assist the homeless. Yet, their heavy-handed attempt to claim a major section of my small one-block residential street in the South End is inconsistent with the character of the neighborhood as it now exists.

For decades, the Pine Street Inn has been the admirable key player in the fight against homelessness. In addition to its main shelter situated nearby on Harrison Avenue amidst pricey lofts and chic eateries, Pine Street has established low-income housing projects around the city. More accurately, Pine Street has targeted not all parts of the city, but those neighborhoods that are least resistant: the South End, Dorchester and Jamaica Plain together host hundreds of permanent housing beds operated by Pine Street, while Beacon Hill and Back Bay as well as Southie and Hyde Park have none.

This is hardly a well-conceived plan for integrating low-income residents into established communities, but an opportunistic response to available locations and outdated zoning. The lack of strategy has come to a head, in Pine Street’s recent effort to purchase and convert, with the assistance of public subsidy and political wheel-greasing, three brownstones on tiny Upton Street into a megaplex of single-room occupancy. If successful, this housing initiative will be the largest of its kind on the smallest of host streets.

By this effort, the well-meaning and altruistic folks at Pine Street are turning a one-way road into a politically divided highway, pitting resident vs. resident over homelessness. This is not the way to build community. In recent weeks, a welcoming committee has been doing Pine Street’s bidding in a not very civil war in the Union Park neighborhood that includes Upton Street.

Upton residents have, from the outset, welcomed a project that is scaled more in proportion to the size of the block, like Pine Street housing on similar streets. In fact, a majority of residents signed a petition proposing one, rather than three contiguous buildings for conversion.

The campaign to dismiss legitimate concerns voiced by residents has demonized Upton Street, subjecting folks to hate mail and name-calling - including NIMBY, elitist and heartless - not to mention the ones not fit to print. This tactic has alienated neighbors in a way that is counterproductive for both current residents and Pine Street’s placements-to-be.

Initiatives for the homeless should be done with a neighborhood, not to a neighborhood. The city of Boston and the Pine Street Inn need a better plan. Transitioning individuals and families from homelessness to self-sufficiency is an important objective, but must be accomplished in the right manner. Unfortunately, even while the Pine Street leadership was eyeing a potential opportunity on Upton, it failed to include the residents, particularly abutters, in decision-making on matters that will directly impact us. In the process, Pine Street has created a climate of anger and hostility on my street, which will take years to repair.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice and Professor of Law, Policy and Society at Northeastern University.