To get a sense of why the opening of New Joelyn’s Home in Roxbury is such a big deal, flash back to 2014, when Boston’s Long Island — which housed hundreds of people struggling with homelessness and addiction — was closed without warning due to safety concerns about the bridge linking it to the mainland.
That move threw residents’ lives into disarray, and prompted some sharp criticism of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Now, two and a half years later, the launch of New Joelyn’s Home sends a message: when it comes to housing for the homeless and people in recovery, Boston has finally restored what was lost.
“When Long Island closed, we lost both shelter beds for our most vulnerable, and treatment beds,” said Boston’s housing chief Sheila Dillon, just before New Joelyn’s grand opening Thursday. “And so this, today, represents us bringing back all of the programs — the end of a difficult but productive couple of years."
Since Long Island was evacuated, she added, the city has been striving to replace what was lost.
“We had to start scouring the city and surrounding towns looking for new locations,” Dillon said. “And it’s not easy to site treatment facilities or new shelters.”
Neighborhood opposition was one factor. So was money: New Joelyn’s Home alone cost $850,000 to buy, and roughly $2 million to renovate. The purchase price was partly covered by an anonymous donation, and both the city and state provided renovation funds.
Now that the building has been rehabbed, two dozen women in recovery will share a space that many Bostonians might envy.
“There will always be a staff person working here,” Sarah Porter — the COO of Victory Programs, which runs New Joelyn’s — said at the base of a sweeping spiral staircase. “So anyone who comes through the front door will have a friendly face.”
New Joelyn’s Home is bathed in natural light and packed with alluring architectural details, from stained-glass windows in the communal living room to latticed woodwork on a second-floor bedroom window.
The goal, for the residents who will stay here in six-month increments, is to slowly re-acclimate to a normal, healthy life.
“We do have kind of curfews and set schedules,” Porter said. “And then, as they’ve been here longer, there’s more and more freedom that comes along. So in the end, we may have someone who’s working a full-time job, is getting ready to transition to housing, is getting ready to reunite with their children.”
There’s plenty of continuity here with the original Joelyn’s Home on Long Island, from artwork that used to hang in the old building to staff that used to work there. But there’s also a significant difference: instead of living away from society, residents will be in the middle of the city.
Jonathan Scott, Victory Programs’ president and CEO, says that on balance, that’s a change for the better.
“Long Island…was wonderful for what it was, but the women coming to this program right here in the heart of Boston will have access to healthcare, to job opportunities, to transportation,” he said.
And, Scott added, residents will be accompanied and supported as they venture into the wider world and the temptations it can offer someone in recovery. “They can do that here with a lot of support,” he said.
Dillon sees another silver lining. As traumatic as Long Island’s closure was, she said, it’s pushed Boston to treat homelessness and addiction with a new level of seriousness.
“We’re now seeing homeless people on a daily basis, and we really are reforming both our shelter and our housing delivery systems,” Dillon said. “So it brings the issues closer, and I think that’s a good lens to have.”