Reader warning! I’m going long on this post.
Back in June, when I first heard about the proposal to turn Waban’s former Engine 6 into a group home for the chronically homeless, I thought this was going to be some serious trouble. I had no direct connection myself. I don’t live in the neighborhood. I’ve never been personally involved with housing issues or homelessness. I’m not particularly proud to admit it butmy main interest in the issue was a morbid curiosity in watching hot button emotional fights over issues that I have no personal stake in.
Occasionally when one of these hot-button issues break out, I’ve gone so far as to attend a public meeting for pure entertainment value. Yes, as I say, its not a very admirable trait, as my wife is only too happy to point that out. So back in June I went out one night to the Waban Library for the 2nd of the Engine 6 meetings. I got there late, the whole neighborhood was full of cars and the library was filled to capacity.
The temperature and tempers in the room were high that night. The meeting was chaired by the three local Ward 5 aldermen (Deb Crossley, John Rice and Brian Yates). Even though none of the aldermen had any previous involvement in putting the Engine 6 proposal together, they organized the meeting because it was clear that a significant number of their ward 5 constituents were not at all happy about the project. They framed the meeting as a “listening meeting” where they would gather all the unanswered questions, concerns, and issues of the neighborhood and bring them back to city hall They made it clear that this meeting was only about asking questions The following week a meeting was already scheduled at City Hall where the proponents would answer all the concerns that were raised.
Once the questions started, the temperature rose even more. The crowd, overall, was clearly against the Engine 8 proposal though there were some who spoke in favor. As I settled in, I realized that there were a few friends in the crowd, who I like and admire, who were there to speak out passionately against the proposal. One of them gave one of the nights most poignant and powerful arguments against Engine 6, rooted in his family’s personal experiences. There were a number of others like him, speaking out calmly, rationally and strongly against the proposal for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately though there were plenty of other that were shouting, jeering, heckling and generally getting a bit ugly. The aldermen, who had come with the intention of being the messengers back to City Hall, ended up being the target of much of the anger and frustration of the crowd. All in all, it was not a pretty site and I ended up feeling a bit ashamed of my voyeuristic motivation.
Two days later, the mayor pulled the plug on the whole project. The scheduled next meeting, where the proponents would be able to answer all the questions raised was cancelled. All sorts of reasonable questions were raised that night, but mixed in with them were some of the worst kind of misinformation and fear-mongering. The upshot of it all is that none of the questions were answered and none of the misinformation was ever corrected.
Even though I had only become involved in this as a spectator, I came home realizing how personal and emotional this was for all sides. When the plug was pulled, I thought it was the worst of all outcomes. The questions were never answered, the misinformation was never corrected and the only lesson to be learned is that there’s something to be gained by getting loud and ugly.
This past week I heard there was a meeting scheduled tonight by the proponents of the project. I was surprised because I thought the proposal was now dead. It turns out that the purchase-and-sale agreement on the property doesn’t expire until Oct 3. The proponents are still hoping to turn it around. A few people asked if I was going to attend the meeting and I said no.
Many years ago my wife and I were foster parents and had a steady stream of kids coming and going. One summer, thirteen years ago, we took four sisters, aged 3, 5, 7, and 10 camping for a week in Wellfleet down the Cape. They were in another foster home and we took them on vacation and gave the foster parents a break. We had never had four kids at one time before. It was one of the most exhausting weeks of our whole life but it sure was a lot of fun and they were wonderful and very funny kids.
Not long after that stay, they returned home to their biological parents and that was the last we heard … until today. My wife just got a call from the 2nd eldest who is now 21 years old. She tracked us down and called up to reminisce about that week 13 years ago. The family is all doing well and the eldest is going to round up the other three (now aged 23, 18, and 16) and we’ll see them soon for a fun visit of stories of their week in the woods.
After hearing all of this today, I remembered the details of those kids’ situation. Their parents lost their apartment and ended up homeless. Eventually they ended up in a shelter. The parents couldn’t keep their kids safe and so they were taken into care by the state. About a month or two after our vacation together we heard from the foster parents that the girls had been re-united with their parents. The parents had gotten an apartment with some help from the state, and the family was back together.
Now it’s 13 years later, the family’s doing great. They’ve been together ever since. The 21 year old has moved out and has her own place and the other three are living at home with their parents. It suddenly dawned on me this afternoon that this whole family saga was directly connected to tonight’s Engine 6 meeting. So I went to tonight’s meeting after all.
Tonight’s meeting was at the Eliot Church in Newton Corner and organized by the Supporters of Engine 6. Roughly 180-200 people attended. I arrived late as three representatives from Pine Street Inn talked in detail about the proposal, who would live there, what the rules are, how it would be run, etc. Many of the concerns of those Waban residents last June were addressed clearly for the first time. Much of the earlier misinformation was dispelled. A few random details from my notes:
* In the last year, 45 formerly Newton residents have gone through Pine Street Inn at one time or another
* Pine Street Inn runs a large number (I think its 25) similar group homes in many different neighborhood over the last 25 or so years.
* Many of the homes are in similar wealthy neighborhoods (Brookline, South End).
* Engine 6 would have 10 units. Nine for residents, one for the House Manager who would spend the night there. During the day there’d be Case Managers on site as well as Facility Managers on a regular basis. The building would never be unattended.
* Virtually all of the existing Pine St homes peacefully coexist in their neighborhoods while not causing problems in the vicinity. If you go into these neighborhoods and see the houses, they’re invisible, there’s no guys hanging around loitering in the nearby streets. There’s no higher incidence of crime nearby.
* Both Pine St and Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership would screen residents for Engine 6. The criteria they’d most focus on would be relatively self-sufficiency and those with a high likelihood of success in this environment.
* There are specific homes that Pine St runs in conjunction with the state for residents with severe mental problems. This would not be one of those homes. It’s not for any kind of seriously mentally ill patients.
* The home was never intended to house sex offenders. Federal and State law prohibit any Level 2 or 3 sex offenders from this type of housing. Under those rules it would be possible to assign a Level 1 sex offender to Engine 6 though that was never their intention. Having heard the neighborhood concerns, Pine St is more than happy to formally preclude all Level 1 sex offenders. All applicants will be both CORI’ed (crime) and SORI’ed (sex offenses)
Following the presentation by the Pine Street staff. Two current residents of a similar Pine Street group home spoke. Their stories were powerful, compelling and personal. They told the story of how four walls and a roof transformed their entire existence. They talked about what they do, how they live in their home and in their community. They presented real faces, personalities, and stories of what sort of people these new residents would be.
Next up was a neighbor who lives next door to a Pine St group home in Jamaica Plain. He’s a professional guy who works at home and so he sees what goes on all day long right out his window. He’s lived next door for years. His neighbors are pleasant, friendly and have never caused any problems since they arrived years ago. The neighborhood has lower crime than the surrounding areas of Jamaica Plain.
Next up, questions submitted on cards by the audience were read and answered (I only have a few notes)
* “Would Newton residents be given priority?” – They said they would be willing to set aside 1/2 the spots for Newton residents.
* “Could agreements made now (i.e. no level 1 sex offenders) be revoked in the future?” They said that on many of the houses they have built over the years they have entered into specific terms and agreements with the surrounding neighborhood. Never since they started in 1984 have they reneged on any of those agreements.
Finally, a teenage student from Waban closed the evening with an impassioned call to action. She said that she believes fervently that Waban can and is and should be the kind of place that can welcome these residents. She called on everyone in attendance to make it happen – to write to the mayor, write to the Tab, talk to other people and try to turn this decision around before Oct 3. So that’s what I’m trying to do.