The Boston City Council agreed today to hold a hearing on the recent decision of the Boston Public Health Commission to shutter two programs, with a total of 40 beds at the Southampton Street shelter, aimed at helping homeless people - in particular those who are HIV positive - gradually reenter society.
The hearing could become a debate between Councilor Tito Jackson (Roxbury), who wants the beds restored, and Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George (at large), who said the end of the programs is a good thing because it's part of a national "rapid rehousing" effort that aims to get the homeless into longterm housing - with continuing support - as fast as possible.
The commission is not eliminating the beds but will instead use them simply to give the homeless a place to sleep overnight.
At a council meeting today, Jackson said the shutdown of the beds two weeks ago is inexcusable in a city that has at least 300 homeless HIV-positive people who need immediate help. "These are the most vulnerable people in our city and we must do better," he said. The commission knew two years ago the federal government would end funding for the programs and the administration - Jackson is running against Mayor Walsh this fall - could certainly have afforded to maintain them, what with spending $15 million last year out of operating funds on the still useless Northern Avenue Bridge.
But Essaibi-George, who will run the hearing as chairwoman of the council's Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health and Recovery, politely, and without directly saying so, suggested Jackson does not know what he's talking about.
After first praising Jackson's strong advocacy for the homeless, she said that even aside from the loss of the federal funds, trying to get homeless people into permanent housing as fast as possible makes sense - as long as they continue to get care to help them adjust. She said the public-health commission is working with all of the people directly affected by the shutdown of the Safe Harbor and Stability, Opportunity, Achievement, and Recovery programs to ensure they are offered permnanent housing and ongoing help. And she agreed because this will help bring "stability rather than continued crisis" to their lives.
Council President Michelle Wu moved onto other business, but the two went at it again during what is normally one of the last orders of business for the council - letting councilors make announcements about departing staff members or interesting events they think other councilors should attend.
"Rapid rehousing doesn't work for individuals who are addicted," and some of the people in the affected Southampton Street programs were there because they were kicked out of permanent housing, Jackson said.
Wu then called on Councilor Ayanna Pressley (at large), who gave a tribute to a departing member of her staff, who started as an intern and became one of her fulltime liaisons while working on his PhD.
She then called on Essaibi-George, who, responding to Jackson, said the only real answer to homelessness is to create new homes, not just keep sending people back into shelters. "Too many individuals and too many families who have spent too many nights in shelters."
Councilor Bill Linehan (South Boston, South End, Chinatown, downtown) then rose to declare both Jackson and Essaibi-George "out of order" for using the announcement time for a policy debate. Wu apologized to Jackson for inadvertently cutting him off during the earlier discussion and to the entire council for allowing the discussion to continue when it shouldn't have.