The Helm Proposal: What About?
To the Editor,
On Thursday, April 13th Charlestown showed up!
We showed up to ask very specific questions and address very real, specific concerns regarding the proposed YMCA sale of the Constitution Inn to the St. Francis House for the Homeless.
This was the second Charlestown Community Meeting at large, the second opportunity to have the St. Francis House, the Planning Office for Urban Affairs, the YMCA correct the misleading and inaccurate use of “affordable” housing in their discussion when indeed 64 units will be dedicated to Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) for formerly homeless individuals should this project come to fruition. This Permanent Supportive Housing project would attempt to support a population larger than anything the St. Francis House has experience servicing and in a neighborhood (Charlestown) they have no experience supporting.
We continue to hear about the need for “compassion”, for empathy, for our support of the homeless.
We are not the community of individuals project proponents continue to portray us as. We do hold very real feelings and concerns for our homeless. We understand and acknowledge that they suffer from very complex physical, mental, emotional and behavioral problems. These problems take 24/7 professional assistance and services. Our homeless need, deserve more than the Helm developers and some of our elected officials allude to; more than this community can even come close to providing.
Many of us in our Charlestown Community support the homeless by volunteering, donating funds, donating clothing, “white socks for the homeless”, and work with our homeless in their professional capacities.
Charlestown cares. Charlestown has compassion.
But! What about the residents of Charlestown? Residents who have lived in this town for generations, raised their families, served their country, worked two or more jobs to provide for not only their families but contribute to the needs of those less fortunate in this life?
What about the young families that came to Charlestown to provide a safe home for their children; a true community?
What about all our dog owners that walk at all hours of the day and night; our runners and walkers that come to the Navy Yard to exercise and enjoy the benefits the Boston Harbor provides?
What about the seniors that could no longer live in the houses and apartments they enjoyed for years; for generations and now live in “affordable” housing and will no longer feel safe walking to the store, for a walk around the Harborwalk alone or with friends?
What about our neighbors in recovery that have done the work; do the work every day of their lives and have found stability and support in Charlestown? What challenges does this project create for them?
What about individuals, families that come to the Navy Yard to play in the playgrounds and sit by the water on a hot summer night?
What about residents who depend on the Mass General Brigham shuttle and could potentially lose this service if it is “overburdened” and may no longer be in a position to service the proposed Helm residents in addition to staff, patients and the numerous residents it supports now?
What about the students attending the MGH Institute? What about the tourists that come to “historical” Charlestown?
What about the children attending after school programs, birthday parties, swim lessons at the YMCA located at the proposed Helm? What happens when families and individuals no longer feel “safe”, feel “comfortable” using the YMCA?
What about the medical clinics in Charlestown that are already struggling to provide services to current residents, to our neighbors in recovery?
What about our Charlestown Police Officers that know firsthand what this proposal will mean to our community which is overwhelmed with problems related to drug and alcohol addiction, felons, and abuse?
What about the disabled that live in Charlestown because of its proximity to Spaulding Rehabilitation; that may be more vulnerable as they navigate the streets in wheelchairs and other supportive devices?
What about those of us that call Charlestown “home” NOW?
Compassion for us? Empathy for us? Concern for us?
I’m sorry I have yet to hear it from the St. Francis House, from some of the very people we supported in the past and voted into office.
Again, “what about Charlestown”?
Where’s the Decorum?
To the Editor,
This communication is written to express my disappointment and sadness regarding the meeting held on the April 13, at the Knights of Columbus concerning the Helm project.
After a comprehensive presentation by the proponents of the project as well as a brief evaluation of the entire project by Dr. Jim O’Connell, comments and suggestions followed by the CNC members.
Unfortunately, one of the council members asked the audience to clap if they were opposed to this project. There was then thunderous applause, noise and table banging. This was an unheard of ask and injected a harmful atmosphere of “mob mentality” setting the stage for unruly behavior and an out-of-control atmosphere. No council member should ever do this as it seemed to give permission that anything goes. Heckling followed.
As my husband was the first to speak and advocate for why he believed this project was worthwhile, he was immediately confronted with “Ask the question”, “What is the question?’
He had listened to the presentation, listened to Dr. O’Connell’s testimony in favor of the project and he didn’t have any questions to ask.
My husband is a seasoned speaker and can easily deliver credible remarks. This “bullying” by some in the crowd shook him to the core. He was unable to speak any further. Nobody was interested in what he had to say it seemed. As for myself, how could I get up and speak in favor of this project? I, myself had no questions either. I refused to be heckled by this raucous crowd and endure their putdowns. We both, unwillingly left the meeting. We never had the opportunity to hear the rest of the speakers, unfortunately.
Why am I writing this? I am writing this to ask the Chairman and the rest of the council members why this happened? Why didn’t the Chairman or a member of the CNC have the courage and commonsense to ask for an orderly atmosphere and respectful audience that this behavior would not be tolerated? This wasn’t done. This is not the way a public meeting should be run. Sadly, those of us who wanted to voice an opinion were subjected to “bullying.”
This is unacceptable. Stunts such as “clapping” and setting a toxic tone have no place in a public forum where people need to be heard, welcomed and feel valued for their input.
Some background: Dr. Jim O’Connell, who has been advocating for the marginalized and homeless since the mid-eighties is known not only around Boston but nationally and internationally for what he does. He would never advocate for this project if it was not in the best interest for the folks in need of housing or put in a neighborhood that would be a bad fit.
Having worked with Dr. Jim O’Connell for more than a decade, there is nobody that cares and advocates more for the homeless or “those people” as I have heard them referred to. “Those people” could be any of us. I have listened to their stories and they not “bad” people. They are human beings in need of help.
As an aside, I recently saw a flyer stating that the housing would go to homeless people with “active drug use and mental illness”. The Navy Yard needs to be saved from “those people.” This is vicious and wrong, but that’s what the word is around the Navy Yard and Charlestown. Distributing false information is sad and uncalled for. What kind of people go around distorting the facts of what the Helm is about? And what is it teaching our children and grandchildren.
The only good I got out of this sorry meeting was a quote my son sent to my husband on the meeting day. “The Time is Always Right to Do What Is Right.”- Martin Luther King, Jr.
My children and grandchildren are not tasked with or asked to help serve a meal at a homeless shelter, or simply sit and have a conversation, or just listen to “those people”. They ask us when can they go? This past Christmas, their ask was, “can we go to the Pine Street Inn and help with serving?
We are truly blessed and will continue our efforts to advocate for homes for people in need. That’s the right thing to do.
Lastly, Dr. O’Connell having been a resident in Charlestown for many years, knows that good and honorable people are the majority but unfortunately, he was subjected to the few who spread vicious lies to keep “those” people out.
Good overcomes evil. And the goodness of Charlestown will shine brightly.
Ann T Kelleher
Proposed Sale of the Constitution Inn
To the Editor,
To my Charlestown neighbors, and the politicians who serve us,
By now you have heard about the proposed sale of the YMCA owned Constitution Inn to the PUOA/St. Francis House. The property was marketed during the pandemic—not surprisingly with little interest. There are many reasons why this possible transaction—dubbed “The Helm” — is a poor use of the building, and is detrimental to Charlestown. Our neighborhood has a robust percentage of affordable/subsidized/lower income housing; projecting to become the third highest in our city. Expansion of Bunker Hill Housing, and other developments put Charlestown at the tipping point—a critical juncture. And, in a neighborhood poll, 92.6% of respondents are against the proposed Helm.
The Helm project, described in the April 13 Knights of Columbus meeting, as a “housing first” concept, offers a mix of permanent supported subsidized housing. This controversial approach is diametrically opposed to the “treatment first” direction, championed by medical experts with experience with both. (Read the Research section on www.charlestownvoice.com). The Helm’s management philosophy, stated by the St. Francis House President and CEO, Karen LaFrazia, focuses on a roof overhead, not the surrounding neighborhood infrastructure. And, housing people at all different stages of recovery is fraught with peril. Homelessness is a complex issue, with no single cause. Without employment, medical support to end substance abuse, and trauma programs, there cannot be transformation to independent living. The lack of support sends 1 in 5 back to the streets, as documented in some programs.
While many of us agreed to drug testing as a prerequisite to our own employment, there will be no regular drug testing required at the Helm. Especially since the Helm’s resident housing costs are subsidized, it is reasonable for neighbors to require those who are selected for this opportunity, not to commit crimes. During a series of small informational zoom meetings, the St. Francis House initially reallocated resident percentages. These tweaks are ineffective as key success factors are still lacking: location, treatment, tight management, and insistence on clean and sober living.
Charlestown is a small, historic neighborhood. Our micro-economy depends upon tourism, MGH, Spaulding, and our National Park. Transportation is limited; jobs even more so. It is an uphill struggle to exit homelessness, related criminal activity, substance abuse, and other heartbreaking backgrounds. And, Charlestown needs to develop other benefits to grow as a thriving commercial hub. Doing so will help address the root causes of homelessness.
One answer: Select another neighborhood with close proximity to medical treatment, a grocery store, transportation, and jobs. The West End for instance—a neighborhood with less than ½ of the supportive housing of Charlestown, has had some success with a different model. Homelessness is a city wide problem and all neighborhoods must participate in equitable solutions. The goal: substance free formerly homeless residents, possessing a sense of accomplishment through work. Or, let’s creatively repurpose some downtown offices experiencing vacancies at an all-time high.
The YMCA is a mission-based organization, and one where I am a longstanding member. The Y is dedicated to “providing comprehensive programs and services that enrich communities—and all of the people who live in them-…in fulfillment of our mission”. The Helm will not enrich the Charlestown community, nor the formerly homeless who need more services. If the PUOA/St. Francis house is the end user of the Constitution Inn, there must be a strategy (and I quote again from the YMCA mission statement) to build “healthy spirit, mind and body for all.”
A solution is clear– elected officials must file for a moratorium on the sale to the St. Francis House. The YMCA can select another agent, remarket the property, and surface additional buyers. The Constitution Inn can be designated as exclusively zoned rental housing without the supportive component run by professional apartment management, Charlestown will be part of the solution. After coming so far, Charlestown is eager for a responsible, synergistic, productive neighbor. Whether a hotel, housing for MGH students, Spaulding affiliation, or another end use, we must seek alternatives to the Helm.
Tracy Iannelli Charlestown
resident since 1991,
YMCA Member, and
Charlestown Voice Supporter
Constitution Inn Renovation Helm on Third Presentation Failure
To the Editor,
The Charlestown Neighborhood Council (CNC) open public meeting on April 13th was an opportunity for the proponents of the Constitution Inn renovation project (Helm on Third) to provide their best arguments for their proposal to house the homeless in Charlestown. To most of those attending, they failed. The issue was not the need to care for the homeless whose needs are great. Rather, the issues were the defects and gaps in their proposal and the misguided location of Charlestown as the site for any such venture.
The proposal is based on the concept of Permanent Supportive Housing or Housing First. Permanent Supportive Housing by the medical literature definition requires housing for medically fragile homeless individuals without any precondition or prerequisite for treatment of addiction, substance abuse or mental illness or indeed any participation in any treatment program. These individuals are the most complexly ill of any medical population. Increasingly, this housing approach has neither achieved treatment for the underlying causes of homelessness nor reduced the number of homeless individuals.
The most glaring flaw in the Constitution Inn renovation project is the lack in Charlestown of community health and healthcare resources. Primary and specialty care are unavailable. The Mass General Charlestown Healthcare Center is not taking new patients. The New Health Charlestown is not taking behavioral health patients. Charlestown has no urgent care, emergency care or hospital facility. Its one ambulance does not have paramedic staffing. How will these complexly ill individuals obtain health care particularly urgent care in Charlestown where health services they desperately need are unavailable? If moved to Charlestown, these individuals will be at great risk. When asked at the CNC meeting about these deficiencies, the proponents had no answers of substance. Their vague reference to transportation to Boston Medical Center, Tufts or Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program using the Helm’s one van is untenable and reflects lack of thought and planning. Certainly, public transportation is not an option.
The Constitution Inn/Helm on Third proponents started their presentation with an apology for losing the trust of the Charlestown community last October when they asked that the Article 80 community review process be waived. Trust needs to be earned. With their CNC April 13th presentation, they did little to earn any of that trust.
Gerald H. Angoff, MD