Maura In The News

A homeless program needs one
The hunt is on as the Y plans rehab
By Jessica Bennett, Globe Correspondent, 3/21/2004

Duffy Smith remembers the first day he walked up the steps of the Huntington Avenue YMCA into the Cardinal Medeiros Transitional Program. He had 41 years of alcoholism and two failed attempts at detox behind him. He had a shattered marriage. By his account, he had been drinking a 30-pack a day. His words slurred in failed attempts to communicate; at times, he couldn't even write his own name. He was isolated and without hope. He didn't think anyone could help him.

"I didn't care about myself then," said the 55-year-old Everett native. "I try not to look back, because I made many, many mistakes."

Today, a visit with Smith gives little clue to his past. He enters a room with confidence and warmth. His clothes are clean and pressed; his hair neatly combed back. He speaks of the future with anticipation and hope. Words that used to slur together roll off his tongue with ease. Just four months after entering the Medeiros Program, which, for 15 years has provided housing, rehabilitation and job assistance for 65 men, Smith is a little more than a week away from graduating from it.He has been sober since Nov. 6.

"We've come close to death in here, the majority of us," Smith said of his 64 housemates, whom he calls "his second family." "But this is not a shelter. This is where you get to save money, show responsibility, give back to your community and move on. You can start a new life here."

In the decade for which the Medeiros Program has statistics, it has helped transition more than 1,000 men from homelessness and addiction to permanent, independent housing, said program director Terry Wilson. But after 15 years at the YMCA's downtown Huntington facility, the program has received notice it must relocate by December. It only recently -- on March 12 -- won an extension of a June deadline.

The YMCA says the program is housed in a part of the building -- the Hastings wing -- that has not been renovated since it was built in 1912. As a result, its officials say, the organization must find a tenant or buyer that will enable it to make up the cost of renovation.

Northeastern University, which also rents space in the Hastings wing, has been a rumored buyer of the renovated complex, but spokesman Steve Sylven said no official plans had been discussed.

"We've offered to help relocate the program, and we're committed to doing that," said YMCA Executive Director John Ferrell, adding that the Medeiros Program had been notified of the upcoming eviction two years ago. "We're open to the best solution for the program and the YMCA."

But Medeiros directors say successful relocation is harder than it sounds and could be devastating to men who have worked to overcome addiction and are trying to reintegrate into the community.

Finding a site like the YMCA facility -- with prime access to public transportation, jobs and medical attention -- would be no easy matter, Smith said.

"This is a next-to-impossible task in terms of finding another place," said Joe McPherson, director of housing and homeless services at Kit Clark Senior Services, which runs the Medeiros program. "I don't know if we could find another neighborhood that would accept these men."

Ferrell has acknowledged the challenge in finding a new place to house the program, but is optimistic that it can be achieved. He said he is committed to preserving the program.

City officials are also committed -- and have rallied behind Medeiros in letters to the YMCA and at meetings over the past two months. Menino called the Y's decision to terminate the program's lease "wholly unacceptable" in a February letter to Ferrell, and threatened to reconsider his endorsement of the organization's bid to develop a 1-acre parcel of land in the North End.

"You're talking about 65 slots of getting people productive jobs and reintegrating them into society -- that's invaluable," said District 8 City Councilor and YMCA board member Michael Ross. He was one of four city councilors who wrote a letter to Attorney General Thomas Reilly last month calling the Y's decision "a clear failure of (its) mission" -- especially in light of the $1 million the Department of Neighborhood Development had provided to repair the building's 88 units of affordable housing in 1995.

"When there's something like that at risk, we have to band together to try to save and protect the program," Ross said. Councilors Chuck Turner, Maura Hennigan, and Felix Arroyo also signed on to the Reilly letter.

Ferrell says the YMCA and the mayor are now on the same page, and are working diligently to find a new home for the program. He met with Menino March 12 to discuss the program's future and agreed to extend the lease six months -- until December. He said he will be meeting with Medeiros officials and the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance tomorrow.

"I think we're beyond the disagreements," Ferrell said. "The story now is about relocating the program. We're optimistic we'll be able to find a site to continue this important program and its success."

But Joe Timilty, former mayoral candidate and longtime YMCA board member, isn't waiting around. He is leading efforts among a group of Medeiros residents to file suit against the YMCA for violating its mission to the public. On its website, the YMCA says that mission is "to improve the quality of life for children, individuals, families and communities in the cities and towns of Greater Boston."

"I can't think of a more egregious action on behalf of a nonprofit," Timilty said. He said the group expects to have a draft of the lawsuit by this week, and will be asking for a five-year extension on the program's lease.

Ferrell said he was unaware of the lawsuit and declined to comment on it.

According to Joe Finn, executive director of the shelter alliance, Boston's homeless shelters are at 126 percent capacity -- and taking away 65 beds would have a big impact. In December, the city counted 6,200 homeless people.

"This isn't just about those 65 individuals at Medeiros, it's about homeless shelter capacity in the city of Boston," Finn said.

Ferrell said he agrees. "Preserving those 65 beds is the most important thing," he said. "If we all work together I'm optimistic we can find a place to preserve the program."

Medeiros program director Wilson, meanwhile, continues to take in new residents.

"We're still here and we're still running," he said. "I just hope we can come to a resolution so these men can continue to get the help they need."

? Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

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