For more than a year, he bounced around, first staying in a city-run shelter on Southampton Street, near Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. Then he lived at Pine Street Inn’s shelter at Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain.
But by the fall of 2019, he was homeless no more. Pine Street had just opened a new apartment building on Hamilton Street in Dorchester where he signed a year-long lease with rent set at 30 percent of his Social Security income, or about $230 a month.
“I never want to leave this place,” said Jimenez, 70, as he showed off his first-floor studio adorned with a Christmas wreath on the door.
Jimenez is one of 52 residents, all formerly homeless, living in what is known as permanent supportive housing. While known for their emergency shelters, Pine Street and other homelessness providers are creating more housing that aims to keep people off the streets long term.
But it hasn’t been easy. Proposals to convert two hotels into permanent supportive housing in Charlestown and Dorchester are facing fierce pushback from some neighbors who fear the crime, drugs, and loitering they see on Mass. and Cass will come to their part of town.
I wondered about that myself and recently checked out two properties Pine Street has run for years.
Both had the look of small apartment buildings nestled in a residential neighborhood. The one in Dorchester, where Jimenez lives, is modern, while the other, in Jamaica Plain, occupies a century-old brick building that once housed a public school.
Unlike shelters, where people are transient, residents of permanent supportive housing sign leases and pay rent. And unlike traditional affordable housing, they also get easy access to a host of social services, from case management to job training.
Inside, both buildings feel like a college dormitory for adults, with roughly 300-square-foot studios, one person per unit. In Dorchester, each unit has its own kitchen. Both properties have common areas for hanging out, watching TV, or playing board games. Each floor has a laundry room. There are on-site case managers, and in Dorchester, a nurse visits twice a week.
The idea of someone living on the street may conjure an anything-goes lifestyle, but that’s far from the case at Pine Street’s properties.
There are rules, perhaps too many, suggested one resident, Brandon Hartsgrove, who has been living in the 50-unit Jamaica Plain building on Green Street for a year. There is no public drinking, guests are closely monitored, and rooms come fully furnished so Tenants aren’t supposed to add furniture or fixtures. His room his is inspected every month for cleanliness.
Still, Hartsgrove feels lucky he snagged a coveted spot. With demand for this sort of housing far outstripping supply, prospective tenants undergo a rigorous vetting process and criminal background checks.
Hartsgrove suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2005, and life has never been the same. While he was living on the streets, an ankle injury grew into a severe infection, which led to the amputation of his right leg in 2019. When the pandemic hit, he was staying in the Southampton Street shelter, then moved at least three more times into a variety of transitional housing.
Hartsgrove, who collects disability, pays about $300 a month in rent. At 37, he doesn’t see himself living here forever; he wants to work again and eventually move back to Connecticut to be closer to his mom. For him, the biggest difference between living in permanent supportive housing and being in a temporary shelter is that the tenants here have stable lives and they want to stay healthy.
“No one died here,” he said.
The average age of a Pine Street tenant in permanent housing is 57. Some need walkers, others are in wheelchairs. The hallways and lobbies are quiet. Tenants trickle in and out with grocery bags. No one was loitering or shooting up outside.
As I toured the second floor of the Dorchester building, music wafted from a sunlit apartment, the door propped open, revealing a fresh pot of espresso on the stove. “Come in, please!” beckoned James, an elderly resident who did not want to share his last name. “My door is open to everyone.”
Netta Robinson, the lead case manager on site, has worked at the three-story Dorchester building since it opened. She’s among three case managers working different shifts. She handles 24 tenants herself, and checks in with them daily, Monday through Friday.
When tenants are new, they aren’t used to the attention, Robinson said, but over time they come to appreciate her.
“I can go through the hallway, and when they hear my voice, they say, ‘Hey, Netta!,’” Robinson said.
Pine Street’s main emergency shelter is in Boston’s South End, but the nonprofit operates 850 units of permanent housing across the region, including in Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and Brookline. Pine Street wants to build more, and has partnered with nonprofit developer Community Builders on two projects — a new building on Washington Street in Jamaica Plain and the hotel conversion in Dorchester.
The Jamaica Plain project broke ground in January, after the developers settled a neighbor’s lawsuit claiming the 202-unit building had too little parking. But their proposal to turn the Comfort Inn on Morrissey Boulevard into 104 units of permanent supportive housing is facing stiffer opposition, with heated community meetings and a protest that attracted a few dozen people on Saturday.
Some neighbors are worried about crime and whether the site is too close to a school. Others say Dorchester has enough affordable housing (About 19 percent of housing units in Dorchester are set aside as affordable, the same as the citywide average).
That’s in sharp contrast to what happened in Jamaica Plain, where the Pine Street project garnered widespread community support, said Will Cohen, chair of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council.
Many residents understood the need for this sort of housing, and it helped that Pine Street’s project involved a mix of supportive and more traditional income-restricted units, said Cohen. The community had more concerns about density and parking than having formerly homeless people live in the neighborhood.
Cohen said homelessness ultimately needs to be solved at a regional level but until a broader plan emerges, something has to be done.
“It’s a complicated issue,” he said. “My only observation is until the bigger resolution happens. . . it seems like well-run attempts to address this issue neighborhood by neighborhood is a reasonable step forward.”
At Pine Street’s Hamilton Street location, Jimenez moved into a fully furnished unit with a bed, dresser, an armchair, a small flat-screen TV, a table with chairs, and even pots and pans. His studio His is more than a roof over his head His. Here he has also found community.
Jimenez plays dominoes in the afternoons with a regular crew. There are people he knows from his days at the Shattuck. And when he was feeling depressed about turning 70 in November, Robinson, his case manager his, knew what would pick him up: a surprise birthday party.
“They got a cake, they took pictures, there were a lot of people there,” recalled Jimenez. “Oh wow, that made my day.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]