In a Boston Olympics, People Experiencing Homelessness Will Come in Last

An overview of the variety of reasons how the Olympics in Boston would negatively impact those who are homeless and low-income By Molly Richard 

The debate around Boston hosting the Olympics has many asking, “What makes a world-class city?”

Boston2024, the private entity that bid Boston to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, would like us to think a world-class city emerges from the benefits incurred by Olympic host cities. However, in a public meeting last week, Smith College Professor Andrew Zimbalist, author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, debunked this notion:

The underlying promise is that if we are a world-class city, there are benefits that come to us. What are those benefits? The things you most often hear about are, ‘There’ll be increases in tourism, there’ll be increases in trade, and there’ll be increases in foreign investment.’ However, the scholarly literature on this subject comes to the conclusion that these things don’t happen…we can’t identify statistically significant gains in those areas. Indeed, there’s a lot of evidence recently that it actually hurts in those areas.

Zimbalist went on to explain that hosting hurts tourism, stymies local business, and derails infrastructure improvements (for more information, read here). Further, the cost is immense and taxpayers pick up the slack. Since 1960, direct spending on the Games has averaged around 324% of the original proposed budgets. Boston2024 proposed $4.5 billion, while the last Summer Games in London cost about $20 billion. Budget overruns from the London Olympics cost each UK taxpayer $216. That might seem manageable, but there are 64 million people in the UK and 6.7 million in Massachusetts. If the final cost of a Boston Olympics neared London’s, it would cost over $2,000 per taxpayer.

Can Boston afford this? Can you? The costs of hosting the Olympics are immense, including opportunity costs. The funds we would invest in the next nine years to build Olympic venues and made-to-order transportation expansions are funds that are needed by our communities.

When the Olympics are the golden priority, other city concerns get stuck with bronze and silver. I’m worried that people experiencing homelessness will come in last. If you’re reading the news or experiencing the burdens of this issue, you know homelessness is an urgent problem for both Boston and the Commonwealth.

While homelessness in the U.S is decreasing for specific subgroups, the numbers in Massachusetts are on the rise. The 2014 Point in Time count—a one-night survey of people in shelters, transitional housing, or on the streets— found 21,237 people homeless, an increase of more than 2,200 or 12% from last year. Since 2007, the rate has increased 40%, faster than any other state. The homeless population includes single adults, families, and unaccompanied youth. Since at least 2013, the state’s emergency family shelter system has been serving more than twice its capacity, more than 4,000 families. Recently, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Pine Street Inn, and Youth on Fire, three prominent providers for Greater Boston homeless youth and young adults, have all seen increases in the number of youth served.

Places with the larges increases in homeless people (Source: Department of Housing and Urban Development/ Olivia Hall for the Boston Globe)this week on Southampton Street with 100 new beds; additional beds will not be ready for use until sometime in April. In the meantime, too little is being done to meet the escalating needs of this now doubly homeless population.

Alongside the alarming research have been headlines that cannot be ignored. In October, Mayor Marty Walsh shut down the Long Island Bridge for safety reasons, closing the island that was home to the 400-bed Long Island Shelter. The island also provided approximately 57% of the city’s substance abuse treatment beds. This is particularly frightening when this year a public health state of emergency was declared in response to the opiate crisis. The Mayor promised that people would be sheltered and treatment beds would be replaced, but months later people are still scrambling. A December WBUR story details the overcrowding, chaos, and instability that the displacement has caused. For those struggling with addiction, mental illness, and trauma, such lack of stability and safety can feel life threatening. In a January op-ed in the Boston Globe by Religious Leaders for Long Island Refugees, faith advocates urged quick action:

Since the closure of the Long Island Bridge on Oct. 9, and the consequent loss of the island’s shelter, detox and recovery programs, 700 of our city’s most vulnerable men and women have been warehoused in conditions that are straightforwardly inhumane. Crammed into inadequate and unstable spaces for more than three months now, these men and women are moving ever closer from despair to hopelessness. The city opened a new shelter this week on Southampton Street with 100 new beds; additional beds will not be ready for use until sometime in April. In the meantime, too little is being done to meet the escalating needs of this now doubly homeless population.

From all vantage points, homelessness should be one of Boston’s top priorities. Creating the emergency shelter on Southampton Street has been an amazing feat. The work was done fast; I hope it continues until all 700 displaced persons have stable shelter.

Meanwhile, the job is bigger than building a few replacement shelters when we have ever-increasing rates of homelessness. If we host the Olympics and thousands are still homeless, the consequences could be dire. Before Boston won the USOC nomination, its street newspaper Spare Change News published an article, “How Boston Olympics May Impact the Homeless People.” It details the criminalization and displacement of homeless populations in Atlanta prior to the ’96 Games. Homeless individuals, particularly Black men, were handed citations or one-way bus tickets. Nine thousand homeless people were arrested. If history is any indication of how host cities treat people experiencing homelessness, not only might things not get better, things might get worse. Note the caution of Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation, when he wrote, “I have covered every Summer Olympics since 2004 in Athens, Greece. In other words, every Olympics since 9/11, when security concerns morphed into turning Olympic sites into police states. At each site I’ve seen debt, displacement and the militarization of space, alongside spikes in police harassment of the most vulnerable citizens.” If over-policing was challenging in the nineties, it’s likely to be worse now.

But more emergency shelter and preventing criminalization is not the final answer to Massachusetts’s homelessness crisis. If we want to address homelessness in Boston, we need more affordable housing. We need to turn the faucet off rather than only bailing out the water. Will we get around to implementing forward-thinking action if our focus is on Boston2024? Consider this statement from the organizing group No Boston Olympics:

The London Olympic Village was converted into 2,818 new housing units. Mayor Marty Walsh recently announced that Boston needs 53,000 new housing units. You could build a new Olympic Village each year from now until 2030 and you would still fall short of Boston’s housing needs. Hosting an Olympic Games will distract from achieving Mayor Walsh’s important goal of providing housing for all Bostonians.

Not only will public investment in affordable housing be less than it would without an Olympic distraction, construction stemming from the Olympics could widen the affordable housing gap. While I’m hopeful Boston would not evict thousands (Brazil 2016) or millions (Beijing 2008), Olympic infrastructure development could impede future housing. What developer wants to build affordable apartments by a brand new sporting venue? More luxury apartments bring more folks with cash to spend. In hosting large-scale events like the Olympics, there are not only problems with how resources get diverted, but with how resources are deployed. And when these venues border low-income neighborhoods, like some will, gentrification is a serious concern. Likewise, if we spend years funding temporary Olympic venues only to bulldoze them, imagine the affordable housing we could have created instead.

WBUR’s Deborah Becker and Lynn Jolicoeur write, “In defense of the city’s timeline in addressing the Long Island closure, Mayor Walsh added that with all the development going on in Boston, it’s difficult to find space to house one program for the homeless, and Long Island had several — including work rehab and transitional housing.” So, according to the Mayor, there is a lot of development going on that’s getting in the way of prioritizing programs for the city’s vulnerable populations. According to the Mayor more recently, “Our goal is to host an Olympic and Paralympic Games that are innovative, walkable and hospitable to all. Boston hopes to welcome the world’s greatest athletes to one of the world’s great cities.” In other words, we totally have the space for that!

So, again, what makes a world-class city (or one of the world’s great ones, at least)?

World-class cities are inclusive cities that empower people and put them first. Not supporting a Boston Olympics does not make one anti-Boston or anti-American. I believe Boston could host the Olympics. But should we host the Olympics? Is that where our priorities lie? We could use our innovation and local pride to make our communities thrive. Instead, we want to throw an over-built party that will benefit, economically, probably only Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and your local BSC swim instructor. When the state is facing a budget deficit of $765 million, we can’t afford to gamble. The decision to bid for the Olympics has not been democratic, has not been transparent, and has not valued the voices of the people. What is more American and Bostonian than calling for a democratic process?

Show us what democracy looks like.

At this first No Boston Olympics meeting, facilitators proposed a plan: 1) Increased education and awareness about the bid; 2) A level playing field, where accurate information on the cons of the Olympics are as available as the pros; and, 3) Action, through methods like a referendum.

Protests and referendums have happened in the past in host-hopeful cities, and they matter to the IOC. And with Boston split or leaning towards opposition, it seems imminent. Sixty-one percent of Bostonians are against hosting the Olympics if “taxpayer dollars were used,” and we know they will be. Three quarters support a vote.

If a referendum gets on either a city or state-wide ballot, Boston2024 will be forced to listen to the people’s concerns. If you live in Boston or Massachusetts, support the vote, and if you’re unsure about whether the Olympics is a good idea, listen, learn, and discuss it with others. A Boston Globe poll found that when participants were presented with arguments from both sides of the issue, twice as many were likely to oppose the Olympic bid. Information and awareness matter, and keeping the playing field level will be hard when Boston2024, backed by lots of private money, starts campaigning for our approval.

While Boston has its share of problems, it has the capacity to improve. What makes Boston a world-class city is its potential to unite. I’m rarely the political optimist, but I’ve been encouraged to hear a variety of voices speaking out on this issue. At the No Boston Olympics meeting, comments from a Tea Party Republican were followed by an organizer for the Black Lives Matter MLK Day march. While this meeting took place in the affluent Back Bay neighborhood, the organizers spoke about the support they’d received from every neighborhood in the city, and they pledged to host meetings in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, and Mattapan, as well as conduct outreach with Boston’s nearby towns. Other social justice groups are fighting the Olympic bid, too, including NoBoston2024, a group of direct-action organizers (for differentiation of the two “No Boston” groups, who are allies, read here). Bostonians who are committed to protecting our community will unite in saying “No” to the Olympics.

I get that this is not what a lot of people want to hear. Boston loves sports; if there were an Olympic event for spectatorship, we would compete as our own nation and win. I also get that for many the Olympics seem like a brilliant opportunity to chant “Boston Strong” to the world, showcasing our resilience post-2013. But if we want to celebrate the city, let’s do it in a way we can all support. Let’s do it in a way that’s trauma-informed. Let’s do it in a way that doesn’t ignore the pressing needs of our neighbors and loved ones that are struggling just to survive.

That would be world-class.

Molly Richard is a Research Assistant at the Center for Social Innovation. Before joining C4, she was a residential counselor at a program for young women struggling with significant past trauma. A recent graduate of Vassar College where she studied psychology and sociology, she’s driven to use her curiosity about people to work for social justice across race, gender, and sexual orientation. Besides the 4 years in NY state, Molly calls Boston her home. 

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