By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  2/08/2003

Even on the coldest, wettest nights, shelters in Boston - unlike those in other major US cities - ban hundreds of homeless men and women, often leaving them to sleep on the streets.

The decision can be deadly. In the past four years, at least five people actively barred from the city's largest shelters were found dead on the streets of Boston, and the number could be significantly higher, outreach workers said.

The Pine Street Inn, the region's largest shelter, now bars 282 people, 86 of whom were added to its list last year, for everything from drug abuse to stealing to fighting. At the Long Island Hospital Shelter, officials last year added 88 names to their list of 264. And last year, the Friends of the Shattuck Shelter banned 306 people for some period of time.

"The system could be much better," said Dr. James O'Connell, president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, which tracks all the homeless who die in the city. "Shelters are the last rung in our safety net. It's a really tough problem: Where do you go if you can't go there?"

Barring the homeless is a measure shelter officials are rarely eager to take: They know it defeats the efforts of their outreach workers, who already have the difficult task of coaxing the homeless into musty, crowded refuges that often offer nowhere to sleep but a hard floor.

Many of those barred have mental illnesses and substance abuse problems, and being booted from a shelter often further disillusions them, fueling their resistance to social workers. Although nearly all offer those they kick out rides to other shelters, many of the homeless angrily refuse the help.

"We're not trying to be punitive," said John MacDonald, director of the men's emergency shelter at the Pine Street Inn. "But we work with some dangerous folks, and we want to make sure all the people we work with can be in a safe environment."

Shelters have different barring policies, which the homeless describe as confusing and frustrating. Some will bar a person for showing up high or drunk or harassing staff, while others will only ban them for serious offenses like dealing drugs or assaults.

Moreover, some shelters update their banned lists weekly, while others purge names far less frequently. And although the state requires shelters to have grievance procedures for all those barred, they differ from shelter to shelter.

In an ideal world, O'Connell said, there would be no indefinite bans and the state would provide money for more shelters, which would be smaller, less crowded, and easier to manage. With no money available for that, he said, there might be a clear hierarchy of shelters, in which the most unruly scofflaws would be sent to shelters at the lowest end.

Another solution would be for Boston to pass laws similar to those in New York City, where through lawsuits, advocates have persuaded the courts that every city resident has a "right" to shelter. While people can be barred in New York, it can only be for a few days and for the most serious crimes. Those people often still end up with shelter - in jail.

"To bar someone from a shelter can amount to a death sentence," said Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the city's Coalition for the Homeless. "The bottom line is that people need engagement. It only makes the problem worse, and the street population more visible, to bar people. Incidents of disruptive behavior are symptomatic of this population and they should be treated with more intensive services, not less."

Officials in Boston, however, believe the city is right to maintain a hands-off policy.

"I don't think the city should dictate how the shelter runs their operations," said Eliza Greenberg, director of the Emergency Shelter Commission of Boston. If someone is barred from all the shelters and has nowhere else to go, she said, "That would be different."

But neither the city nor shelters track the homeless who are barred. Not only does no one know the number of people who have died on the streets, no one knows how many have been barred from multiple shelters, because the shelters don't share bar lists.

When the Long Island shelter barred Rita Butler, a 39-year-old one-time clerk at a liquor store, for fighting with her boyfriend, the two ended up living on the streets for years. "They took us at night to the T station in Quincy, and they just left us there," she said. "There was nowhere for us to go."

Still on Long Island's bar list, she believes, she vows never to go back. "After being treated so rudely, I preferred to sleep outside," she said.

But the cold has driven Butler back indoors. Recently, she had been sleeping at the Boston Night Center, a dingy shelter where scores of people sleep in plastic chairs and curl close to each other on the floor. Although the Pine Street Inn-run Night Center is one of the city's most lenient shelters, Butler was barred in December for fighting. Now, most nights, she sleeps in the South Station bus terminal.

Hung Chin, a 42-year-old former sushi chef, was so indignant about receiving a six-month ban for fighting from the Pine Street Inn last summer that he decided to build his own shelter beneath the Southeast Expressway.

At times, like during the Super Bowl last month, Chin has tried to return. "They told me, `No way. You can't come in.' I was mad. So I just told them, `See you later. I'm never coming back."'

On a recent afternoon at the St. Francis House, the city's largest day shelter, a book kept by a police officer listed 41 people not allowed past the front door. Someone was barred for a month for drinking, another was barred for eight months for "threatening staff with bodily harm," and others were barred indefinitely for everything from "stealing clothes repeatedly," to "numerous violent incidents."

The officer, who wouldn't give his name, said: "If they're on this list, they don't get in."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe