By David Abel | Globe Staff | 8/19/2003
When the sun sets in the summer, with the breeze gently blowing off the river, the sailboats gliding through the golden haze, and all the beautiful people coasting by, it's like a glimpse of paradise from his porch.
On such evenings, Carlos Alberto Rodriguez often lights up his grill to cook dinner, opens a cold drink, and sits back in a lounge chair to take it all in from his perch above the Charles. "I like this place," said the graying 51-year-old, who moves around in a wheelchair.
The only problem, aside from the constant roar of traffic a few feet away on Storrow Drive: Neighbors want his home sealed up and are urging city officials to evict him and nearly a dozen others who have moved in with him beneath the Mass. Ave. Bridge.
For years, especially during the summer, the homeless have found a place to sleep beneath the overpasses along Storrow Drive. This summer, with budget cuts taking their toll and the city's homeless population swelling, Back Bay residents are increasingly complaining about the street people sprawled everywhere from the benches along Commonwealth Avenue to encampments beneath the Bowker overpass.
When the calls come in about drinking, fighting, or noise from the area, the police roust the homeless, forcing them away, at least for a short time. But they always seem to find their way back. Now, neighbors and officials are calling for a more permanent solution: They want the state to fence off the areas most frequented by the homeless.
"Ultimately, we should get these people help, but we can't have people sleeping under the bridges - it's unsafe," said Back Bay city councilman Michael Ross, who for the past two years has written letters to state officials who maintain the area. "There's always going to be places where the homeless seek refuge, but when we find these kinds of places, they have to be addressed."
The Department of Conservation and Recreation, formerly the Metropolitan District Commission, oversees maintenance of the area, but because of turnover and budget cuts, officials there haven't addressed the issue.
Asked whether it would be possible or practical to seal off the areas beneath the bridge and overpasses, Katie Ford, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, says the conservation department's acting director would look into it.
"I can't say whether closing off those areas is the right decision," she said. "In these budget-strapped times, we have to look at everything we spend money on."
But some neighbors see fencing off the area as the only solution.
At night, Tara Grey, who lives at 10 Charles Gate East, said she hears bottles breaking, people yelling, and worries about walking outside her building.
"It's not politically correct to complain about the homeless, but it's disturbing to walk outside my building and find a campsite set up," said Grey, 29, who recently attended a meeting at the Boston Public Library, where neighbors complained to city officials about the throngs of homeless in the Back Bay. "I have to park my car there, and pass by them - I don't feel safe. Something needs to be done, and perhaps a fence is the only way to keep them out."
Ben Godley, 71, who has lived in the building for six years, said he recently walked outside with his daughter and found a man urinating in the nearby Muddy River.
"I'm not against homeless people, but this is getting unbearable - there are more now than I've ever seen," said Godley, who complained the state was willing to spend millions of dollars to dredge the Muddy River but not to preserve it from the refuse the homeless inevitably leave behind.
Other neighbors complain the police look the other way. But there's only so much police can do. By law, officers can't force someone to stay in a shelter, and with so many people on the streets, the police don't have the ability to act as social workers. Unless there's a complaint, for the most part, the police let them be.
"The solution? Frankly, I don't have a solution," said Sgt. Ken MacGregor of the Massachusetts State Police, whose jurisdiction covers the areas beneath the bridge and overpasses.
And what would the homeless do if the state fenced off the area?
Carlos Alberto Rodriguez looked at the row of neatly made beds - on his, he keeps a plastic snake to ward off the rats - and all the trappings of his home, the pots and pans, the shaving cream and deodorant, the bag of sugar and bottles of salad dressing, and then shook his head.
"If they fence off the area, I'll just sleep right there," he said, pointing to a grassy knoll a few feet away along the median of Storrow Drive. "If they move me from there, I'll just keep coming back. I'm homeless, and I have nowhere else to go. This is where I live. This is my home."
But Rodriguez isn't worried.
Over the past seven years, he said, it's been like a game of cat and mouse with police. They shoo him away, and he comes back.
There are other places in the city he could sleep, he acknowledges, but here there's a spout that gushes water when it rains, providing a convenient place to shower, there's a sturdy roof in the bridge, and there's the protection the roads provide from unexpected visitors easily entering his abode.
There's also his friends, Estrella and Mary Luz, two of about a hundred birds he feeds rice to every day. "They keep me company," he said.
And though there's a mound of trash in the center of his home, which includes everything from an old box of matzah to a mangy sleeping bag to dozens of empty bottles of vodka, it doesn't bother him.
"This is my home," he said, gazing into a distance filled with sailboats and SUVs. "We're humans, not animals. We all have hearts."
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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