YMCA housing for men in need is called deplorable

Email|Print| Text size + By David Abel
Globe Staff / March 6, 2008

There have been rat droppings on the old, musty carpet and frequent mouse sightings near holes in the pocked, plaster walls. For months, exterminators have fought an infestation of bedbugs, which left at least one client with bite marks so bad he was treated at a hospital. Watermarks stain the aging ceiling, and some window frames are so old and ill-fitting that duct tape was used to stop drafts. In bathrooms, many of the urinals, toilets, and sinks are out of order.

Officials at the Cardinal Medeiros Transitional Program say they have complained about the conditions for years, but they contend that the YMCA Greater Boston, their landlord in the century-old building on Huntington Avenue, has ignored them while investing in top-of-the-line equipment for its gym. They accuse the Y of neglecting the 63 formerly homeless men who live there after an effort to terminate the program's lease failed four years ago.

Now, program officials are threatening to withhold state lease payments to cover the cost of renovations, which they estimate could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"It's deplorable, an unacceptable situation, the conditions these folks are living in," said Joe McPherson, director of homeless and housing services at Kit Clark Senior Services, which supervises the Medeiros program. "This is not a way people should live. It's so disrespectful. These folks are working, saving money, and they're living in a setting that neither you nor I would accept."

In a letter sent last week to the YMCA, Joe Finn - executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, which administers about $590,000 in state and federal aid to the Medeiros program - wrote that "repeated complaints about these issues over a period of many months have not resulted in the YMCA seriously addressing the problems."

In telling the YMCA he planned to withhold rent, Finn cited a Feb. 13 city inspection that found evidence of bedbug infestation and other signs of disrepair. He called two of the program's rooms uninhabitable and said his staff found a leak in the kitchen ceiling and lack of proper ventilation there, large holes in the walls, and other issues such as "common-area furniture that is so ripped up, sitting in many of the chairs would be unadvisable."

He added: "It seems that the YMCA has been unwilling to follow the advice of exterminators and the requirements of the Department of Public Health regulations . . . by not eliminating the hiding places and breeding grounds of bedbugs in the building, thus rendering repeated spraying ineffective and an inadequate response."

Officials at the YMCA, who agreed to meet today with directors of the Medeiros program, said the letter was the first they had heard of the problems.

"There's mutual responsibility; the Medeiros program did not bring this to our attention before," said John Ferrell, president of the YMCA. "We're doing the best we can do to provide housing that is safe, clean, and meets their needs."

Ferrell said he's not trying to force out the Medeiros program, but at just under $15 a night per bed, he said, the rent the YMCA receives doesn't cover its costs. "Our costs are at least twice that," he said. "I'm not complaining. That's what we agreed to do, but there are constraints. The rent paid doesn't include money to offset capital improvements."

Kelley Rice, a YMCA spokeswoman, said Medeiros program officials are exaggerating the problems. She said they have "regular contact" with the exterminator and that she has seen no evidence of rat droppings.

"I went through work-order requests, and every request put in to us in writing has been responded to," Rice said. "We don't have any current work-order requests."

There is a history of friction between the YMCA and the Medeiros program, which has leased space there for more than a decade. In 2004, the YMCA told Medeiros program officials it would not renew the lease because of financial concerns. The YMCA argued that housing was no longer one of its core services, but ultimately renewed the lease after coming under pressure from Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

Two years ago, the YMCA agreed to sell half its building to a private group that plans to build a student dormitory. The purchase agreement requires the group either to retain the Medeiros program in its future building or relocate the program to a suitable location mutually agreed upon, Ferrell said, but the YMCA and the buyer will not close until at least next year, and it could be years before construction starts.

On a recent tour of the building, John Golding, coordinator of the Medeiros program, said many of the problems are urgent. "There are things that have to be done right away," he said.

He pointed to old, nonfunctioning sinks corroded by bacteria. He opened a room and showed the wood of a bed frame that had been infested with bedbugs and caulked to close potential burrowing places. He showed dilapidated baseboards exposing rotting walls, ubiquitous peeling paint and rusting pipes, everything from tiles missing in the kitchen to old windows surrounded by weathered wood and duct tape.

Otis Holloway, a 41-year-old client living in the Medeiros program for a year, said he has seen rats "the size of a man's foot."

But he wasn't complaining. "It's a whole lot better than where I came from," he said.

Gilberto Cruz, 44, who has been in the program for six months, was not as forgiving. He said he has been to Boston Medical Center twice in recent weeks to be treated for bedbug bites.

"When I arrived here, I felt things walking on my body," he said. "I felt them biting me on my face, my arms, and my back. I would get them every night."

He has since moved rooms, but he still feels them in his sleep.

"It's like they're in my skin now," he said, adding that he still has small red dots to show for the bites.

David Abel can be reached at

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