Friday, July 19, 2024

Shoppers stop Monday outside the former Boomerangs in Cambridge’s Central Square holding bags from The Garment District, another of the city’s thrift shops. (Photo: Julia Levine)

Despite a Cambridge City Council policy order urging the organization Fenway Health to reconsider, it has closed Boomerangs in Central Square as well as the thrift store chain’s other locations in Jamaica Plain and the South End.

Boomerangs was started in the 1990s by AIDS Action, a group that provided services to people living with HIV/AIDS and populations at risk of infection. Its first storefront, on Canal Street in Boston, was an outlet for the belongings of people who had died from complications relating to AIDS. The Canal Street location has since closed, but AIDS Action opened three other locations; by accepting donations of old clothes, books, furniture and knickknacks and selling them, the stores turned a profit that was used to support HIV services.

Fenway Health, which absorbed AIDS Action in 2013 into its public health division, announced April 30 it would close all three stores due to financial issues.

“For nearly 20 years, Boomerangs was an amazing success story, but for the last six years, it has seen significant financial losses. Fenway simply cannot continue to absorb those losses year [after] year, so we have made the difficult decision to close Boomerangs,” the announcement said.

Mayor E. Denise Simmons, vice mayor Marc McGovern and councillor Ayesha Wilson co-sponsored a policy order urging Fenway Health to reconsider, requesting a detailed explanation from the company about the reasons for the closing and asking that they explore all possible alternatives to maintain “this vital community resource.”

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At the council meeting on June 10 where the order was passed, Simmons called the closing “a little short-sighted and sudden.”

“I don’t know if Fenway understands just how much Boomerangs is used,” Simmons said. “It felt a bit disrespectful to the community.”

Kristen Hiestand, a resident of Cambridge for 20 years, likened Fenway Health’s approach to offering “thoughts and prayers.”

“I would say what is needed is not just an explanation, but actually some accountability,” Hiestand said. “Fenway Health has created conditions that have culminated in this closure, and they have set it up in a way that very little could be done by the community to save this store that has been such an important beloved institution in Cambridge.”

Signs alerting shoppers to problems are seen Monday in the Boomerangs window. (Photo: Julia Levine)

Fenway Health’s decision also affects its Boomerangs employees. A GoFundMe posted May 18 by Jamaica Plain Boomerangs manager Dee More to support Boomerangs employees has brought in more than $10,000 from 135 donations.

“Boomerangs has been a haven for many queer and trans folks, disabled folks, older folks, neurodivergent folks, housefolks and so many people at all of the intersections, both customers and staff,” Moore wrote, noting that the staff at Boomerangs make minimum wage and are getting only meager severances that “will not last them beyond a week or two.”

“We have employees currently undergoing cancer treatments, experiencing houselessness and incredible housing insecurity, are single parents and caretakers, disabled folks who have a hard time finding accessible work, trans folks who struggle to find accepting environments and staff facing so many other systemic barriers that make this transition an uneasy one,” Moore wrote.

Fenway Health response

Fenway Health director of communications Chris Viveiros said reconsidering is not an option, and reiterated that the decision to close the stores is the result of finances.

“Again, those reasons are that Boomerangs is dealing with the same challenges facing other bricks-and-mortar retailers and has not been profitable for several years,” Viveiros said. “As a health care organization, Fenway Health isn’t able to continue operating a retail chain that is losing money.”

Options to keep the Boomerangs open were explored, and Fenway Health briefly partnered with another organization interested in taking over Boomerangs, Viveiros said, but they decided not to move forward. Offers are still welcome from other potential buyers, despite the closings, he said.

The Boomerangs stores’ last day was Friday.

Issues beyond Boomerangs

Fenway Health is also cutting funding to Youth on Fire, a day drop-in center in Harvard Square for 14- to 24-year-olds experiencing homelessness, and it is cutting hours at the needle exchange on Green Street in Central Square.

“We probably should be having a larger conversation with them about better understanding what the financial difficulties are, and if there’s a way for the city to try and help with that, because these are important services that I think would be really tragic to lose, even beyond Boomerangs,” McGovern said.

Youth on Fire, which provides basic necessities such as hot meals, clothing, showers and laundry facilities, as well as medical care and mental health counseling, also provides prevention information about HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and Hepatitis C.

“Most people didn’t know that the funding to Youth on Fire was being cut or that the hours of the needle exchange were being cut, because if you don’t use those services, you wouldn’t,” McGovern said. “Boomerangs got the attention, but I do think it can springboard us into a larger conversation about whether there’s some way for us to maintain these services, including Boomerangs.”

McGovern and Wilson, in addition to being social workers, co-chair the Human Services and Veterans Committee, and McGovern said he hopes to call a meeting to have Fenway Health “come to the table and talk about what cuts they’re making that are offered in the city, and see if that can lead to some kind of collaboration.”

“If we can’t keep those services fully funded, I hope we can keep them at least partially funded so that we don’t lose them altogether,” McGovern said.