You can see them at all hours around the intersection of Mass. Ave and Melnea Cass Boulevard, just south of Boston Medical Center: men and women who are visibly down on their luck—and often seem to be in a chemically altered state.
“Over the last year, I’ve found they’re sleeping in the back of my building,” says Gerry DiPierro, whose construction company is located in the heart of Newmarket Square. “There’s a lot more of them sleeping in the front of my building when I come in in the morning at five.”
DiPierro's been based in the neighborhood for years, and says it’s always drawn people grappling with homelessness and addiction.
But in 2014, the city’s homeless shelter on Long Island in Boston Harbor closed after the state warned that the bridge used to access it was unsafe. Then, the following year, the new Southampton Street shelter for men opened a few blocks from DiPierro’s business.
Almost immediately, DiPierro says, he and his employees felt some intense adverse affects.
“Broken glass smashed in,” DiPierro tells WGBH News. “Trucks being broken into…. Needles on the ground, trash, getting into arguments.
“I had one of my employees have to resuscitate a guy who basically died on the side of my building. This is what I run into on a daily basis.”
As you’d expect, DiPierro says those disruptions are bad for business.
“My clients clearly say, ‘Would you come over to my place instead of me coming over there?’” he says. “And they laugh, they make a joke about it.”
But DiPierro also has an intensely personal take on the human toll he sees every day. About four years ago, he lost a daughter to a drug overdose. And from his vantage point, the men and women who spend their days on Newmarket’s streets aren’t getting the help that they need.
“They need to be in a facility—there’s counseling, there’s stuff they need in order to get better,” he says. “You’re not going to get better being around here at the corner, trying to get change so you can get smokes, get drugs, and just keep doing what you’re doing.”
DiPierro isn’t alone in his concerns. In a recent Facebook post, the Newmarket Business Association urged the city to re-open Long Island—saying that in Newmarket, the homeless “spend all day lying on concrete sidewalks, begging for spare change, dodging traffic, and falling prey to drug dealers.”
From a clinical point of view, that argument may have some merit.
“Many of the women we served on Long Island, they would often say, ‘I like being out here—I’m a little bit away from the hustle and bustle. I’m a little away from some of the more in-your-face temptations,’” says Sarah Porter, the COO of Victory Programs, a Newmarket-based nonprofit that helps the homeless and the addicted.
Porter seems to miss Long Island, too.
“Having that land was amazing,” she says. “It was sort of idyllic, in that people were close enough to access services, but far enough away that they [were where they] needed to be. And it was gorgeous and beautiful.”
But for individuals in dire need of services, Porter adds, Newmarket has its own advantages.
“If these folks who are hanging out here were to wander over to…different parts of the South End or Wellesley or Milton—not anything wrong with those towns, [but] they wouldn’t be able to access the services they need,” she says. “This is a good place for them to be.”
Jennifer Tracey, who runs the Boston’s Office of Recovery Services, agrees—saying that for the people her office works with, Newmarket Square is actually a preferable location to Long Island, because services are much easier to obtain. And a spokeswoman for Boston Mayor Mayor Marty Walsh says the city’s homeless are “ better served now than they were before the bridge closed down”—citing recent progress in housing veterans and other chronically homeless persons.
Taken together, those comments suggest that it’s highly unlikely that the shelter and services formerly provided on Long Island will ever be restored in that location.
Which means Newmarket business owners DiPierro will have to muddle through, coexisting with a vulnerable population that can also be disruptive. He says he’s doing his best.
“You try to talk to them,” DiPierro says. “Just kind of try to help them out, steer them in the right direction.”
For now, he doesn’t really have a choice.