Nearly 2,000 residents from neighborhoods surrounding Melnea Cass Boulevard and Mass Ave in Boston have signed a petition criticizing the city’s task force for what they say is a failure to maintain safety in the neighborhood while serving people who are experiencing homelessness or struggling with substance use disorder.
Yahaira Lopez says she’s witnessed individuals leaving used needles, defecating on private property, commiting violent acts and having sex in public outside her mother’s house, where she grew up, on the corner of Mass Ave and Washington Street, a neighborhood sometimes referred to as the “methadone mile,” or “recovery row” due to its high number of shelters and methadone clinics.
“It’s become a norm, where community members are like, yeah, this happens all the time,” Lopez told GBH News. “I’m seeing a lack of accountability, a lack of transparency, and I'm seeing my mom, who's an elderly woman in a situation that is not allowing me to sleep at night.”
Kim Thai, special assistant to the mayor and the city’s liaison for the area — which officials call “Mass and Cass" — says issues of homelessness and substance use disorder are too vast and unpredictable to be tracked on a succinct timeline, but she acknowledges that the city’s response has not been perfect.
“If there was an answer to these issues, I think that every other large city across the country would be doing it the same way, as well as us,” Thai told GBH News. “We recognize the frustration, and I think that sometimes we feel the same frustrations because we're doing everything that we can within our power to be able to offer as much access to treatment and services that we can.”
Thai says the coronavirus pandemic has “exacerbated” issues in the area that have existed for years.
“You saw the closure of public and private facilities, a lot of service providers had to close their doors, and suddenly you just saw an influx of people on the street,” Thai said. “During that time, we had to pivot and make sure that we were providing emergency care as well as quality of care to those individuals, but we never closed our shelters. We moved a lot of our services outdoors and we created new programs to be able to provide access to bathrooms and things like that.”
Lopez says the representatives on the city’s Mass and Cass task force— 24 elected officials, educators, medical professionals, community leaders and advocates from local homelessness and substance use organizations — do not accurately represent the people who live in the community.
“What they're saying and what we're seeing is totally disconnected,” Lopez said. “And they know that this is not going to get fixed anytime soon.”
Mayor Marty Walsh formed the task force in October 2019, following a controversial police action that summer dubbed “Operation Clean Sweep,” which resulted in dozens of arrests in the Mass and Cass area. The Walsh administration also developed a new plan to combat the opioid crisis in the area by increasing the number of outreach workers, police officers and public works crews to clean up syringes, handle homeless encampments in the area, work in crisis centers and help people get treatment.
When the pandemic hit Boston last March, the city went into crisis mode, which caused a major hitch in the plan, Walsh told a group of South End residents in a forum earlier this month.
“We were working towards a solution and making some real gains there, and then we have the world we’re in today and everything kind of got pushed backwards,” Walsh said. “What we're doing now is trying to reclaim the momentum that we had six months ago in that neighborhood and addressing the issues on the street.”
But these same issues have persisted since the homeless shelter was closed on Long Island in 2014, and for at least the last three years, residents have been meeting with Walsh to demand changes, South End resident Janina Rackard tells GBH News.
“We gave them demands, and since then it’s only gotten worse,” Rackard said. “We are being told there are going to be 100 used needle kiosks around the neighborhood. ... People who are high aren’t putting the needles in these kiosks where they belong, and our demands are not being met.”
Residents, even those who support treating substance use as a health condition, have rallied against methadone clinics in Massachusetts communities including Brookline, Millbury, Salem, New Bedford, Taunton and others. In a 2019 bid for a clinic in Springfield, MassLive reported that one resident said bringing in such an establishment would mean that the neighborhood had “just become the dumping ground.”
“If the neighborhood is rich, they speak up about it,” Rackard said. “That shows how they feel about our neighborhood and the people who live in it.”
The neighborhoods surrounding the Mass and Cass area are predominantly Black and socioeconomically disadvantaged, unlike Gov. Charlie Baker’s hometown of Swampscott, where activists delivered used needles from Mass and Cass parks and streets to the governor’s driveway last month.
“We decided to bring a slice of ‘methadone mile’ to Gov. Baker's house,” Lopez said, “So we dropped needles.”
Lauren Baker, the wife of the governor, sought a civil harassment prevention order from Lynn District Court against Hyde Park resident and protest leader Domingos DaRosa, who is now court-ordered to stay away from the governor’s home.
“We're asking the city to stop bullsh****ng us,” DaRosa told GBH News. “We're tired of being the hamster on the wheel. You know, we're not against anybody receiving services or treatment or a placement for a home. What our issue is, the fact that we keep getting the runaround on the issue, that we are supposed to be silent. The Black community is supposed to be silent on this issue. We're not supposed to be seen or heard. One section of the city receives more than enough seats at the table where other sections of the city have to create our own space to be able to bring our concerns to the table as a collective body.”
Lopez says Black and Brown communities in Boston will continue to struggle with health and safety issues produced by the opioid crisis, unless efforts to rehabilitate are re-focused outside of the city and the state.
“The majority of the individuals in the Mass and Cass area are not from Boston, they're coming from the white suburbia of Massachusetts, coming into our communities,” Lopez said. “We’re asking for data, we’re asking for transparency. If we know that we’re getting a large number of individuals that are coming from New Hampshire, it seems like Mayor Marty Walsh needs to pick up the phone and call New Hampshire and say, 'Hey, we got like 50 of your residents that are here, can you help me here?'”
The city says it is working to set up 200 new beds for the winter, spread out among neighborhoods including Brighton and Mission Hill, in order to decentralize services outside of the Mass and Cass area.
“That was something that was a huge central factor when we started thinking about our winter overflow plan,” Thai said. “So when we're talking about treatment and shelter and overflow space, we made a point to look outside of the Mass and Cass area.”
Walsh has been working with the state on programs outside the Boston area to reduce the flow of people in need into one concentrated area.
“I’d be willing to bet that roughly 50 percent of the people who are homeless on our streets come from other areas,” Walsh told the neighborhood group forum. “I'm not saying that we need to send them back, but what we need to do is have to have those areas step up and have them create more programing out there for people. … We've been the place that provides the services, we've been the place that takes care of people. And right now with this crisis in addiction, we need help.”
Thai says there is a lack of understanding about the work that is being done in the face of a growing opioid crisis, in addition to a pandemic.
“All these different departments, recovery services, the police department, fire department, EMS, Inspectional Services, as well as a host of other departments that make up the coordinated response team, work every day in the Mass and Cass area,” Thai said. “You know, we recognize the frustration, and I think that sometimes we feel the same frustrations because we're doing everything that we can within our power to be able to offer as much access to treatment and services that we can.”
Jacob Ureña, a Mattapan-based reverend and local political organizer, says he doesn’t believe that the city’s team of organizers feels the same urgency that residents experience by living in the community.
“I have worked in the nonprofit sector, specifically in homelessness and substance use disorder, and I can tell you from firsthand experience that a lot of these organizations are just there to check boxes,” Ureña told GBH News. “I met with them once a month? check. I offered them an application for housing? Check. And that's it. They wipe their hands clean. They did what they had to do for the month.”
Though Thai says she hopes to meet communities where they are, Ureña says he’s also concerned about proposed solutions outside of Mass and Cass but inside of Boston, where other communities of color might experience a similar situation.
“All of these other organizations that are offering new solutions like safe injection sites, that’s great, but where are you going to put them?” Ureña said. “Because we don't want them in Mattapan. We don't want them in Dorchester. We don't want them in Roxbury.”
Residents are calling for an increased police presence, which goes against the ethos of the Mass and Cass task force mission, according to Thai.
“When you talk about the police presence, it's a balance, right? Because we can't arrest our way out of this situation,” Thai said. “It's a constant balance between offering recovery services and treatment with ... law enforcement and making sure that everybody feels safe.”
Ureña says residents are also asking for more on-the-ground social workers, but says that police have not been responsive enough to dangerous activity in the area.
“We're talking about when there's violent acts and when there's people using needles in front of children or having sexual contact in front of children, the police should be active in responding to those things,” Ureña said.
Marla Smith lives just outside Clifford Park, which she says is now the site of “dozens” of encampments.
“It's covered in needles, it's covered in discarded clothes, discarded bedding, discarded food scraps and containers,” Smith said. “Kids can't use the park.”
The nearest shelter has reduced capacity due to the pandemic, which creates unsafe conditions for both the unhoused community and the larger neighborhood, Smith said.
“They do social distancing within the shelter, but there's no social distancing outside the shelter,” Smith said. “These people are on top of each other, literally, for warmth and for safety.”
Damari Roman manages a subsidized housing property in the Villa Victoria neighborhood of the South End and grew up near Clifford Park. Roman says she wanted to run a subsidized housing facility because she grew up in subsidized housing in Mattapan, and prioritizes housing for both the homeless community and displaced veterans in her 146-unit building. But in recent years, Roman says conditions have worsened as the Mass and Cass population has expanded.
“I have already had about four or five deaths. I've walked into bodies that have been sitting there for weeks or a week or two, a lot of them because of overdosing,” Roman told GBH News. “My concern is that I'm going to have to deal with this for a long time because the corner of Mass and Cass has cleared out, and a lot of those folks come over because they have friends that live at my property, and they defecate inside the hallway and leave needles everywhere.”
Ureña says the community has been waiting for the crisis to alleviate, with no end in sight.
“They keep telling us to wait, but they don't tell us how long we're going to have to wait,” Ureña said. “We've sacrificed enough. We sacrificed our children's trauma. We sacrificed our own trauma. We sacrificed our stoops and our parks and our schools. What else do you want?”
While juggling harm reduction services, crisis intervention and neighborhood issues, Thai says the city is moving as fast as it can.
“I understand their frustration that it's not happening fast enough,” she said. “But when you are offering treatment and services to someone who has a certain type of behavior, that takes time.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the city is setting up new tents and services in neighborhoods including Brighton and Mission Hill. The city is bringing on new beds in these areas.