Boston city councilor and mayoral candidate Andrea Campbell is proposing a multipronged plan to improve conditions in the area around the intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue, a gathering ground for people struggling with homelessness, mental illness and addiction that is known as "Mass & Cass."
The proposal calls for appointing a dedicated official to oversee a coordinated response to the area and creating a first responder unit. Campbell's plan also calls for reactivating the city’s now abandoned shelter on Long Island — once the area's largest — with ferry service.
This patch in the South End is where Campbell grew up. “This is my area, and it never looked like this, even in the days and years it was hard. There weren’t needles in my park, there weren’t people laying on the street near my bus stop when I got on the bus to go to school,” said Campbell lamenting the state of the neighborhood during a press conference Friday.
Campbell declined to take a position on safe injection sites, facilities where drug users are supervised while injecting, but said having a dedicated public health official would open up opportunities for nuanced discussions about all solutions.
“I think that’s a conversation we need to have with more residents,” she said, pointing to the controversial nature of supervised injection sites. “But I do think having a Mass & Cass chief own this and being engaging with stakeholders…is critically important.”
Campbell rejected the notion that appointing a Mass & Cass chief to lead the city’s response would equate to fruitless bureaucracy.
“One big distinction is it needs to be someone who as an actual background and proven track record and experience as a public health professional,” she said, responding to a reporter question. “I think the current [health and human services] chief, the task force [and] city employees are working really hard. I think they’re overwhelmed and need someone who has a proven track record in this regard.”
In a Friday morning policy release, Campbell’s campaign described the situation in and around Mass & Cass as "a public health tragedy."
“Tackling this head-on is one of Boston’s greatest challenges — it is untenable for the people who spend time there, the residents living and working there and businesses in the area,” the plan said, citing the 900 opioid-related overdose deaths within the city between 2015 and 2019.
The area, sometimes referred to as “Methadone Mile,” became a problem after the 450-bed shelter on Long Island closed in 2014.
Since then, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and his Quincy counterpart, Thomas P. Koch, have publicly feuded over the future of bridge, with Koch recently vowing to appeal a Superior Court ruling that nullified a Quincy commission’s decision denying Boston’s application to rebuild the bridge.
Campbell plans to circumvent the legal battles by using ferries to transport clients to and from Long Island..
“Opponents dismiss ferries due to concerns about weather and emergencies," Campbell's plan said. "But comparable New England cities run ferries year-round, operate on-site infirmaries and use helicopters for medical emergencies in remote locations — Boston can deploy similar best practices.”
Campbell called for economic and feasibility studies.
Campbell’s plan would create more shelter and supportive housing utilizing hotels and vacant spaces.
It would also increase the number of treatment locations to help relieve congestion in the area, in part by distributing syringe exchange and overdose prevention sites around the city.
“Decentralizing services is not only about equity, it is also necessary for effective recovery: Individuals at various points in the recovery process find it unspeakably hard to get sober when widespread use areas are right next to recovery sites,” Campbell's proposal said.
Campbell said she is optimistic about proposing more treatment and support sites around the city. The councilor said she's talked with advocates who emphasize the need for equitable, city-wide distribution of services.
“This is a crisis," said Campbell, "that is not just affecting Mass & Cass, it’s affecting our entire city, out entire commonwealth and the country and so we have to do our part as a city as a whole to respond. It can’t be one neighborhood that steps up.”
Prior to her press conference, Campbell toured the area with residents who walked her through parks and along streets strewn with needles, and once-sterile sterile cooking ups, used to prepare heroin for injection.
Domingos DaRosa, a community activist who was served a “stay away” order after dumping needles at Governor Charlie Baker’s house in Swampscott, struck a cautiously optimistic note about Campbell’s plan for the area, where he also grew up.
“All plans are worth trying at this moment,” he said with an exasperated sigh. “We as a community need to be held accountable, once we establish that, then we can hold people in positions [of power] accountable."
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu — who is, so far, the only other declared mayoral candidate — has also called for decentralization of treatment services, along with monitoring mechanism that rely less on law enforcement.
Since the fall of 2019, the Walsh administration has been working on the problem with a strategic plan and a 25-member Mass & Cass Task Force.
Janina Rackard, 47, who lives in the South End and pulled her daughter out of school at Orchard Gardens partly because of the needle problem, said Campbell's plan got her attention.
“At the beginning, I didn’t know who she was…I don’t think anyone else, other than Michelle Wu has showed this interest,” she explained. “I didn’t know Andrea. I know Andrea now.”