Mass/Cass community frustrated with city’s approach to houselessness and addiction crisis

Growing up in the Roxbury and South End neighborhood, Yahaira Lopez is one of many who has cut through Clifford Park to get to Target and Stop & Shop. 

Now, she can’t bear to walk through it.

The last time she did this past year, Lopez was in shock. Clifford Park is now home to a cluster of about 20 tents, homeless individuals using drugs and thousands of needles littered throughout the park. She was appalled by the sanitary conditions and how extreme these issues have progressed. 

“It was the most hurtful and the scariest thing I’ve seen happen in the city of Boston,” Lopez said. “I’m shocked at how the mayor and police are allowing that to happen.” 

What Lopez describes is only a snippet of the reality of Mass/Cass — the community surrounding Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard — and the heart of the city’s overdose crisis. Residents and community members have watched houselessness and substance use heighten to extremes over the last few years, and they question when the city will hear their cries for help and take action. 

Addiction and homelessness have plagued the neighborhood, commonly referred to as Methadone Mile, since the surge of opioid use disorders in 2011. These issues were also amplified by the 2014 closure of a bridge to Long Island, home to the city’s largest homeless shelter and treatment center. Its closure left hundreds displaced, with many settling in Mass/Cass. 

By 2015, there was a 5.6% increase in the total homeless population in Boston, according to the annual homelessness census

The problem has also severely worsened in recent years. In 2019 alone, there were 229 medical or drug-related calls throughout Boston, a major upsurge from 31 in 2016, according to the city’s crime incident reports. Now with COVID-19, treatment centers and shelters have limited capacities and must restrict the number of people they can admit, despite the growing need. 

Yahaira Lopez speaking at a protest she organizes with other community members to voice their concerns of the issues against the conditions on Mass/Cass. Photo: Mayra Parrilla Guerrero.
Yahaira Lopez speaking at a protest she organizes with other community members in September to voice their concerns of the issues against the conditions on Mass/Cass. Photo: Mayra Parrilla Guerrero.

With Mass/Cass as an epicenter of treatment services, the community has attracted more people with substance use disorders or without houses, ultimately enhancing these issues.

“There are a lot of services that are centralized there,” said Julie Burns, president and CEO of RIZE Massachusetts whose goal is to end the opioid epidemic. “It’s a recipe for people congregating around there, which is a huge part of the challenge in getting things under control.”

The connection between houselessness and addiction is strong in the area, where if one worsens, the other will follow. In Mass/Cass, many houseless individuals continue to seek drugs to find an escape from their past, said Dr. Joseph Wright, director of addiction at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. 

“A lot of our patients who are chronically homeless have a combination of childhood poverty, childhood trauma, and then poverty or trauma later in life,” Wright said. “If they start using substances as a way of coping with their inner reality, which is painful, then they have fewer resources to fall back on, if they get fired from work or miss a rent payment, as an indirect result of their substance use.”

One of the main issues, Wright said, is that people struggling with houselessness and addiction are often concentrated in one area. 

“Once you become homeless, it is traumatizing in itself, and you’re pushed into areas where there are huge amounts of substance use, because the city, as a deliberate strategy, pushes all the people who are considered as ‘undesirable’ into a small area of town,” he said. “Now, you’re in a situation where you’re feeling complete despair and isolation, and the solution to your feeling is right outside.”

While these issues have persisted for the last five years now, residents of Mass/Cass are begging for solutions from the city. 

Despite the city’s attempts to clean up the area, the community continues to struggle. The city’s Operation Clean Sweep in August 2019, for example, intended to pick up trash and keep people off the streets. Instead, the city made more than 30 arrests and took the belongings of homeless people in their efforts to “clean up” the neighborhood.

This worsened the issues, said Marla Smith, Roxbury resident and member of South End – Roxbury Community Partnership. 

“If everything in the world is what you carry in a backpack and someone takes it, you literally have nothing,” Smith said. “For the surface ‘good’ that it did in sweeping things literally off the streets, it did not do anything to improve the situation.”

Along with sweeps, city officials often simply choose to fence off areas where those who are houseless or struggling with addiction gather. Leon Rivera, who was born and raised in Roxbury, said several parts of the neighborhood are already fenced off, such as the Boston Public Schools bus yard. 

“The city’s approach is just not working,” Rivera said. “This is so wrong. We can’t fence our way out of this. If we’re treating this as a public health crisis, why are we doing this to people?”

Burns, who funds research to battle the epidemic through RIZE, believes that decreasing the stigma around addiction will significantly aid the issue, as it is a documented medical condition.  

“Addiction is a disease that can be treated. It’s not a choice; it’s not a moral failure,” she said. “People that you see in that area are not there having fun … and it’s really hard to get into treatment and to stay in treatment. Recognizing that it’s a disease is a big step people can take toward solutions.” 

Residents took to the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Washington Street in September calling for actions from city officials. Photo: Mayra Parrilla Guerrero

She also adds that one of the key ways to fight this crisis is for the government to collaborate with the private sector.

“We can’t expect the government to solve this alone. We can’t arrest our way out of a problem,” Burns said. “The businesses that are there, the homeowners that are there and all of the providers that are there need to work together to find solutions that work for everybody. Everyone wants the same thing, but it’s hard when those entities try to do it alone.”

In October 2019, Mayor Marty Walsh set forth a plan to improve the health and safety of Mass/Cass residents, which involves expanding affordable housing and treatment options throughout the city with the help of outside organizations. 

Dr. Wright believes a major flaw of Walsh’s plan is the rest of the city’s willingness to host shelters or treatment centers.

“If the mayor puts a small substance use treatment program in this neighborhood and a small methadone clinic in that neighborhood, those neighborhoods would be up in arms,” Wright said. “That is what has led to the situation as it is now, where services are so centralized.”

Walsh will also rebuild the Long Island bridge and revamp the facility, which has been inactive since the bridge’s demolition. 

Rivera said he started noticing the rapid growth of homelessness and substance use in his neighborhood only after the bridge was condemned.

“Once the Long Island bridge closed, we started seeing an influx of folks in the area, and you’d find maybe a needle or two,” Rivera said. “Then slowly throughout the years, it was like, ‘Hold on, now we’re finding 10 needles here. Hold on, now we’re finding 20 needles here, and now folks are injecting themselves outside.’”

Marla Smith wished that the city was more proactive in providing other ways to transport people to Long Island while the bridge is in its planning stages.

“I fully support them rebuilding the bridge as soon as possible, but also they won’t hear any discussion about using ferries … or any other way to take people there to provide them the support that they need,” Smith said. “Instead, the people that would’ve been there are now down at Methadone Mile, and you’re essentially asking people to attempt recovery and sobriety in the midst of an open-air drug market.”

Much of Walsh’s efforts will work toward long-term goals, with these projects likely taking years to fully establish. While these plans are helpful, Wright said, they may not meet the immediate needs of residents.

“I think it’s achievable and those things would help, but there are a lot of barriers along the way,” he said. “And it doesn’t answer the question that the neighbors are asking, which is, ‘What are you going to do this year?’”

While city officials keep saying they are making improvements with the plan, Lopez said she does not see any true change.

“It’s hard to hear numbers and this information versus what we physically see in our communities,” she said. “To us, there is a major disconnect of what the politicians and the city feels in how to progress.”

David Stone, member of the city-appointed Mass/Cass Task Force to help tackle these issues, believes that the city’s overall efforts have made some difference, but the issues are too large to fully fix.

“The city is doing a good job within the context of what it’s able to control and address overall,” Stone said. “But the scale of the problem has exceeded what the city can reasonably do.”

In the meantime, members of the community are also banding together to help those in need. Leon Rivera, who started Facebook group Needles in the Park, has heard the need for support and supplies in his community. Backpacks and socks are of high priority for houseless individuals, he said, and he works with residents to aid their neighbors in distress. He started hosting donation drives this year, and is now aiming to collect warm winter gear for homeless individuals as the weather worsens. 

“Being out there is tough, even with just the donation drives. The things that you see — they’re traumatizing,” he said. “Last Saturday, we saw six overdoses in less than 20 minutes of us just being on Atkinson Street.”

In the end, community members understand that there’s only so much they can do personally to help their neighborhood. But they can all agree that the city is not doing enough for its people. 

“Animals get treated better,” Rivera said. “These are human beings.”


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