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As pandemic wears on, despair at epicenter of addiction crisis deepens

A man sat outside a “comfort station” run by the Boston Public Health Commission on Massachusetts Avenue.
A man sat outside a “comfort station” run by the Boston Public Health Commission on Massachusetts Avenue.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Behind the Southampton Street Shelter, a police cruiser idling across a narrow road, a jittery man in a tank top handed another man some crumpled bills, then walked into a city-run “comfort station” and stuck a needle in the crook of his arm.

A few blocks away outside the Woods-Mullen Shelter, where dozens of unmasked people milled about recently, some shooting up in broad daylight, a city worker at another comfort station filled a bucket with scores of discarded needles scattered around the area.

The corridor around Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard at the edge of Roxbury and the South End — one of Boston’s roughest areas, known widely as Methadone Mile — has deteriorated during the pandemic. It has become more crowded with people who are homeless and those suffering from addiction; also more violent, grimy, and forbidding, a procession of despair and disability, a place where too many live, suffer, and die.

While city life has largely receded over the past six months, the crisis here has only worsened, a fact city officials attribute to the virus.

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A homeless couple used wheelchairs to carry their belongings on Massachusetts Avenue.
A homeless couple used wheelchairs to carry their belongings on Massachusetts Avenue.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Since March, many daytime services and places for those with addiction to receive treatment have closed, as have many public buildings and businesses where homeless people previously could spend their days or use the bathrooms. The virus has led to an increase in releases from jails and prisons, with many former inmates having nowhere to go. It has also produced a surge in people living on the streets, with many homeless people choosing to avoid the cramped quarters of shelters, where, in some cases, more a third of the guests tested positive for the virus last spring.

“There’s no question that there’s increased activity, in terms of people on the street and of people coming down here,” said Marty Martinez, chief of the city’s Office of Health and Human Services. “We see that. We hear the neighbors. We understand that, and nobody should have to experience that in their neighborhood.”

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The neighborhood has changed markedly in the six years since city officials condemned an old, dilapidated bridge that led to the now-closed Long Island campus, a refuge in Boston Harbor that for decades provided emergency shelter and addiction services to more than 700 people every night.

With most of those services now moved to where Roxbury and the South End meet the Newmarket area — including new shelters, methadone clinics, and outdoor comfort stations where homeless people can spend time — local residents and business owners have felt overwhelmed.

Used needles are scattered throughout the neighborhood, and those in the thrall of heroin and other drugs can be found feeding their addictions at any time of the day.

Stephen Smith held a needle in his teeth while sitting in a courtyard on Albany Street.
Stephen Smith held a needle in his teeth while sitting in a courtyard on Albany Street.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“Things are getting to a tipping point,” said Bob Minnocci, a longtime resident of the South End and a board member of the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association. “This is a crisis. The situation is untenable.”

Minnocci and other residents have raised concerns about rising crime rates. Between 2013 — the year before Long Island closed — and 2019, violent crime in the area surged more than 150 percent, including four homicides, according to the Boston Police Department. Last year, there were more than three times the number of aggravated assaults in the area as in 2013.

After a deputy sheriff at the Suffolk County House of Correction was assaulted with a metal pipe last summer, police swept the neighborhood, arresting 34 people, many on warrants for previous offenses.

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In the first eight months of this year, there were 118 violent crimes in the area — including two more homicides and eight rapes or attempted rapes — 34 percent more violence than occurred in all of 2013.

Neighbors have also complained about more people sleeping on the streets or loitering during the day. City officials estimate that as many as 300 people spent the night in the area outdoors, including about 25 people who set up more than a dozen tents on a stretch of green space along Melnea Cass Boulevard, until city officials forced them to leave late last month.

A man exchanged words with officers in a parking lot on Mass. Ave.
A man exchanged words with officers in a parking lot on Mass. Ave.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Making matters more tense, the Pine Street Inn this summer leased the entire Best Western Plus Boston Hotel just south of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, bringing 180 additional homeless people into the area. That lease lasts for a year, but residents fear it will be extended, as local shelters remain overburdened.

Officials at the Pine Street Inn said they intend to transfer all their guests at the hotel to permanent housing and have committed to not replacing them with new guests.

They said the hotel was their only viable option, given that they had to move out of a student dormitory this summer they had been leasing from Suffolk University since shortly after the pandemic hit the city. Their main shelter in the South End had more guests than beds, which were only inches apart.

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“We are well aware that this location [of the hotel] is not ideal,” said Barbara Trevisan, a spokeswoman for the Pine Street Inn, where 36 percent of residents tested positive for the virus in April. “We share the neighborhood’s concerns with the issues of addiction and homelessness in that area. ... Our goal is to be a good neighbor.”

Residents also complain that the city has repeatedly failed to live up to its promises to improve conditions in the neighborhood. Their main concern: Too many social services have been concentrated in the area, creating what many describe as "an open-air drug market.”

They also contend the state and other towns aren’t doing enough to alleviate the burden on the city, noting that many of the people come to the area from elsewhere. Martinez, the city’s chief of human services, said 60 percent of the people who stay at city shelters are from outside Boston.

 Michael Franks, 39, greeted Rebekah Manuel, 23, on Mass. Ave. Both are homeless.
Michael Franks, 39, greeted Rebekah Manuel, 23, on Mass. Ave. Both are homeless.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“This isn’t fair,” said David Stone, president of the Blackstone/Franklin Square Neighborhood Association in the South End. “It doesn’t have to be this way. The state has been AWOL.”

Martinez acknowledged that Boston is bearing a disproportionate burden.

“There’s no question that other cities and towns need more services,” he said. “People are coming here, because they don’t have them in their cities and towns. … I do think a commitment from the state to strengthen services outside of Boston is an important piece of the puzzle.”

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Officials at the state Department of Public Health said they have done a lot to help the city, providing nearly $4 million this year for needle exchange programs, urgent care for opioid patients, and a range of other services.

“The state will continue to invest in and collaborate with the city and health and human service providers to meet the needs of individuals with substance use disorders,” said Katheleen Conti, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health.

Some homeless people also feel uncomfortable in the neighborhood.

After eight months at the Southampton Street Shelter, Jonathan Rogers II began sleeping in nearby U-Haul trucks and on park benches when the pandemic took hold in March.

“Too many people were testing positive in the shelters,” said Rogers, 37, who recently resumed working as a cook at a reopened restaurant in the Seaport but still can’t afford to pay rent for an apartment.

After the Pine Street Inn began offering beds at the Best Western, he moved there. But he said he feels deeply uncomfortable walking around the neighborhood, which he calls “scary” and “discouraging.”

“You feel like a cornered rat,” he said. “There are needles everywhere. It’s traumatic to see this stuff every day."

Jonathan Rogers II sat on a bench at Andrew Square T station. He is currently staying at the former Best Western that has been leased by the Pine Street Inn.
Jonathan Rogers II sat on a bench at Andrew Square T station. He is currently staying at the former Best Western that has been leased by the Pine Street Inn.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Other residents have urged the city to disperse services to other neighborhoods and accelerate the reopening of Long Island. They have complained that city officials have failed to fulfill promises to improve the neighborhood.

Last October, Mayor Martin J. Walsh issued an 18-page “strategic plan” for the neighborhood called “Melnea Cass/Mass Ave. 2.0,” which he said “sought improved coordination and alignment of existing services, together with new resources that will further bolster our efforts.”

At the time, the main source of problems stemmed from the opioid epidemic, Walsh said.

The plan created a task force of city and state officials, community residents, and business owners to address problems in the neighborhood; a website that tracked a range of public health and safety issues; and an increase in overdose prevention measures, among other steps.

“Our intention with this plan is to strike the delicate balance we need to keep our neighborhoods safe and focus on the quality of life issues that are being impacted, while getting those who need us the most care and support they need to recover from this disease,” Walsh wrote in introducing the plan.

The city promised to update the plan with more specifics shortly after the release of the report, but didn’t do so until recently — after the Globe asked for it.

“So far, little to nothing has been accomplished,” Minnocci said. “It’s as if the mayor set up the plan and task force to appease complaining residents, without ever intending to follow through.”

Walsh “has failed miserably at bringing any semblance of order to what has become massive chaos,” he added.

City Councilor Michelle Wu, who’s reportedly planning to challenge Walsh to become mayor, also called the city’s efforts to address the neighborhood’s problems “a failure.”

“Our city policies have failed to approach public safety through a public health lens, and this is a very stark example of that,” she said. “The situation is a threat to people seeking services in the area, and it’s a threat to the safety of residents in the surrounding neighborhood.”

She called for a more “holistic” solution that would create “a true citywide plan to managing housing security and substance abuse, understanding our role as a regional service provider.”

In a progress report released this month, Walsh said the city accomplished many of the goals it established in last year’s plan.

The city has created more outdoor areas where homeless people can spend their days, providing porta potties, outdoor hand-washing stations, virtual medical screenings, and hundreds of additional beds, according to the report. Officials have also doubled the number of outreach workers in the neighborhood, while increasing the collection of needles and police patrols in hot spots of activity, the report said.

Malik Calderon Jr. cleaned the sidewalk outside a comfort station as it closed for the day. Calderon is homeless and appreciates the station. "This place saves lives, they have good resources and a good staff. They got me in the methadone clinic. We get support here. This is a community," he said.
Malik Calderon Jr. cleaned the sidewalk outside a comfort station as it closed for the day. Calderon is homeless and appreciates the station. "This place saves lives, they have good resources and a good staff. They got me in the methadone clinic. We get support here. This is a community," he said.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“As we continue to battle the pandemic, we are providing supportive services for individuals struggling with substance-use disorder, while also implementing public health and safety measures to improve quality of life for the entire Boston community,” Walsh wrote in the update.

Yet Walsh acknowledged that COVID-19 “has exacerbated existing inequities and presented new challenges.”

In a recent interview on GBH, the mayor went further, calling the situation in the neighborhood “a big problem" and “a perfect storm.”

“We have to get it better under control,” he said, adding: "We’ve had a crisis quite honestly for a long time. And pointing fingers at me, which is fine, is not the solution, because I didn’t create this. But what I am trying to do is find a solution.”

As far as the future, city officials said they still plan to move many of the recovery services back to Long Island, where the city has continued to maintain the vacated buildings at a significant expense. But they do not plan to move the hundreds of people back who previously were bused there every night for emergency shelter services.

But that plan hinges on rebuilding the Long Island Bridge, a project estimated to cost more than $90 million that remains tied up in litigation. Two years ago, the Quincy Conservation Commission denied a vital permit for the bridge, and last month, the city began making its case in Suffolk Superior Court to overturn that decision.

Even if Boston wins, it would likely be years before the bridge is complete and the buildings ready to accept residents.

On a recent afternoon, not far from where a discarded needle lay beside an abandoned N95 mask, Rogers stood outside the Best Western. Across the street, he watched as a stream of seemingly intoxicated people shuffle past.

“It’s like a nightmare to be here all the time,” he said.


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.