Virtually everyone agrees that Boston’s “Methadone Mile” is an eyesore at best and a serious threat to public health and safety at worst.
As to what should be done about it — that’s where people part company, with well-meaning shrugs.
The uncertainty around the future of the area where Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard — Mass. and Cass, as it is called — come together has become a thing in the mayor’s race, with nearly every candidate holding an event there and offering a plan. It feels odd that such a longstanding problem has suddenly been “discovered,” but I guess that’s the nature of public policy inertia — and campaigns.
This festering problem was created almost overnight in 2014. Mayor Marty Walsh, alerted that the bridge to Long Island — home of multiple treatment centers — was unsafe, abruptly shut the programs down without any real plan for what would come next. The residents receiving treatment were transported to the South End, which was the site of several treatment centers, including clinics dispensing methadone for those getting off heroin.
It is one of the most haphazard decisions by City Hall in recent memory, and the crisis was born. (Ironic that this would happen under Walsh, the greatest champion of people in recovery ever to occupy the mayor’s office.)
Over time, the area has gotten more heavily occupied and more unsafe, as a ride though it, at any hour of day or night, will confirm.
The candidates say they have plans. Many of them involve rebuilding the bridge to Long Island, so treatment there can resume. One small problem though: To get to the bridge you have to go through Quincy, and that city’s politicians insist that the bridge will return only over their dead bodies. Thinking of Long Island as a near-term solution might be an exercise in magical thinking.
In recognition of that, two candidates, Acting Mayor Kim Janey and Councilor Andrea Campbell, have called for a ferry service to treatment centers on Long Island.
Other candidates, including Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, have called for devoting far more resources to Mass and Cass. Councilor Michelle Wu wants to distribute the services clustered there more broadly across the city, in addition to expanding services.
The area around Boston Medical Center — the de facto border of Roxbury and the South End — has been home to treatment facilities for years, if not decades. But the closing of Long Island centralized the problem in a way it hadn’t been before.
Now residents in both neighborhoods are screaming, and candidates are struggling to listen.
Part of the solution is obvious, if not easy to implement. There is a glaring need for more treatment to be offered in more neighborhoods of the city. And the people who congregate at Mass and Cass must have places to go. You could say this is both a public health problem and a shelter problem.
Not all of the actions taken by the city have been ineffective. Millions of dollars are being devoted to the area, through initiatives ranging from renovating the Woods Mullen shelter located there to putting more money into recovery and homelessness programs.
But really tacking the mess that is Methadone Mile — one advocate I spoke to called it “Boston’s Skid Row” — will require building public support for finally addressing addiction at the scale of the problem. That will mean that other neighborhoods, cities, and towns will have to be willing to help shoulder the burden of what is really a universal problem.
It’s easier, much easier, to simply wash your hands of it. Just look at Quincy’s “hell no” to reopening Long Island.
It’s great that the candidates are debating what to do about Mass and Cass. But it isn’t simply a matter of how to clean up a tough part of town. At core, this is a question of helping the most vulnerable among us. That shouldn’t be controversial, but it is.
What the city needs isn’t an easy fix, but a lasting one.