From a distance, it’s easy to say something must be done to fix the human tragedy at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, the South End intersection that has become a magnet for people suffering from homelessness and addiction. Up close, the need is even more apparent. It’s not uncommon to see the area populated by people sprawled on sidewalks or in tents. They need somewhere to live, along with treatment for mental health and drug issues.
Local politicians, including all the major mayoral candidates, recognize that something needs to be done. But a faltering effort to create transitional housing in the area shows just how hard it can be to translate that impulse into concrete steps, and how much leadership it’ll take from the next mayor to create durable solutions to opioid addiction.
One proposal involves the currently closed Best Western Roundhouse hotel at 891 Massachusetts Avenue. Opened with promise and purpose some 20 years ago, it was part of a Menino administration plan to anchor what is now called “Mass and Cass” with significant private development — bolstered by public support — to spur further investment in the area. The development plan is working up to a point — but not to the point of unqualified success for that hotel, which is located on the industrialized side of Melnea Cass.
To reduce shelter overcrowding during the coronavirus surge, Pine Street Inn took a one-year lease on the Roundhouse property and in July 2020, moved 172 people into the hotel. Housing placement teams worked with each individual to work toward a permanent housing solution. About 74 percent were successfully placed in housing. Some people left on their own and a small number came back to a shelter. Although the hotel is not in a residential area, there was some community resistance to the Pine Street program, which intensified when Victory Programs Inc., another non-profit, came up with a new plan to lease the hotel and provide 14 to 35 beds for transitional housing with support staff. Due to community opposition, that proposal now looks like “a dead deal,” Sarah Porter, executive director of Victory Programs Inc., said in an interview. “To say there’s no community support is the underestimation of the decade,” she said.
The City of Boston, along with the state, initially pledged money to support the VPI proposal. At a recent press conference, however, acting Mayor Kim Janey was noncommittal: “We will continue to work with residents in the area — we continue to work with nonprofit leaders who are experts in the space to see if there’s an opportunity to use this as supportive housing,” Janey said.
State Representative Jon Santiago, who represents the area and also works as an ER doctor at nearby Boston Medical Center, said in an interview that “Mass and Cass is a place suffering from issues of substance abuse, mental health, and homelessness. We need transitional housing” — but not there, he argues. For one thing, putting the housing there conflicts with talk of decentralizing services in an already over-burdened area. Moreover, anyone relocated to the hotel could easily walk out and into the temptation of readily available drugs, he said. Santiago also cited communication problems with Victory Programs. “That project might meet the moment,” he said. But the “lack of engagement” was off-putting. “We were told it was going to happen as if it was a done deal.”
Those are legitimate concerns. At a minimum, community engagement should start anew and Victory Programs may not be the right fit. Still, if a hotel is no longer a viable business there, its 92 suites could make a difference in the lives of people now on the street. (A spokesman for the hotel could not be reached for comment.) “The jump from Mass and Cass to an apartment is difficult, but not impossible,” said Porter. “If we could just have a stopover and stabilize their lives a little.”
And Santiago is certainly right that other parts of the city and the state should shoulder more responsibility for the opioid crisis. Where to provide housing and addiction services has been up for debate since multiple treatment centers were shut down on Long Island in 2014. Rebuilding the bridge to Long Island is controversial, and won’t happen anytime soon, if at all. The state also has proposed a plan to provide services at the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, in Boston’s Franklin Park, but there’s opposition to that, too.
The fact remains that in the South End right now, there are people living on the street next to an empty hotel. If the next mayor really intends to fix Mass and Cass, she or he will need to make tough calls. Decentralizing services in the area is a long-term goal, and it’s going to require ruffling feathers in other parts of the city. In the short term, any project that gets people off sidewalks and under a roof is both good for them and good for the neighborhood that’s been the epicenter of the region’s opioid crisis for too long.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.