Before every practice, the coaches of the Boston Bengals Pop Warner football program would split up and walk up and down their practice field at Clifford Park in Roxbury, picking up needles from the grass.
“Every practice I’d grab 15 to 20 needles,” said Licinio Pires, 41. “And that’s just me.”
The conditions at Clifford Park have become so dire that on Friday, the Boston Bengals made the decision to merge with another Pop Warner program — the Brookline Jamaica Plain Patriots — so they don’t have to play at their practice field anymore, according to Domingos DaRosa, the team’s president.
The decision “was driven by the situation at Clifford Park,” said DaRosa, 44. “So these kids don’t miss out.”
When DaRosa arrived at the park on Friday afternoon, he said, he could see a dozen needles buried in the grass.
“It’s so bad down here,” DaRosa said. “There are the encampments, the prostitution, the drug dealing. There’ve been countless overdoses while we’re practicing.”
The park sits across the street from Victoria’s Diner on Massachusetts Avenue and about a half-mile from Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue, the infamous intersection known as “Mass and Cass” and the epicenter of the city’s opioid epidemic. In addition to the Bengals’ practice field, Clifford Park has softball and baseball diamonds, a tennis court, a basketball court, and a playground for children.
In the past, drug users who hung around the intersection of Mass and Cass would eventually disperse or be taken to treatment centers on Long Island. But since the bridge to Long Island closed in 2014, the area has become even more of a magnet for people battling addiction and homelessness.
DaRosa said the problem isn’t limited to Clifford Park, as needles are being discarded every day in “every single public park that’s within walking distance of Methadone Mile.”
Besides needles, the coaches of the Boston Bengals have had to deal with other issues at Clifford Park. Pires said that sometimes they would find human feces on the ground. Or the kids would ask why there was an ambulance on the field after someone had overdosed. One time, a man ran across the field naked, he said.
DaRosa said that during one practice in late August, they witnessed two men get into an argument and one tried to stab the other.
Pires noted that while COVID-19 put youth sports and a lot of other public activities on hold, the number of drug users flocking to this little section of the city seems to have increased.
Pires served as a coach for the Boston Bengals from 2015 until the start of the pandemic. He’s now the treasurer of the program.
“It’s been an ongoing issue for years.,” said Pires. “I think one of the reasons it’s gotten worse is that everyone kind of congregates over there. . . . Now they feel it’s their home.”
But that hasn’t stopped the Bengals coaches from teaching the sport they love.
Pires said the Bengals organization has taken the kids out on trips and to attend college football games at Harvard University and Boston College. He has fond memories of ordering the kids pizzas from the Hen House at 1033 Massachusetts Ave. after Friday afternoon practices.
“At the end of the day, we’re doing this for the kids,” said Pires.
DaRosa, who is running for an at-large seat on the City Council, has been involved with the Bengals program for more than a decade.
DaRosa said he would like to see an increased police presence at Clifford Park. He would also like to see more methadone treatment centers open in other parts of the state, in every county, so people battling addiction have more options.
District Three City Councilor Frank Baker said he understands why the Bengals made the decision they did.
“I do not blame them one bit — if we continue with the current policies at Mass and Cass, these issues will not go away,” he said.
Baker said the city has people working eight hours a day collecting needles and they can’t stay ahead of it.
“The sharps team goes down there on a regular basis,” he said. “Clifford Park looks much better than it did six or seven years ago. People leaving needles around . . . they only care about themselves. We’re allowing them to stay on the street. Obviously that needs to change. We’re overburdened down there.”
Baker said he’d like to see the Nashua Street jail repurposed as a public health care facility for people who are seeking treatment on their own and for those committed under Section 12 and 35, which are the state laws that allow for people to be involuntarily committed due to mental illness or substance use.
“We need on-demand beds . . . get them off the street and into long-term programs,” said Baker.
State Representative Liz Miranda of Boston said she empathizes with the football team.
“I am devastated by the decision, but I don’t blame the families for having to make it after six years of worsening conditions,” she said in an e-mailed statement. “I share their frustration and am working to make sure that Clifford Park does not become a collateral consequence of the public health crisis at Mass & Cass, we must protect this space for youth and families of our community.”
Acting Mayor Kim Janey said the city is committed to keeping people safe in the area.
“We are taking actions to improve both public health and public safety in the neighborhood hardest hit by the drug crisis,” said Janey in an e-mailed statement Tuesday. “As part of the city’s continued response, our Street Outreach Team and Mobile Sharps Team conducts several collections in Clifford Park daily to ensure safe use of the park for both our young athletes and the entire community.”
Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a police spokesman, said there are directed patrols at the park and citizens should contact the Police Department to report any suspicious activity.
As far as Clifford Park goes, the Bengals will continue to keep storing their equipment there. But from now on, they will be practicing elsewhere.
“Last night was the last day of practice at Clifford Park,” DaRosa said Tuesday. “Tonight’s our first practice in JP.”
Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22.