For years, city officials have been fighting — and largely losing — the battle against the opioid epidemic at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. And yet the situation on the stretch has only deteriorated further during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The daily vignettes of human misery in the area known as Mass. and Cass, or Methadone Mile, underscore complex social problems: homelessness, opioid dealing and addiction, prostitution, and street violence.
Earlier this summer, the city shut down a comfort station located in a fenced-off lot on Atkinson Street, which was created to meet the basic needs of people who are homeless and battling drug addiction, such as portable toilets, hand-washing sinks, and outreach services. And Acting Mayor Kim Janey recently acknowledged a task force set up to tackle the problems of Mass. and Cass would have to be revamped after multiple outlets, including The Boston Herald, reported that recent meetings of the group had been canceled.
And the situation is so dire that a Pop Warner football team was prompted to merge with another program in part because their home field, Clifford Park, which is located about a half-mile from the Mass. and Cass intersection, was so strewn with needles. Coaches and players had to deal with other quality of life problems related to Mass. and Cass, such as human feces on the ground or players witnessing overdoses.
The seriousness of the situation has drawn significant attention from the five major candidates vying to be the city’s next mayor, who have proposed various plans on how to tackle the thorny set of problems that has long festered in the area.
At a recent debate, multiple candidates spoke of the need to “decentralize services” offered in the area, which is home to multiple homeless shelters and outpatient centers for those struggling with addiction, as well as a pair of methadone clinics.
Here is what the candidates say they will do for Mass. and Cass:
Barros wants the public health commission to declare Mass. and Cass a public health emergency, which would bring more resources to the area. He has said he would immediately appoint a special adviser for mental health and substance use. Additionally, the city’s former economic development chief has called for three new city liaisons to oversee constituent services in the neighborhoods affected by the situation at Mass. and Cass. The city, according to Barros, should establish an operations center in the area.
During Wednesday night’s mayoral debate, Barros said the area had become more violent, more crowded, and dirtier in recent months. He called for the formation of a multidisciplinary 24-hour team that would respond to problems in the area.
“This is a complex issue and it needs leadership and it needs action,” he said.
If elected mayor, Campbell would appoint a Mass. and Cass chief who would focus on the area’s problems, including spearheading the decentralization of services away from the Mass. and Cass area, including safe and supportive housing and more treatment locations throughout the city. She also wants to establish a dedicated first responder unit for the area, and has pledged to reopen Long Island, which used to house addiction and recovery services until the bridge to the island was abruptly closed in 2014.
Like other candidates Campbell concluded at Wednesday’s debate that Mass. and Cass is “only getting worse.” Having grown up on Mass. Ave., she said the area is “near and dear to me,” and added that while her childhood was poor, she did not have to deal with needles or bodies on the ground in the neighborhood. She noted she was the first candidate to broach the idea of ferry service to Long Island and thought there was not enough coordination between various services providers and city departments: “Everyone is working in silos.”
“We don’t need any more rhetoric,” said Campbell, a city councilor.
Essaibi George, another city councilor, has said she would appoint a “Mass. and Cass Czar,” possibly embedded at the Boston Public Health Commission, to help improve information sharing and coordination among key players. She wants to use federal funds, along with the city’s budget and capital plan, to improve the area. Her campaign estimated it will take about $30 million in investment. She also has said she would seek involvement, in the form of services and resources, from surrounding cities and towns since a large percentage of the population at Mass. and Cass is coming from outside of Boston.
Essaibi George spoke at Wednesday’s debate of repairing the continuum of care, and said she counted more than 100 tents during a recent tour of the area.
“We’ve got work to do,” she said.
She also rapped Janey for eliminating a committee focusing on mental health, homelessness, and addiction recovery when the acting mayor was council president.
”Since then things have fallen apart,” said Essaibi George.
As acting mayor, Janey announced in May that her administration is reviewing plans to make addiction treatment recovery campus on Long Island in Boston Harbor sustainable, including the prospect of launching a ferry service to transport people to services there — an idea first pitched by Campbell.
Janey has also said that rebuilding the bridge to Long Island “is still very important” and is something she plans to continue to push for.
On Wednesday, Janey indicated that the problems of Mass. and Cass were personal, saying that an uncle of hers was found dead with a needle in his arm during the 1980s. She said officials have helped 1,600 people in the city get into addiction treatment this year. COVID-19 has made the problems of Mass. and Cass worse. The approach to the problem, she said, has to be regional.
“This can’t just fall on Boston,” she said.
In response to Essaibi George’s criticism, Janey said as council president she formed a committee on public health shortly before the pandemic swept into Boston.
“Fortunately, we did that,” she said.
Wu has broken from her rivals in saying that rebuilding the Long Island Bridge is not a feasible short-term solution that would actually deliver results in the four years of a mayoral term. The at-large city councilor from Roslindale has also pitched a “hub and spoke” model that would locate recovery services and supportive housing throughout Boston so it is not just concentrated near Boston Medical Center. She said she would do so in a way that would “avoid placing additional transportation burdens on people in need of multiple services” in part by locating supportive housing units close to medical and other services.
Wu has highlighted that the city needs to hire more case managers and provide more funding for existing services, and has pledged to perform an audit within her first 100 days as mayor to identify city-owned parcels of land or facilities on which to quickly build supportive housing to alleviate the housing crisis that is concentrating people in the area. While not specifying the cost of her proposals, a campaign spokeswoman has said that “part of the point is that savings achieved by not investing $100 million in Long Island Bridge could help fund those services.”
During the debate, Wu said that while the city has poured more and more resources into Mass. and Cass, when walking around the area she was struck by a feeling of “We’ve given up.”
“That is unacceptable,” she said.
Danny McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.