Doris Wong stands by a loading dock that has been unusable since June when drug users and homeless people began hanging around outside her wholesale company, Food-Pak Express.
Last week, in what has become a familiar scene in this industrial section on the edge of Roxbury, three dozen people milled around on one side of Atkinson Street, where tractor trailers used to deliver food, while tents lined the other side of Wong’s building along Topeka Street, making it increasingly difficult for Food-Pak to use its other loading dock.
Her employees have been accosted, their cars broken into. Customers don’t want to come to the warehouse because they deem the area too dangerous. Wong, who supplies dumplings, noodles, and other Asian food to restaurants and supermarkets in the region, estimates the opioid crisis that has spilled over to her business ― a block from Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard — has cost her at least $500,000. That includes everything from lost revenue to higher insurance premiums to additional security.
“I’m literally surrounded,” said an exasperated Wong. “You can have empathy, but to ignore the situation, the lawlessness, it’s not a solution.”
To say this is a place the city has forgotten would be unfair. Boston police are ever-present, whether walking the street or sitting in cruisers. City public health workers are also here, along with nurses and others from the nonprofit Boston Health Care for the Homeless, dispensing medicine and other care. The city runs an engagement center on Atkinson Street, where people can grab a snack, use the bathroom, take a shower, and watch TV. A permanent facility under construction on a lot next door is expected to open in another month.
There is even a city-run men’s shelter next door. On average, there are about 70 empty beds out of 320. A women’s shelter near Massachusetts Avenue also has plenty of availability. Many people prefer to live on the street, where they can set their own rules. Business owners say the conditions have deteriorated since June, when there were a half dozen tents set up in the area known as Newmarket Square at the confluence of Roxbury, Dorchester, and the South End. Today, there are nearly 200. Police, according to business owners, appear to have been directed to keep the peace, but not to stop drug use or other crimes, fostering an environment in which there seems to be no consequence for breaking the law.
Sergeant Detective John Boyle, spokesman for the Boston Police Department, said police enforce laws in Newmarket Square, but also help seek treatment for people dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues. “This is a complex and complicated issue the police face and one that requires more than a police response,” Boyle said in a statement.
Everyone agrees on this much: A humanitarian crisis is unfolding before our eyes. There are no easy solutions, and no one is calling for the tents to be removed in one fell swoop, because they’ll just pop up somewhere else. An enormous amount of resources is being poured into the area. But the approach is more passive than proactive, aimed at maintaining a precarious status quo.
“My experience is that everybody wants to help, but nobody will lead,” said Catherine D’Amato, chief executive of the Greater Boston Food Bank, whose headquarters sits a block away from the encampment.
Like other businesses and organizations in the area, the food bank has had to increase its security, paying about $500,000 a year for five guards who work in shifts around the clock. They escort employees to and from the parking lot, and protect the building. That is money the food bank could have spent providing one million meals.
D’Amato estimates the nonprofit has spent another $500,000 to install additional cameras, panic buttons, and gates. She’s not even sure if the investment will pay off. Security doesn’t solve the problem of big trucks having a hard time navigating around tents and people wandering the streets. This is not a matter of convenience, but rather public safety. Spend time in Newmarket, and you can’t help but sense a tragic accident is just waiting to happen.
D’Amato wonders whether she needs to look for another distribution site.
“I’m building a fortress in order to do my business,” she said. “I can’t even get a truck down the street. If I need to feed people, do I need to go to another city?”
Newmarket is home to more than 200 companies and 20,000 employees. Business owners share remarkably similar stories about a neighborhood under siege, where those struggling with substance use and stable housing have in recent months grown more brazen and violent. The city can’t keep up with the human feces and syringes that litter properties, break-ins are rampant, and employees live in a constant state of fear. Some have quit.
“My wife tells me I should get a gun,” said Gerry DiPierro, who owns a construction company at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
Janet Colombo, owner of New Market Pizza & Grill, said that in recent weeks her windows have been smashed three times. Each repair set her back $800. After the third broken window, she decided to string yellow tape across the fractured glass. The day I visited, a work crew was measuring windows because Colombo had decided to install metal shutters over the window openings.
“We cannot wait until the new mayor. We need to take action now,” said Colombo, standing in the parking lot of her restaurant, as she warned a passerby that no panhandling was allowed inside. “What do they want us to do? Defend ourselves? I don’t want to carry a gun.
Ted Winston, owner of the Winston Flowers chain, is so concerned about the safety of his customers that he stopped having brides visit its Newmarket headquarters and production facility. He has found it difficult to hire new employees, and not just because it’s a tight labor market. Job candidates come in for one interview and don’t return, after taking a look at what surrounds them.
Work-from-home isn’t an option when it comes to assembling floral arrangements. With close to a third of his 120 workers reliant on public transit, Winston recently began paying for their Uber rides to and from the Andrew Square station because they were afraid of walking to their workplace from the T stop. That’s on top of spending about $2,500 a week on security.
“It’s scary for me and everyone else coming to work here,” said Winston.
The catastrophe at Mass and Cass has been building for years, most notably since the City of Boston abruptly closed the Long Island bridge in 2014 because it was considered unsafe. That cut off access to addiction treatment services that were long offered on the island. Then the pandemic created an economic maelstrom, with those on the bottom rung most likely to lose their jobs and housing.
“It’s not ‘all the bad people’ have come to this place,” said Dr. Jessie Gaeta, chief medical officer of Boston Health Care for the Homeless. “It’s all the bad policies have resulted in this encampment.”
Gaeta said the crisis is ongoing because of what she calls the “stigma” that society has created around addiction, extreme poverty, and homelessness. Help for drug users shouldn’t be concentrated in one part of the city.
“It’s a lack of willingness to have programs like this located across all of our neighborhoods,” she added. “An encampment like this in Boston is just nothing more than an indication of so many systems failures and policy failures.”
Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, said the crisis requires “compassionate enforcement” and a regional approach that encourages other municipalities to set up their own shelters and treatment centers. She notes that many of the people living on the streets in Newmarket are not from Boston.
Normally, a stalemate comes from a lack of resources, but the state and cities are awash in federal rescue money. Governor Charlie Baker has led on fighting the opioid epidemic, by championing significant laws to regulate prescriptions and strengthen education, and pouring new resources into treatment, in particular increasing the number of beds. Now he has a chance to do so again.
Let’s resolve not to wait until the mayor of Boston is elected. The preliminary vote may have narrowed the field to two, but four of the five mayoral candidates remain city officials: Acting Mayor Kim Janey and three city councilors, Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, and Michelle Wu.
These sisters in service have the power to enact change without the mantle of being an elected mayor. They should do their jobs.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.