City officials want to transfer homeless people from the Mass. and Cass area of Boston to live at a hotel in Revere, a plan that is being met with fierce resistance from that city’s mayor in a clash that exemplifies the political and logistical complexities of battling the region’s addiction crisis.
In a letter this week, Revere Mayor Brian M. Arrigo pushed back against a proposal to convert a hotel in his community into a transitional homeless center — an attempt to alleviate the thicket of quality-of-life and public safety problems in the area of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston, the center of the region’s opioid epidemic.
Frustrated by what he considered a lack of communication from Boston health authorities, Arrigo, in a Monday letter to the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said he has lost all confidence in that organization “to thoughtfully execute on an issue of such regional public importance.”
“Unfortunately, the BPHC has yet to demonstrate the capacity to meet the moment and have instead endangered the progress we all hope to see for our community,” he said.
The Mass. and Cass area, located near where the South End, Roxbury, and Dorchester neighborhoods meet, is an open-air narcotics market, where overdoses and reports of street violence and sexual exploitation connected to the illicit drug trade are commonplace. Many locals say it has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, with dozens of sidewalks tents springing up in recent months.
On Tuesday, Emma Pettit, a spokeswoman for Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey, said Janey “is committed to a regional approach to solve the regional challenges of the opioid crisis.”
“The City of Boston must not shoulder this burden alone,” said Pettit. “Mayor Janey invites Mayor Arrigo, and other mayors, to join her in efforts to address the needs of those suffering from mental health challenges and substance use disorder in Boston, Revere, and across our Commonwealth.”
One such opportunity, according to the statement, “is a pilot effort in Revere that will provide transitional housing and wrap-around services, helping some of our most vulnerable neighbors find stability, treatment, and recovery.”
Boston officials, according to Janey’s office, plan to rent 30 rooms at the Quality Inn Hotel on Morris Street. How many people would be transferred from Mass. and Cass to the hotel was not immediately clear; the timeline of the program and other details, such as room configuration, are still being developed, according to Janey’s office. Meanwhile, Arrigo, in his letter, said he was taken aback to hear recently that the hotel “would begin operating imminently as a homeless transitional center with over 150 beds.” He added that he has heard different figures in recent weeks for the number of beds that would be used at the hotel, ranging from 30 to 160.
“At this point, I do [not] even know how many beds BPHC is contemplating using at the Quality Inn,” he said in the letter to Dr. Bisola Ojikutu.
The daily vignettes of human misery in and around the intersection have become a mayoral campaign issue, with multiple candidates in recent months speaking to the need for a regional approach to tackling the problems there. “Decentralizing services” has become a prevailing theme among city politicos when talking about what needs to happen at Mass. and Cass.
There are persistent complaints that many who are struggling in the area, which is home to multiple homeless shelters and outpatient centers for addiction as well as a pair of methadone clinics, do not originate from Boston. It’s unfair, the argument goes, that Boston should have to shoulder so much of the burden for what is a regional opioid problem.
That argument was reiterated on Tuesday by Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, one of the two mayoral candidates.
“Listen, over 70 percent of those down at Mass. and Cass are not from Boston,” she said in a statement. “We need to decentralize services and our neighboring communities need to step up and do their part to address this crisis. No municipality in this Commonwealth is immune to the opioid crisis and no municipality should be exempt from doing this work.”
The other candidate, Councilor Michelle Wu, said Tuesday that she looked forward “to working with our regional partners and with accountability across Boston city agencies to coordinate clear, actionable plans for public health and safety, treatment, and supportive housing.”
But Arrigo’s letter this week demonstrates that any regional solution to Mass. and Cass. could face substantial obstacles.
In the letter, Revere’s mayor criticizes Boston’s health authorities for what he sees as a lack of communication and collaboration. He said Revere city leaders found out about plans to convert the Quality Inn Hotel when a recovery coach left a voice mail at a city office set up to battle substance use disorder.
“Simply put, the level of disorganization from BPHC regarding this effort is appalling,” said Arrigo.
Arrigo said Revere has made repeated attempts to connect with the Boston Public Health Commission and other Boston officials.
“At this point it is clear that our hopes of an organized plan of action . . . have been dashed by the BPHC’s inability to produce contingency and operational documentation that ought to come standard with such a sensitive initiative,” he said. “It is also clear that little to no planning was undertaken in advance of the relocation of unhoused individuals from Melnea Cass Boulevard.”
Jim Stewart, a founding steering committee member for SIFMA Now!, a group that advocates for safe consumption sites in the state, said it made sense to house vulnerable individuals in places like hotels. If nothing else, he said, it would help get them out of the daily chaos of Mass. and Cass, which he referred to as a “treadmill to nowhere.”
“If decentralization means getting people the help they need, I’m all for it,” he said.
Politicians, he said, have to challenge people’s unfounded views that such facilities will ruin neighborhoods.
“Once it’s up running people say, ‘Yeah that makes sense,’ but getting it up and running,” is another matter, he said.
Revere is just the latest of Boston’s neighbors to push back on the city’s plans to address the opioid crisis.
The rebuilding of the bridge to Long Island, where former mayor Martin J. Walsh had promised a rehabilitation campus, looms large in any conversation about Mass. and Cass. But that proposal is complicated by a protracted legal battle with neighboring Quincy, where officials and residents remain fiercely opposed to constructing a new span.
The bridge was abruptly closed in 2014 because it was deemed unsafe, which prompted the relocation of addiction treatment services long offered there. The bridge has since been demolished.
Even in Boston, siting new places to serve the vulnerable populations of Mass. and Cass has been difficult. Earlier in the pandemic, temporary housing was established in the nearby Best Western Roundhouse hotel when shelters were overcrowded during a coronavirus surge. But the hotel is not currently hosting any such housing programs, with one advocate stating in recent months, “To say there’s no community support is the underestimation of the decade.”
Governor Charlie Baker’s administration did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.