Everyone wants the humanitarian crisis at “Mass. and Cass” to disappear. But so far, the people at the center of that crisis have nowhere to go, even if they wanted to leave.
To recap: Quincy went to court to stop the City of Boston from rebuilding a bridge that would reconnect it to Long Island, where Boston wants to reopen a new addiction recovery center. Local business owners and residents stopped a plan to use a closed hotel located near the crossroads of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard for transitional housing. Revere didn’t want to convert a hotel on the Revere-Saugus line for similar use. Neither did Saugus. An idea floated by Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins to relocate people who are homeless to an empty building on his South Bay correctional campus was opposed by advocates who said that’s not the right setting for substance use disorder treatment. Meanwhile, environmentalists who say they want more green space are fighting a plan put forward by Governor Charlie Baker to build an addiction recovery center in Franklin Park on the grounds of the Shattuck Hospital. According to Boston magazine, various environmental interest groups have the backing of two former governors, Bill Weld and Michael Dukakis, who proposed another site that also drew opposition.
Given intense resistance to proposed solutions to a tent city populated by people with mental illness and substance use disorders, even the leadership skills of an Angela Merkel would be challenged. The current political flux in Massachusetts doesn’t help. Boston is in the middle of a mayoral race and, for now, has an acting mayor. Baker has yet to say whether he’s running for a third term, but if he does, he faces a primary challenge from an opponent who was just endorsed by Donald Trump. If Baker wins that contest, as expected, he could be running against Attorney General Maura Healey. In the past, Healey, a Democrat, stood alongside the Republican governor in his efforts to address drug addiction. When it comes to Mass. and Cass, she told my colleague Shirley Leung that all options are on the table and collaboration is key. We shall see.
On Tuesday, Baker met with Healey, Acting Mayor Kim Janey, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, and others to discuss the situation, but no firm action plan emerged, according to WCVB-Channel 5. Sarah Finlaw, a spokeswoman for the governor, issued this statement: “The Baker-Polito administration has been engaging with the city of Boston and other stakeholders on how to support the city’s efforts to address the Mass. & Cass crisis. The administration supports a regional approach and is making several resources available, including treatment beds, supportive housing units, and financial support.”
Before COVID-19 consumed his agenda, Baker made certain aspects of the opioid crisis a priority. To his credit, he got behind two major pieces of legislation to strengthen efforts around prevention, education, treatment, and recovery. Key elements include a first-in-the-nation seven-day limit on first prescriptions of opioids; a mandatory prescription-monitoring program for physicians; and a mandate that all public schools provide information to parents whose children participate in athletic programs regarding the potential dangers of opioid misuse. The Baker administration also says it doubled state funding for addiction treatment and prevention since taking office in 2015.
Yet Baker has also kept his distance from the worsening crisis. When protesters dumped used needles in front of the governor’s Swampscott home to bring attention to the harsh realities of urban life, his wife went to court to get a civil harassment prevention order against one of the demonstrators. That kind of protest does cross a line — one that vividly depicts the leadership challenge presented by Mass. and Cass.
How to solve a problem that no one wants to encounter on their front lawn — or anywhere else? Quincy doesn’t want the people who represent the problem transported over a bridge. Revere and Saugus want no part of a transitional housing plan for them. Those who already work and live near this graphic illustration of human vulnerability want to decentralize the services that are offered there. Environmentalists want green space, not a recovery center, at Franklin Park.
So far, a sheriff with an empty jail represents the best offer. That’s sad, isn’t it?