Boston has an opioid and homelessness crisis — one it has not nearly faced up to — and its broken heart is here.
At Mass. and Cass, the area near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, a sprawling tent city has sprung up, home now to scores of people. It isn’t a huge encampment by the standards of other cities with similar troubles, but for Boston it is unprecedented and blatant, an emblem of civic failure. Desperation, squalor, and need fill the streets by day, with needles being stuck into veins almost everywhere you look. Danger rules the night.
Despair is a 24/7 business in this part of town.
Every now and then, a person exits a tent with a bucket of human waste and dumps it onto the side of the street. Anecdotes of street violence and prostitution are commonplace. Theft is seemingly a way of life. People don’t have to search very long for hard drugs; in this marketplace of dependencies, drugs find them.
“People are yelling out the drugs that they have so you know what to buy,” says one man who lives in a tent and is addicted to fentanyl.
A brooding sadness pervades the atmosphere; also, an undercurrent of rage. The ill will of the people here has many targets: parents, drug dealers, neighbors, police, former bosses, former landlords, politicians, outreach and case workers, homeless shelters, the media, themselves. Their lives have derailed in a very big way, and they mourn that. But society has failed them, too, and they are angry.
On some matters, there is consensus. Those who have been around the place for years say this is the most populated they’ve seen “the Ave,” as the area is often called by those who live there. They point to the 2014 closure of the Long Island Bridge, a span that long connected the mainland to homeless and addiction programming on the island, as the main reason so many live on these streets.
For years, the city has tried to fight the array of complex problems in the area, which is near where Roxbury, the South End, and Dorchester meet, and has become home to a cluster of social services. But conversations with more than two dozen people who live on these streets made this much clear: The crisis here only worsened during the pandemic. There are more people, bringing all their troubles with them — and, in some cases, their criminal ways and depravity.
There is a galaxy of stories to take in. Some seem too devastating to be true, but plainly are. But some come with narrators who are plainly unreliable — or evasive. One guy claims he is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm but then gives his age as 31, which means he would have been a newborn at the time of that conflict. A woman says her husband is Russian, only to say minutes later he is Nigerian. Prison sentences, stays at halfway houses, stints of sobriety, and court dates are often jumbled. Mental health issues abound. Many, in interviews, decline to give their full names or offer a street sobriquet, for reasons that are probably obvious. Others offer their names freely to a Globe reporter.
Some dream of a different life, as an illustrator, a bicycle rickshaw driver, a carpenter, a chef, an interior decorator. But for now, addiction controls them, and erases other ambitions.
What to do for the people of Mass. and Cass, and with this part of the city, has become a big issue in Boston politics, especially now, during election season. Rebuilding the Long Island Bridge is often discussed. The county sheriff has floated the idea of converting a detention center into temporary housing with treatment services. Others would rather spread recovery centers and shelters around the city and region, so they’re not concentrated in one place.
While the politicians debate, the daily rhythms of Mass. and Cass roll on.
“It’s complete misery,” says one man who is addicted to opioids. “Misery after misery.”
| 12:45 p.m. |
Listen: In their words
Tim tugs down his Celtics T-shirt to reveal a collarbone stuck out at an odd angle under his skin. He broke it in a fall, he says. He knows the scene here well.
“A lot of these guys are waiting to die,” he says.
He used to live on the streets; he says he’s now in transitional housing downtown. He says he’s back today for medical treatment, that he’s been sober since he was released from prison in 2016, after serving time for his fifth drunken driving offense. He says he attends a regular Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in South Boston.
He is, that is to say, making his bid for freedom, but remains current on the open-air drug market: When a passerby asks if anyone has any “johnnys,” which are pills typically prescribed for seizures and nerve pain, among other ailments, he gestures toward an intersection and tells the man to look for a “girl in light blue pants.”
A minute later, another passerby with another question: “Any poppers?” — slang for a certain type of drug that is inhaled. This Tim ignores.
A pair show up: Billy Powers and Chris. Chris says he is addicted to opioids. He does fentanyl, mainly. He’s been homeless for a decade, he says. He used to work in the trades, construction and painting.
But nowadays he panhandles. He typically stakes out a traffic island in the area and walks among the cars with a cup when vehicles are stopped at a red light. When he does get money, he spends it on drugs. But he says he hasn’t made anything in four or five days.
“It’s been dry, dude,” he says.
Powers produces a cross medallion he says he recently found on the street. He is asked if he plans on selling it. He shakes his head.
“Why?” he asks. “Are you interested in buying things?”
| 2:05 p.m. |
Listen: In their words
EMTs are holding a woman who just overdosed, trying to keep her from falling. Eventually, she is escorted to an ambulance. A gaggle of homeless people have gathered in a small concrete courtyard to watch.
While the first responders do their work, the onlookers murmur. “Please, God, let her be OK.” It took two applications of Narcan to revive her, someone says. There is speculation that the woman may have mixed benzodiazepines with fentanyl or heroin.
“Benzos don’t mix with anything,” observes one onlooker.
Joe, a 35-year-old originally from Gloucester, says scenes like this play out “10 times a day” in the area.
Joe prefers fentanyl or benzodiazepines. He tries to stay away from crack cocaine. He says that, if need be, he steals or sells drugs to get money to buy drugs.
| 2:45 p.m. |
Today Joe Golden, a 51-year-old who arrived in town from New Hampshire less than a week ago, almost lost his father’s guitar. He’s been using heroin and meth for days on Mass. and Cass. He is wired, recounting the story in a rapid-fire flow.
Yesterday, after being awake for several days in a row, he tried to sleep in an outdoor space amid an assortment of plumbing and electrical fixtures for a nearby building. He was awakened after a few hours by police, he says.
First responders took him to the hospital for what he describes as “a drug-induced psychosis.” His belongings were left on the street, a toolbelt and a backpack with all his worldly possessions. And his father’s guitar.
“I was hating humanity when I woke up,” he says.
But then, a miracle. Back on the street, Golden ran into a man carrying his guitar. Perhaps even more miraculous, he convinced the guy that it belonged to him, and the man gave it up willingly, according to Golden.
He strums it, playing a loose, bluesy shuffle. It is woefully out-of-tune and missing a string. Golden could not care less about the sound. He considers its recovery “the craziest thing.” An act of God.
| 3:31 p.m. |
Listen: In their words
On a side street wedged between an industrial expanse and the county jail, not far from the interstate, a bunch of people have been forced to move their tents from one side of the road to the other. Some are dragging their belongings down the street in bags and wheeled suitcases.
Other tents will have to be moved soon to make way for a truck carrying thousands of pounds of flour, which is scheduled to make a delivery to the building, where the flour will be processed into noodles, abutting the row of tents along Topeka Street’s west side.
Nearby, city officials are tacking up fliers reading: “Due to health, environmental and sanitary concerns at Topeka St., the city of Boston will conduct a general cleanup of this public space.”
All items, it announces, must be removed within two days.
Kitti Malone, a 36-year-old mother of two who grew up on Cape Cod, has just finished getting high. She emerges from her tent. There is detritus in the street and on the sidewalk — syringes, a tube of toothpaste, a large brown puddle with a bag of Kleenex floating next to the mesh wrapping for oranges. She is irate at the city for, in her view, treating people as though they were roadside trash.
“Why do they see us as scum of the earth?” she asks.
She is addicted to heroin and cocaine, she says. She has purple bruising around her neck from shooting up. She receives a Social Security check that she uses to buy drugs. Prices vary, but typically a gram of opioids goes for $40 on the street, she says, while the same amount of crack or powder cocaine goes for $60-$70. In a roundabout way, she mentions making money via more illicit avenues.
“If somebody hands me something and says, ‘Here, get some money,’ I do it that way, too,” she said. “I try not to because you can catch a case and you get in more trouble. And I try to stay out of trouble.”
She moved down to Mass. and Cass about a month ago. The apartment where she and her partner were previously living was rat- and roach-infested; moving down to the Ave just seemed easier. Her children do not live with her.
She’d like to write a book, she says, but how can she? Notebooks and pens would just get stolen.
| 4:34 p.m. |
Listen: In their words
Many pine for a better life. Yvette G., 46, has been living on the streets off and on for 14 years. She is addicted to heroin and cocaine and says she typically overdoses multiple times a year.
“I try to deal with myself, try to be a better person, but the system don’t let you,” she says.
She rails against a local homeless shelter. When they didn’t give her the help she needed, she says, she relapsed, and when she got clean, the shelter wouldn’t take her back. Why she was barred is unclear, one of the many unanswered questions on Atkinson Street today. (Local shelters ban people for periods of time for various offenses, including violent behavior, threats, stealing, weapons, drug use, or possession of contraband such as syringes. Different shelters have different rules.)
“Why don’t they help me?” she asks.
Now, she is back to using; she got high a couple hours ago.
She says someone in the area beat her up and threatened to kill her in recent days, but she doesn’t want to get into specifics.
While Yvette talks, a woman 6 feet away is plunging a needle into the neck of a tattooed man who is sitting on an orange dolly, the kind you’d find at Home Depot. His heads lolls to the side.
Five minutes later, he is hunched over and shooting up into his lower right arm. Five minutes after that, he is retching on the sidewalk. People walk by without a second glance. Ten minutes later he is gone.
“This is the reality,” Yvette is saying, gesturing to the tents on Atkinson Street.
| 4:53 p.m. |
Listen: In their words
Richard Cabral, 56, is musing on the corrosive nature of addiction, how it can decay a person’s character. Growing up in public housing in Somerville, he says, he had five sisters and a mother who would “kill me . . . if I smoked a cigarette.”
That was before his armed robberies, his burglaries, his prison stints, and the addiction that fed it all, he says.
“I grew up with morals and everything else, but addiction can take that right away from you,” he says. “It can take the nicest person in the world and turn them into the biggest animal.”
He hates to see the teenage girls selling themselves to get high. They usually end up getting controlled by the dealers, and hang around in tents for days, he says.
“It’s a shame,” he says. “You don’t see one parent down here looking for their kids.”
He’s been down here nine years. Nowadays, he is mostly preoccupied with finding a quiet place to sleep. There used to be a grassy strip along Melnea Cass. But after an increase in mayhem in the area — multiple stabbings and fires, and more people living on the streets — a fence was erected, leaving one less spot to crash.
There is plenty of room at both of the shelters the city runs nearby; authorities say no one would be turned away because of insufficient capacity at either place. But Cabral, like many others here, doesn’t like to stay in shelters. His stuff gets stolen, he says.
Of course, sleeping outside can be dangerous. He mentions that a tent with people inside it caught fire recently, one of two tent blazes the city’s fire department says it responded to in recent weeks in the area.
And people steal on the streets, too. One person who is addicted to opioids volunteered that some people work in teams, circling around someone who appears to be nodding off, and waiting to make sure they’re unconscious before boosting a backpack or other personal effects.
“They’re willing to stab you, willing to take whatever you got, if they need it,” he says.
On Southampton Street, Cabral says he used to use heroin but is on methadone now. He used hard drugs a few months ago, when he missed a methadone dose.
“I still play around when I shouldn’t,” he says, as police cars fly down the street, sirens shredding the air.
| 5:13 p.m. |
Listen: In their words
Seated atop an air mattress covered with blankets and a teddy bear, is a couple who appear relaxed, content even, despite the chaos outside. The tent’s interior is gray, and relatively spacious. The pair flick their cigarettes periodically into an ash tray.
Emily just finished smoking crack cocaine with her partner, who goes by Magic. Magic says crack helps him stay awake and, he admits, sometimes it “scares the shit out of” him.
Emily finds the drug to have a calming effect. She needs that.
“This right here,” Emily says, referring to the wider world outside her tent, “this is stress, like, at its finest.”
On the Ave, she says, constant vigilance is essential.
Magic went into rehab late last year for a heroin addiction, but slipped once he got out. If he did something good, he felt like rewarding himself, with a drink, some weed, some coke, or some dope. His main focus now is to not overdose.
“Old habits die hard,” he says.
He pulls some of his paraphernalia from a bag throughout a half-hour interview: a thin glass pipe he calls a stem he uses to smoke crack from, then a “tina” pipe. “Tina” being crystal methamphetamine. There is a 9-iron on the floor of the tent. He is asked if the golf club is for self-defense, and he pulls out some knives from his pouch and holds them. You can never be too cautious around here, he says.
The previous day, a man was robbed and stabbed on Topeka Street. The victim, according to a police report, was attacked by two men and suffered cuts on his hands, a sliced bottom lip, and a puncture wound on his buttocks. His iPhone was stolen in the melee, and someone threw a cinderblock through the drivers’ side window of his car, dented a door, and slashed a tire, police said.
“You never know if something is going to happen,” Magic says. “If your life is going to be put on the line.”
“I love my life, man.”
| 6:52 p.m. |
Listen: In their words
Blue lights are bouncing off buildings along Massachusetts Avenue, and a man who asks to be called Hugo — it is not his real name — is standing at the corner of a U-Haul parking lot watching a man he knows get cuffed by police.
The police report written up later explains: The area is a known place where people buy and sell sex, and a woman’s observed behavior was “consistent with that activity.” The man approached the woman; eventually both got into a parked white Pontiac. The woman emerged after about 25 minutes. The man told cops he knew the woman; he was charged with motor vehicle violations.
Hugo, 29, first started using painkillers for back problems while he was still playing basketball in his late teens. It was a straight shot from there to addiction, he says. He used to be an HVAC technician and had about five years’ sobriety under his belt, with the help of suboxone, an opiate blocker, but relapsed after a bad breakup with his girlfriend of 10 years.
Hugo came down here to score hard drugs, fixed someone’s tent zipper, and was invited to stay in someone’s tent. That was four or five months ago.
“Some of us suck at handling life on life’s terms,” he says.
He tries to wake up early, before dawn, and sweep the streets for $30. He isn’t even sure who pays him, whether it’s the city or another organization. The first five people chosen for that task are the ones who get paid, he says. That $30 usually feeds him for the day and helps maintain his habit, he says. But even that is not guaranteed.
“I haven’t been getting picked recently,” he says.
He subsists chiefly on snacks. He plans to eat a granola bar for dinner. He’d like to get clean again, but also acknowledges the last time he snorted fentanyl. It was 10 minutes ago.
| 9:44 p.m. |
Listen: In their words
Juan Maisonet is sitting on the sidewalk, his back up against the wall of a convenience store. He is doodling in a coloring book. He has a box of markers, pens, and colored pencils. The page has ferns in various greens, and a few red flowers. In the center of the sheet, a message reads: “Haters gonna hate.”
He finds drawing to be relaxing, and says that it’s satisfying to be able to complete a task.
“I can sit in a trashy area and make the best of it,” he says.
As a man and woman use intravenous drugs a few feet away, Maisonet says he is sober. He is prescribed suboxone, and he credits the COVID-19 pandemic with saving his life. He was in a treatment program, and the public health emergency meant the program got extended, which meant he was able to get months more of sobriety under his belt.
He has run afoul of the law in the past. He says he used to rob people. There have been times when he has appeared in court and hoped that the judge would send him to jail instead of back on the streets. At least in jail, he would get three square meals a day and a bed to sleep on.
His addictions are various: booze, heroin, crack, meth. Now 39, Maisonet says he has been homeless since he was 12. Both his parents, he says, were drug dealers, and he cycled through state agencies whose aim is to help and protect kids.
He laments the lack of showers in the area, and suggests that the city should offer lockers for homeless people to stave off the constant thefts.
“The government can make the homeless feel human again,” he says. “It’s animalistic out here.”
He doesn’t have a plan to fix it all. Some on the Ave, he says, want to be here.
“A lot of these people can’t take of themselves.”
| 10:12 p.m. |
A man who identifies himself only as Rico is trying to keep the inhumanity at bay in his own way. He is sweeping up the side of the street, pushing broken glass into a pile, alone. He’s been homeless for 52 days, after being evicted from his last residence. He could have fought the eviction, he says, but was afraid of the police coming to his home and busting him for drugs.
Sweeping the area helps him maintain a sense of normalcy. He feels it’s important to “have a little bit of pride in my piece of sidewalk.”
The indifference of the outside world weighs on him.
“Even you, you might be writing your piece, but if I told you, ‘Hey, listen, man, I’m homeless, can I take a shower at your house?’ It’s not going to happen,” he says. “Nobody cares.”
| 10:44 p.m. |
In the dark, a crew of people shoot opioids into their veins. One woman is passed out, her cheek pressed up against the sidewalk pavement, her legs and arms stuck out at odd angles.
Shortly after Ryan Jordan, 37, finishes getting his fix, a sedan rolls up and stops. The driver asks if he’s hungry. Jordan stands and, with blood still dripping from a hole in his right arm, his left hand still clenching a syringe, accepts a pizza box from the man, who drives off.
“Happens all the time,” Jordan says of the free food.
Jordan has struggled with addiction for years, since he first tried OxyContin that was passed around a high school locker room on the North Shore.
He remembers, with some nostalgia, what it used to be like, when people without homes and those suffering from addiction would be bused to Long Island for help and a clean place to sleep, before the bridge’s abrupt closure shut the whole operation down.
Once his bus crossed over the bridge onto Long Island, he felt relief; at least for the day, the struggle was over, he says. The island also reduced the number of people who were in the streets of Boston at night, and the addiction programming at Long Island, he says, was great.
“Like gold at the end of the rainbow,” he says.
He ponders the irony of making people come down to this area to get drugs, like methadone, to wean them off of their addictions. Come to Mass. and Cass to get sober. He shakes his head.
A man walks by peddling new Timberland boots. A bit later, a woman strolls past with an electric stun gun, periodically hitting the trigger, making the device zap.
| 12:40 a.m. |
Listen: In their words
It’s a new day, by the clock, at least. A guy named Charles who has declined to give his last name is trying to sell a black Adidas sweat shirt he says he stole. He wants $15 for it.
He’s been down here off and on for about three years, ever since his Section 8 subsidy was cut, he says. He mostly sleeps outside.
What is his plan for when it gets cold? He pushes air out between his teeth.
“Do the best I can, man,” he says. “Lot of blankets.”
Winter is just around the corner.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to benzodiazepines as opioids.
Laura Crimaldi of the Globe staff contributed to this report.