Standing only a few blocks from clusters of tents and scores of people struggling with homelessness and drug addiction Sunday afternoon, mayoral contender Annissa Essaibi George announced her new plan to grapple with the unfolding humanitarian crisis that has seized the city’s Mass. and Cass area.
Her proposal, which calls for declaring a Public Health Emergency Zone within a 1-mile area around the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, would also create a “Mass. and Cass czar” in the Boston Public Health Commission, who would report directly to the city’s mayor, Essaibi George said during the campaign event.
Police cruisers with flashing lights were parked nearby and people milled about in the middle of the roadways. Many who gathered around the tents and on sidewalks showed obvious signs of distress.
“We need to help those who are struggling: those who have been victimized, those who have been raped, those who’ve been assaulted, and respond to the cries and the needs from the families and the people who love them,” Essaibi George told reporters after her speech. “We have got to do this work, and we have to do it quickly.”
Essaibi George’s rival, fellow City Councilor Michelle Wu, highlighted her own plan that morning in response to a reporter’s question during a campaign event to promote her Green New Deal vision for the city with US Senator Edward Markey in South Boston’s Moakley Park.
Wu said her plan for Mass. and Cass includes creating a Cabinet-level position to ensure accountability, outreach services to help get people off the streets, and partnerships to support access to treatment across the city.
“This is an urgent issue, and we are going to put everything we have into making sure that there is accountability and there is leadership,” she said.
People have lived on the streets in the area for years, but issues there have drastically escalated since the 2014 closure of the Long Island Bridge, which led to a rehabilitation facility that provided programs for addressing homelessness and drug addiction. And the struggles for those living on the sidewalks and side streets of the neighborhood have only deepened during the pandemic.
Essaibi George, who was joined at Sunday’s event by a phalanx of supporters, including unions representing Massachusetts nurses, Boston firefighters, Boston EMS members, and other city workers, said she had released a plan in April to address the opioid epidemic facing the city, but this one focused specifically on the Mass. and Cass area.
She has visited the area frequently for years, she said, and saw the situation around Mass. and Cass worsen with more violence and substance abuse, along with increasing numbers of tents erected along city streets.
Her updated plan, she said, would include renewed efforts to get people into recovery, greater investment in services like expanded needle exchanges and safe collection sites, as well as longer-term efforts like reimagining a Long Island treatment campus funded with federal COVID-19 relief money.
Essaibi George said she hopes for a quick end to the court fight between Boston and Quincy over rebuilding the Long Island Bridge. The island is owned by Boston, but access is through Quincy, where there has been opposition to a new bridge.
She also would like to see a “woman-specific, gender-inclusive” program to help those being victimized while living on the streets.
“I want to say very clearly that women in this neighborhood, women in this area are being violated, are being raped, are being victimized, are being abused, day in, and night out,” Essaibi George said. “And it has to stop.”
A woman walking along the nearby sidewalk approached Essaibi George after the candidate’s speech concluded, and the two spoke privately for several minutes through a chain-link fence.
In a brief follow-up interview, Essaibi George said her staff will connect with the woman about some specific needs she brought up.
“The struggle is real; it’s here; you can’t avoid it,” Essaibi George said.
Wu, whose South Boston visit Sunday morning was one of several scheduled during the day, focused largely on her plans to address climate change with Markey. But responding to a Globe reporter’s questions about Mass. & Cass, Wu said she has visited the area often over her years as a city councilor, including several times this year.
“Every time you are there, seeing the overlap of the crises we are experiencing on substance abuse, housing, [and] mental health,” Wu said. “We know Boston can do better.”
Under her plan, she said, during fall and winter, publicly owned buildings will be retrofitted so people will not have to live out in the cold. Ferry service to the treatment facility on Long Island must be reactivated, she said, noting that the issue affects other communities as well.
“This is a regional conversation, and it’s time for the city of Boston, and the mayor, to be driving that forward,” Wu said.
On Saturday, the Boston Herald reported on a Boston Police Department document that outlined how officers would identify and apprehend individuals in the Mass. and Cass area who have multiple arrest warrants out on them.
Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a Police Department spokesman, said Sunday evening that officers have been providing services in the Mass. and Cass and Newmarket Square areas 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and will continue to do so. The police document, which was obtained by the Globe Sunday, does not reflect any change in that effort, he said.
“We continue to remove violent criminals from the streets that prey upon the vulnerable community in the area,” Boyle said.
At the event Sunday afternoon, Essaibi George drew a distinction for reporters between people suffering from addiction and other crises, and those engaged in pushing drugs around Mass. and Cass.
“There are people here every single day who are suffering, and who are being constantly and continually victimized and taken advantage of by people who are selling and dealing drugs,” as part of a larger drug trade, she said. “[The dealers] need to be held accountable, they need to be arrested, and we need to deal with them through our court system and our criminal justice system.”
Wu, in response to a reporter’s question Sunday morning about the police document, said issues in the neighborhood cannot be resolved through arrests.
“We cannot address an opioid crisis and a crisis of mental illness and housing through criminalization,” Wu said. “And we will be working in close partnership with all of our city departments from a public safety, public health, and housing angle to ensure we are addressing the true causes of this issue.”
Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.