From beef to bok choy, the companies in Newmarket Square have long been associated with supplying food to grocery stores and restaurants throughout the region. Today, the area is developing a more ignominious reputation: with about 40 tents lining the square, it is the city’s newest hot spot for homeless people and drug users.
The tents started to show up two months ago, just as the city began to crack down on the main encampments several blocks away, closer to the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. Newmarket Square business owners say they’ve had their properties vandalized, and catalytic converters and batteries stolen from delivery trucks. Employees and customers no longer feel safe in the area.
The biggest concern, however, is unsanitary conditions. Loading docks are being used as bedrooms and bathrooms ― with feces, needles, and trash contaminating spaces near where food is being prepared and distributed.
“I’m surprised the board of health doesn’t come down and shut us down,” said Butch Milan, president of the Southampton Wholesale Food Terminal who also runs a ground beef manufacturer. “Ultimately, this is an area where we’re making food for the public. Our employees have to walk through human feces on a daily basis to get it into work. And then once we get into work, we have to spend at least an hour cleaning up before the USDA will allow us to open up.”
Last week Mayor Michelle Wu unveiled a plan that calls for the city to find housing for the roughly 140 people who are living in the streets in the area near Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard by Jan 12. She also vowed to restart the process of taking down tents on public property, and not allowing them to return.
Her predecessors, Martin J. Walsh and Kim Janey, also tried to clear the tents, only for them to pop up again. Will the third time be the charm for the new mayor?
Already, Wu’s plan, like any of the earlier ones for Mass. and Cass, has drawn a mixed reaction. Some praise the public health approach, while others oppose the concentration of transitional housing and drug treatment services in the area. Finding solutions for the twin scourges of homelessness and substance use were major issues during the campaign. To her credit, Wu is owning the intractable problem, even if she finds herself in a no-win situation.
Since the summer, up to 200 tents have been set up just a few blocks away from Newmarket Square, along Southampton, Topeka, and Atkinson streets. Like the food wholesalers, businesses and organizations in that stretch have felt under siege. The Greater Boston Food Bank has spent about $1 million in extra security, while Winston Flowers began paying for Uber rides for employees who rely on public transit because they were afraid of walking to and from the T stop.
Under pressure to act, the Janey administration in October began dismantling tents by the food bank and Winston Flowers. That section is still tent-free, but encampments remain on Atkinson Street by the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay and Newmarket Square.
For the food wholesalers in Newmarket, Wu’s plan couldn’t come soon enough. But they’ve heard similar promises before from City Hall, so wariness prevails. As long as the tents stay up, so does their level of frustration.
And as winter sets in, there’s a growing sense of urgency ― proprietors watch nervously as tent dwellers bring in propane gas tanks to keep warm.
Standing outside Mutual Beef, Gus Martucci points to a main gas pipeline over which homeless people have draped a tarp, and nestled into a nook to protect themselves from the elements. Martucci, whose business spans five generations of his family, is in the process of fencing off the area because he’s concerned that someone might set off an explosion.
“They try to get warm on a cold night, and they come in here and they cover up,” said Martucci, who is also president of the Massachusetts Wholesale Food Terminal. “If they made a camp fire there, we would be in big trouble.”
Martucci, who has had to deal with tent dwellers stealing boxes of meat and produce from the loading dock, said he would like to see Wu also take a public safety approach to address the encampments.
“Mayor Wu needs to get a little bit stronger, and she needs to let the police do their job,” said Martucci.
Under the city’s encampment protocol, if people refuse to vacate a tent, they could be arrested for disorderly conduct. While the Boston Police Department is helping to move tent dwellers into transitional housing, the mayor’s office has made it clear it is focused on providing shelter, drug treatment, and other health care services to get people off the streets.
With the tents have also come an open air drug market. From his second-floor office, Milan said he sees about 10 drug deals go down a day and people shooting up heroin on an hourly basis. He has given law enforcement license plate numbers and even invited them to set up a webcam in his office.
Milan and other business owners sense the police aren’t going after low-level crime. And that has only emboldened the tent dwellers.
“They know that they can get away with it, and they are taking advantage of it,” said Milan. “We’re not the police. We can’t police this.”
The problems in Newmarket Square have also caught the attention of Debbie Ho, executive director of Chinatown Main Street. She typically focuses on promoting Chinatown, but Newmarket Square is home to about a half dozen Asian American owned businesses, including Lun Fat Produce and Seafood Kingdom. Owners reached out to her as homeless and drug users began hanging out on their loading docks.
“When an Asian business owner cries out to me, I want to be able to help them, especially when . . . they speak more Chinese than they do English,” said Ho.
For her, there’s only one way to measure the success of the new mayor’s plan. “You are not making progress unless you take all the tents away,” she said.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.