Last Tuesday, four officers assigned to the Boston Police Department’s antigang unit patrolling the area known as Mass. and Cass noticed a man who stood out among the crowd gathered outside a city-run center for the homeless.
The man wore a North Face winter coat and clean shoes, not like the others who frequent the area in soiled clothing and footwear. He was arrested after police saw him reaching into his backpack for what they feared was a weapon. Officers said they confiscated dozens of bags of heroin and cocaine and a loaded handgun.
To residents and business owners in the area, the incident underscores the pervasiveness of drug dealing and other crime weeks after city officials cleared the area of a homeless encampment and steered people into temporary housing and treatment programs. They warned the ongoing problems will undermine the city’s efforts and even invite a return of the crisis if the area isn’t rid of the drug dealers and the toxic environment they instigate.
Residents and business owners are particularly worried about the return of warmer weather. During a break in the bitter cold stretch recently, the area once again saw flashes of violence and vandalism. Over Wednesday night, 10 windows at the Hampton Inn hotel on Massachusetts Avenue were broken. The owner of a nearby construction company said his front doors were blocked by people sleeping or knocked out from drugs. His windows were broken too, and human feces littered his property. He’s reported drug deals right outside his window.
“We need help,” said the owner, Gerry DiPierro, of DiPierro Construction. “It’s going back to what it used to be.”
The officers of the gang unit said in their arrest reports that they have been patrolling the area because of increasing concerns over reports of violence, including gunshots.
“The area is known for drug deals to pray [sic] on the homeless as well as persons who suffer from drug addiction,” police said in a report. “Dealers from all neighborhoods frequent the area to take advantage of the open drug market in the area . . . which often result in firearm violence.”
The incident on Tuesday occurred near a city-run homeless shelter and an engagement center that has become a gathering spot for the homeless — and a target for drug dealers.
It was a typical Mass. and Cass scene: A crowd of people, many of them homeless judging by their threadbareclothing and footwear, carrying large bags and trudging along the half block between the engagement center and the shelter. Some were stumbling, appearing disoriented, likely high on drugs. A few were holding syringes.
In their report, police said the man who stood out from the crowd was toting a small blue bag. No one else was around him, and he “didn’t seem to have any other purpose in the area,” according to the police.
“Officers noticed that the suspect appeared to have clean attire and did not appear to be homeless,” the officers said.
According to the narrative depicted in their arrest reports, the man appeared “hypervigilant” as the officers approached in their dark SUV, staring at the vehicle as if he was trying to determine who was inside.
He later told officers he was trying to determine who they were: Police detectives? Rival drug dealers?
Then he reached inside his bag. Fearing he was going for a gun, officers wrote, they jumped out of the SUV to confront him and he started to run. During the chase, one officer was able to grab the backpack, while his colleagues chased the man to just outside the engagement center.
Inside the bag, police said, they found a loaded 9mm Glock .45 handgun, as well as 66 small bags of heroin and 15 small bags of crack cocaine.
The man was identified as Felix Santos-Ejiogu, 21, of Roxbury. He was arraigned in Roxbury District Court on multiple counts including unlawful possession of a firearm and carrying a loaded firearm, and intent to sell heroin and crack cocaine. He was ordered held pending a dangerous hearing on Monday.
The episode shows the quandary facing police as Mayor Michelle Wu, with encouragement from civil liberties groups and social justice advocates, emphasizes a public health and housing-first focus in cleaning up the area. Many of those who deal drugs in the area suffer from substance abuse addiction themselves, or mental illness, or both.
The city, advocates say, can’t arrest its way out of a public health crisis without offering help to those in need. Past attempts have failed; the tents, the crime, the drug dealing always return. The tent clear-out in January, city officials say, was only the first stage of what will be a concerted effort to bring stability to the area.
Neighbors remain skeptical, and frustrated. Last week, during a community meeting with city officials, neighborhood leaders from the South End, Roxbury, and Newmarket Square voiced concerns with Boston Medical Center’s plan to open a clinic at the Roundhouse hotel on Massachusetts Avenue, where the city and the hospital are also offering temporary transitional housing. They say the city will be not able to truly help those in need without first controlling the drug market.
“There is not enough confidence that we’re ready for what’s going to come around the corner and hit us in the face in March and April,” said Steve Fox, of the South End. “What’s our plan?”
Police Lieutenant Peter Messina, head of the street outreach unit, said during last week’s meeting that he recognized the residents’ and merchants’ concerns. But he insisted he has seen improvements since the tent encampments were cleared. New fencing is going up around some areas where people loiter.
“We are doing everything we can within our parameters to change what’s happening in the area . . . but you have to understand what’s happening in this area, it doesn’t just change overnight,” he said.
Police need help from prosecutors and the courts too, Messina added; too often officers see suspects back on the streets after an arrest, laughing at them.
“It can’t just be us,” said Messina, asking for both patience and vigilance. Report what you see, he said.