Each morning, dozens of people — many of them homeless and in the throes of addiction — make their way to Atkinson Street, a side street that runs past a homeless shelter. Some come to this distressed corner of Boston known as “Mass. and Cass” looking for opioids, syringes in hand. Some come to sell them. And some make their way to the nearby engagement center, where outreach workers offer hot coffee, warm shelter, and an introduction to services the city offers.
Just over a month ago, Tim Galligan was among them. The 43-year-old had been sleeping in a tent at the triangle at nearby Newmarket Square. His was the second tent erected in August in what evolved over a matter of months into an encampment of dozens of others, housing as many as 40 people. Another 40-some people slept overnight in tents on Atkinson Street. It was a place of shattered hopes by day, and grave dangers by night, when, Galligan says, the “wolves came out.” Drug dealers. Thieves.
“They’d rob you for a hat,” he said.
These days — one month since Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration finished clearing out the encampments — Galligan is working, and has warm housing. He sweeps and cleans the neighborhood a few hours a day for the Newmarket Business Association, and he also works a few hours a week at a local warehouse. After city crews cleared the tents, he helped sweep up the leftover trash.
At night, he has a meal and a room at the Roundhouse Hotel, one of the temporary housing sites the city set up to help people transition to something more stable.
“It’s good to get up in the morning, and have something to do,” he said one recent morning, while cleaning Atkinson and Southampton streets of trash. He’s still working toward his recovery, but things aren’t like before. “It’s been so much better,” he said.
Galligan is one of more than 154 people living in the encampments as recently as January who have transitioned to temporary housing, a number that does not include many former Mass. and Cass residents who were reunited with their families. City officials say it is the first step toward long-term recovery for the individuals, and for the neighborhood.
But the daily signs of vagrancy that persist throughout the area are also a reminder of the work still to be done to address a crisis of substance abuse addiction, mental illness, and homelessness that has long haunted the area by the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. Over the last two days, as temperatures warmed, people flocked to the area — many openly shooting drugs.
In recent weeks, nearby residents and business owners reported flashes of vandalism and vagrancy, of people sleeping in their doorways and urinating on their buildings. A police sergeant was assaulted. Someone smashed windows at a nearby hotel. Police arrested two people for allegedly dealing significant amounts of heroin and fentanyl, one of whom allegedly had a gun.
Community leaders who have been working for nearly a decade on a neighborhood committee to address the crisis say the area has been transformed in many ways since the tents were cleared out. But the lingering vandalism and vagrancy raise fears that the encampments will return in the spring, when warmer weather arrives to stay.
Of particular concern to these leaders is the dense concentration of health care providers and homeless shelters in the area that serve as a destination for those who need them but also attract the drug dealers who prey on the addicted, on those struggling to stay sober — a vicious cycle of temptation that, neighbors say, existed at Mass. and Cass long before the first tent ever went up. The area encompasses two for-profit methadone clinics, health care clinics that serve the homeless, addiction treatment programs at Boston Medical Center, two homeless shelters, and a needle exchange program — the only one in Boston.
The 2014 closure of the bridge to Long Island, home to a recovery campus with hundreds of beds, only exacerbated the problems, residents say, and so did the subsequent placement of the homeless shelter at 112 Southampton Street. It was supposed to be a temporary remedy for the arrival of hundreds of people in the area, after Long Island closed.
“The neighborhoods by and large are skeptical because every single service that has been brought to Mass. and Cass has been brought to be a temporary service, but has ended up being permanent,” said Steve Fox, of the South End Forum, an umbrella organization for the network of neighborhood groups in the area.
“We think decentralization [of services] is the most important thing we can do in terms of addressing Mass. and Cass,” he said.
Bill Lim, the owner of the Sunoco gas station who began to lock his door two years ago to keep people from loitering about, added, “The more services you have, the more problems you’re going to have.”
Last week, the City Council agreed to hold a public hearing to examine whether City Hall should offer tax abatements for residents and business owners who have dealt for years with the “horrific conditions,” as one councilor put it.
“Taxpayers do deserve a high level of basic city services, and to some degree I believe we’ve dropped the ball here,” said Councilor Michael Flaherty, who proposed the hearing.
City officials say they recognize the concerns. After she took office in November, Wu appointed Dr. Monica Bharel, a former Massachusetts commissioner of public health, to oversee the effort to clear out the tents and to develop a longer-term plan to address the crisis. In January, Wu, Bharel, and other city officials toured Long Island, to explore the possibility of rebuilding the recovery campus.
More recently, Bharel has been hosting a series of listening sessions with community groups and also with people who had been living at the encampments, to determine their needs and how to address them. She said Boston police have been part of the city’s response, which she described as a balance between a public health-focused effort and the serious need to enforce laws and address crime.
New patrols have been established around the Roundhouse. Last week, city crews and street workers — including Galligan — erected a fence around the back lot of New Market Pizza, where people have been dumping trash.
Bharel said the clear out of the tents on Jan. 12 was an immediate, urgent response to address the public safety and health problems that the encampments presented. Imagine, she said, if people had still been living there during the recent blizzard.
But she also emphasized the need for a long-term plan to address a crisis of homelessness and substance abuse that poses problems across the region — not just at Mass. and Cass. Though she acknowledged concerns with the use of the Roundhouse Hotel as a temporary housing site, so close to the epicenter of the opioid crisis, she said the city has deployed six different sites across Boston to help people transition.
“Our solutions, we want them to be citywide,” she said.
What’s remarkable, she said, is that the people who have moved to transitional housing have stayed there, or moved somewhere more permanent. One person whose social worker feared she would never enter recovery has since started methadone treatment. One man whom Bharel encountered in his tent before Jan. 12 has been living in new housing and has progressed to the point, she said, that “he looked like a new man.”
“We have seen progress, but this is the beginning of the work,” she said.
No tents have returned since the Jan. 12 clear-out, she said. And if there were an attempt to erect one, she said, the city now has the blueprint to intervene and provide better care.
The forces that caused the crisis at Mass. and Cass go beyond geography, said Barry Bock, CEO of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, which operates health care clinics for the homeless, including at shelters in the area. The problems that those in the encampments face, he said, are rooted in greater societal ailments that need to be addressed: decades-long federal disinvestment in public housing; unproductive and racist drug laws; and the stigma that hinders investments in treating addiction and mental illness.
Bock said his organization has worked closely with Wu and Bharel, and social workers interact closely with those in need. He endorsed the public health-led approach. But he stressed that Boston can’t do it alone. Federal authorities will have to support the response to what has become a nationwide crisis, with large encampments in Seattle and San Francisco, Portland and Los Angeles.
So, what happens next?
“I think Mayor Wu is asking that as well,” he said. But, he added, “The initial approach needs to be a sustained approach. … And it needs to be developed on a scale that will really be impactful.” More transitional housing options, with wraparound services. A continuity of services, from detox to permanent homes. Unlike other cities with much larger concentrations of homeless people, “It feels manageable in Boston,” he said.
During a recent listening session with community leaders from the South End, Roxbury, and Newmarket — the committee that was formed nine years ago in response to the crisis — Bharel asked the same question: What should the city be doing to address the crisis? What works? Where are the gaps?
Some called for the decentralization of services from Mass. and Cass, saying a proposal to offer needle exchange programs at community health centers around the city has languished for six years. Others pointed to the need for sustained housing options, for detox beds and permanent housing. Many said the city needs to address the open-air drug dealing, a haunting temptation for people who are suffering from drug addiction and head to the area for services. It’s like holding an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting outside of a liquor store, as one business owner put it.
“That’s the most difficult thing,” said Sue Sullivan, head of the Newmarket Business Association, who said her organization has considered installing cameras in the area to help monitor vandalism, after someone started breaking windows.
Sullivan organizes many of the laborers who head out with her for a few hours a day to clean the neighborhood. She first met many of them when they were living in the tents; she’s worked with Galligan for several months, and he’s essentially become her foreman. Recently, they and a half dozen other workers walked together from Southampton to Atkinson Street, clearing trash from the snowbanks.
Sullivan feels cautious hope that the latest attempt to clear out the area will provide relief — for the residents and business owners and the people on the streets who need help. Some of them, like Galligan, have small jobs now. They have housing. A chance at recovery.
“I look forward to the mornings,” Galligan chimed in, tossing trash into a barrel.