A year ago, organizers of a youth football program became so frustrated with the conditions at Roxbury’s Clifford Park, just down the street from the drug-torn intersection called Mass. and Cass, that they merged with a team from Brookline and Jamaica Plain so they wouldn’t have to practice there anymore.
The Boston Bengals have returned to the park, only to find the drug use and discarded needles have grown “10 times worse,” said Domingos DaRosa, president of the Pop Warner football program. Before every practice, coaches walk up and down the field picking up dirty needles.
“The place is a disaster,” said DaRosa, 45. “This is something you can clean a hundred times a day, and you’ll still miss a hundred needles.”
Furious over the persistent blight, DaRosa took matters into his own hands earlier this month, hanging yellow caution tape and signs warning that the park was too dangerous to use.
“Please stop. This park is not safe for use,” the signs read in all-capital letters. “Play area is contaminated with bodily fluids like blood, urine, and feces which is a health hazard especially for small children. Please be aware of discarded needles.”
The situation is a grim spillover from the protracted crisis surrounding the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, an area plagued by rampant drug use, homelessness, and sex trafficking. In January, city crews removed the sprawling tent encampments and tried to steer the people living there into transitional housing. But the area remains the center of the area’s opioid crisis, a place where recovery services and drug dealers vie for supremacy. And Clifford Park, which has softball and baseball diamonds, tennis and basketball courts, and a playground, is a magnet for drug use.
DaRosa said that he has seen needles appear 10 minutes after crews clean up the grounds, and that it’s frustrating that drug users seem to have access to an endless supply.
“The needle exchange programs could be doing more than just handing them out,” he said. “There needs to be an exchange. Those needles end up on street corners, they wind up everywhere.”
DaRosa said police make their presence known at the park but don’t stop people from doing drugs there.
“There has to be law and order,” he said. “They’re free to do as they choose because there’s no consequences. I’m not asking to send them to prison. There’s not enough actual working services.”
Last week before practice, DaRosa picked up five used needles. A homeless man, who receives 20 cents for each needle he returns to a syringe buy-back program, picked up dozens more.
Mayor Michelle Wu’s office said the city has taken a number of steps to address the problems. Police monitor the area and maintenance staff try to remove litter as soon as they can. The city’s “mobile sharps team” sweeps the park twice a day, and a recovery services outreach team canvasses the neighborhood every morning and afternoon, offering people access to treatment and shelter. Crews from the Newmarket Business Improvement District clean up the park on weekend mornings and three times a day on weekdays.
But specialists say cleaning up the needles doesn’t address the root of the problem.
“Nobody wants to get stuck with a needle on the ground of a park — it’s terrifying and upsetting, even if the risk of illness is minuscule,” Dr. Michael Stein, professor and chair of health law, policy, and management at the Boston University School of Public Health, said by e-mail. “The solution is not perpetual cleanup, it’s upstream. Until more people who use drugs are on treatment, until homelessness is minimized, until there are more places to discard needles . . . or safe injection sites are sanctioned and perhaps incentivized, there will be needles.”
Critics say safe injection sites, where people can use illicit drugs they have obtained elsewhere under medical supervision, will encourage illegal drug use and harm the surrounding area. But some Massachusetts lawmakers support the idea, saying it would reduce overdoses and help steer people into treatment.
Calls for the sites have grown as the number of opioid-related deaths has climbed to record heights. In June, a new report from the state public health department found that opioid-related deaths surged by 9 percent in 2021 to 2,290. Overdose deaths in Massachusetts quadrupled between 2010 and 2016.
Whether federal law prohibits such sites is unclear. The first two sanctioned safe consumption sites in the country opened in New York City in November. The Trump administration in 2019 sued to stop a safe injection site in Philadelphia, but the Biden administration has said it is evaluating such facilities and might be open to allowing them.
Dr. Miriam Harris, an assistant professor of medicine at the BU School of Medicine and an addiction expert at Boston Medical Center, said multiple studies show that safe consumption sites reduce public drug use and prevent overdoses, which in turn reduces crime and the number of discarded needles. They also help connect people who use drugs to treatment and services.
“I do not think municipalities can wait for state or federal ‘sanctions.’ I believe that communities will have to come together and take action at the hyperlocal level,” Harris said by e-mail. “We need to take action and get ‘permission’ from the government later, not the reverse.”