Conditions in the chronically troubled area of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard have “gotten to a new level of public safety alarm,” Mayor Michelle Wu said Wednesday, as she revealed that the city is “planning to take a major step” to address safety threats in the neighborhood.
Wu described “drug trafficking, human trafficking, and violence taking place,” as well as “the storage of weapons, potentially” that present risks for outreach workers and nonprofit teams there to offer services. Conditions have recently grown so dangerous that she said outreach organizations have pulled their teams off the street.
“We have to get going on a different approach,” Wu acknowledged in a livestreamed interview on the online “Java with Jimmy” show. “This is the issue that I feel like we’ve been pouring a lot into, and have to make a judgment call that we need to reorient and really find the approach that’s going to make a big difference.”
But Wu did not elaborate about what her new plan will involve, after concentrating for the last two years on a public health-centered approach that aimed to quickly move people grappling with addiction and homelessness into transitional housing. Wu’s office declined an interview request, and neither the Boston Police Department, Boston Public Health Commission, nor Boston Emergency Medical Services would describe how the city plans to address the escalating concerns.
Public health workers and people who live in the area said Wednesday that they have been overwhelmed by open-air drug dealing and use, as well as an environment they described as more violent.
“The atmosphere has changed,” said Sue Sullivan, head of the Newmarket Business Improvement District, which collects money from local companies for cleaning and security efforts. Sullivan, who is regularly in the neighborhood and employs some people who live on the street to clean it, described a “different dynamic” in an area that once felt more like a community.
“It’s definitely more dangerous — more knives, more guns,” she said.
Matthew Anderson, who heads the Boston EMS union and works a night shift, said most calls in the area are overdoses, but some are assaults. Anderson said one of his colleagues was kicked in the face on a recent call, and others have suffered bumps and bruises.
“It just keeps escalating,” he said. “It’s bad . . . it’s bad.”
Police said at least 10 assaults have been reported in the area over the past month, including three stabbings. Spokesperson Mariellen Burns said officers have seized knives, bats, and metal pipes — all items people said were for self-defense.
The conditions present serious risks for people on the street, as well as local businesses and outreach workers. They also mark a major setback for Wu, who campaigned for mayor on a pledge to heal the humanitarian crisis and has made the area a priority since she took office in 2021. The mayor has worked to secure housing and treatment for the hundreds of people who gather there daily, and cleared the area of encampments with regular sweeps. But as risks increase, she has been forced to acknowledge that the city’s current approach isn’t working.
“All of the non-city teams have said in the last few weeks the situation has gotten so dangerous that we are pulling our people out — we cannot be in there,” Wu said Wednesday. “Even those who are experts and do this every single day have said it’s reached a new level that is untenable.”
On Wednesday afternoon, encampments lined Atkinson Street and part of Southampton Street. People used intravenous drugs or smoked glass pipes typically used for crack in and around tents, under tarps and umbrellas.
The orange caps from syringes and blue saline-solution cartridges used to clean them were scattered across the ground like macabre confetti. A man walked down Atkinson Street with an aluminum baseball bat over his shoulder. Everyone stayed out of his way.
One woman slapped the leg of a man falling to his side on the curb of Southampton Street.
“Wake up,” she said. “We’re about to give you Narcan.”
He didn’t respond. Then the woman administered the drug, meant to reverse opioid overdoses.
Down the sidewalk, Michael Curley and Shaina Faretra stood at the periphery of the crowded street, weathering the hot sun. Both said they worry about stabbings, but have continued coming back to the area because they don’t know where else to go.
“I want to move away, but this is where everything is,” Faretra said, referring to the services, including methadone clinics, that are centralized around Mass. and Cass and have historically drawn people to the area.
In the long term, Wu aims to decentralize services and increase housing options across the city. But one major effort, her push to rebuild a large recovery campus on Boston’s Long Island, has been stalled by ongoing friction with Quincy.
In the meantime, critics are pressing the mayor to do more.
City Council President Ed Flynn on Wednesday called for a public safety and public health emergency declaration.
And Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association president Larry Calderone said “a new plan to better protect all impacted was long overdue.”
“The level of violence, drug use, and risk of exposure has never been higher,” he added.
Sullivan, from the business district, said the city needs to “stop the open-air drug trade and encampments, plain and simple.”
On Wednesday afternoon, as Sullivan spoke with a Globe reporter in a car near Atkinson Street, a man she pays to sweep the street was accosted around the corner, for an unknown reason. A woman confronted him and broke the rake he was using to clean the area.
Clarification: Because of inaccurate information provided to the Globe, previous versions of this story may not have accurately represented the number of EMS calls to the area in recent months.