It’s roughly a half-mile from Mass. and Cass to Widett Circle on the other side of the Southeast Expressway. But the secluded industrial area is a world away for the neighboring businesses and residents who want Boston to relocate the notorious open-air drug market and homeless encampment that has persisted on their doorsteps for years.
On Friday, the food suppliers and other companies in the Newmarket Business Improvement District and the neighborhood group the South End Forum will call for the city to open a multimillion-dollar, multi-stage recovery campus in Widett Circle. Once floated as the base of Boston’s ill-fated Olympics bid, Widett is effectively an island within the city, separated from the surrounding neighborhoods by a trainyard, elevated highway, and other heavy infrastructure.
“We can no longer sustain the status quo” with the drug market near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, said Sue Sullivan of the Newmarket district. “We believe this will eliminate Mass. and Cass as an activity center for drug use.”
Once home to a longstanding food wholesaler community, the Widett Circle property is now owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which plans to use it as a trainyard for the commuter rail.
A spokesperson for the MBTA deferred to the governor’s office for comment. Maura Healey spokesperson Karissa Hand said in an email that the administration is “open to hearing from stakeholders about potential pathways” for treatment and shelter for people with substance use disorder.
A spokesperson for Mayor Michelle Wu confirmed the administration met with both organizations, but did not indicate whether it supports their plan.
The groups’ proposal comes two weeks after Wu said the city would need to “reorient” its approach to conditions at Mass. and Cass in light of a surge in violence over the summer. Her administration has not proposed changes since, but said it is focusing on the criminals who have overwhelmed the homeless encampment in the neighborhood, as well as possibly banning tents.
“Residents can expect to see new approaches in the coming weeks, including increased law enforcement, to better serve the residents of the neighborhood and address persistent challenges,” the Wu spokesperson said. Boston is also attempting to revive an addiction treatment campus on Long Island in Boston Harbor.
Questions about the Widett proposal’s viability remain, including who would be responsible for public safety at the campus and transportation logistics, as there is only one access road into the circle. Further complicating the plan is that it would require collaboration among not only the city, state, and recovery organizations, but the MBTA, which in April closed on a $255 million agreement to buy the circle.
Still, the South End advocates say they’re confident in making a push.
“We can no longer wait five years for Long Island,” said Sullivan, whose organization works with many of the area’s homeless.
The city recently received a key permit to rebuild the bridge to the 35-acre recovery campus on Long Island, but it is still years away from completion.
Roughly 200 people congregate at Mass. and Cass on any given day, according to an Aug. 6 count by the city. Many are openly injecting or smoking drugs, generally around the side road of Atkinson Street, where tents remain even after the mayor’s push earlier this year to get rid of them.
Steve Fox of the South End Forum said he and Sullivan have pitched the groups’ proposal to the city, state, and MBTA recently, drawing mixed reactions. He acknowledged that the T gave the idea “not exactly what we would characterize as overwhelming support.”
State Representative John Moran, whose district includes both Mass. and Cass and Widett Circle, said he supports the general framework of the proposal.
“We can’t take no for an answer,” Moran said, adding that he believes the proposal provides good ideas about both public health and public safety.
The groups’ proposal would include about 200 temporary cabins similar to those at the Shattuck Hospital campus. The cabins would spread among five zones that house people at different phases of the recovery process.
The first is for people still using drugs, though Fox insists that drug-dealing and open use would not be allowed.
The second zone would be for detox, and the remaining zones would include people deeper into recovery. Each would be maintained by a provider who focuses on that type of recovery work.
Fox estimated it would cost roughly $10 million to build the campus and at least $3 million a year to maintain.
“The thing that’s always been missing for us is that we’re not providing an alternative” to Mass. and Cass, Fox said.
The campus is the latest in a long succession of proposals for Widett Circle, an area that’s been targeted as an Olympic stadium, a soccer stadium, and dense residential development.
Brendan Little, the former policy director for Boston’s Office of Recovery Services, said the idea “sounds promising.”
“Temporary housing models that enact a harm reduction approach and allow for varying timelines for healthy change have been successful elsewhere in the country,” he said. “The proposal at Widett Circle could allow people who use drugs and experience homelessness a sense of community as they advance along a continuum.”
Sarah Porter, executive director of the addiction-services organization Victory Programs, said she wasn’t familiar with the proposal, but would welcome hearing creative solutions as long as they’re “well thought out.”
“We’re into having a conversation” about it, she said.
Gary Landis, who is working with a Boston Medical Center group aimed at reducing overdoses, said he worries about having people in all stages of recovery clustered near people who are using drugs.
“Sometimes a lot of people in early recovery can’t tolerate that,” he said. For a center like this, “you have to put it in a safe place for people.”
But like Little, Landis likes the idea of a low-threshold first phase, and that the offer of housing there might entice people on the street.
“That carrot of housing is one thing, people might take advantage of that,” he said.
On the other hand, City Councilor Frank Baker, whose district includes much of Mass. and Cass, said the low-threshold first stage is liable to become “another flophouse, another party” akin to what is already in his area. He said he generally supports the idea of a recovery campus and treatment services somewhere other than Mass and Cass.
“There’s parts of it that are good and there’s parts of it that aren’t so good,” said Baker, who’s retiring from the council at the end of the year.
Fox said he believes the low-threshold section would draw people because it solves two of the main fears of those living on the street: individualized housing and other people having weapons.
People can move through the zones of recovery without the concern of being kicked out if they break rules or use again.
“We need to have an option that allows us to channel people into recovery,” he said, acknowledging that to avoid drug dealers hanging around outside the circle to sell to those within, “it’s going to require a pretty consistent presence to make sure that doesn’t happen.”