There are no villains here.
In the debate over what becomes of the Shattuck Hospital, there are only people who love their communities, and who desperately want to fix what ails them. This is what happens when painful history, multiple human crises, and worthy causes collide.
The state, Boston Medical Center, and a coalition of storied organizations serving those suffering from substance use disorder, mental illness, and homelessness want to transform the decrepit Lemuel Shattuck Hospital at the Western edge of Franklin Park into a state-of-the-art center to treat the neighborhood’s struggling neighbors. It would be a treatment center for hundreds, with various levels of care ranging from detox to supportive housing that, because they’re all in one place, would make folks less likely to relapse and land back on the streets. It would also provide emergency shelter for those without homes, including some who are still actively using drugs. And offer supportive and permanent housing for hundreds, including, eventually, some 200 families.
There are treatment centers and emergency housing at the Shattuck right now. About 330 people are served at an opioid treatment center there each day, and about 57 people live in low-threshold shelter. The plan would maintain the outpatient treatment program and roughly triple the number of people living in low-threshold shelter — which could include some active drug users — to match the number of such people housed there prepandemic, according to a BMC spokesperson.
We absolutely, desperately, need all of those beds. The demolition of the bridge to the Long Island shelter and treatment facility in 2014 dumped hundreds of homeless people with substance use disorders, mental illness, and other maladies onto Boston’s streets. That, along with an explosion in opioid addictions, spawned chaotic, miserable, dangerous encampments at Mass and Cass, by BMC. That dangerous ecosystem of users and those who prey on them has been immovable from the border of the South End and Roxbury for years now.
Even if the city rebuilds the Long Island Bridge and the Shattuck proposal happens, all of it will come too late: Neither facility would come online until well after 2026. We must create smaller shelter and treatment options – a task on which all of the agencies involved are also focused, they said. Pine Street Inn, for example, is bringing 300 new housing units online over the next few years, and the state is growing funding for more treatment and shelter options across the Commonwealth.
Meantime, those who live near Franklin Park, and love it, are worried, and it’s hard to blame them for that. The gorgeous jewel of a park, in the heart of the city, is also the heart of its Black communities.
“When I think of Franklin Park, I think of family reunions, of the Dominican community playing baseball right there, of Juneteenth where thousands of people from across the Commonwealth gather there, I think of growing up and having barbeques, of my kids riding their bikes with grandma and grandpa,” said Christopher Worrell, a state representative who lives so close to the park he can see the zoo from his backyard.
Worrell and others worry the Shattuck proposal will just move the misery at Mass and Cass into their neighborhood. Already, he said, people are finding needles and seeing people using drugs in their beloved park.
“I don’t want to do needle sweeps before my children start playing in the park,” he said. “We just want everybody to take on their fair share instead of putting this in two different places in [Roxbury].”
Shattuck proponents are going to have a job convincing Worrell and others that another Mass and Cass won’t happen.
“No one would want to recreate Mass and Cass ever, anywhere,” said Lyndia Downie, head of Pine Street. “This proposal is about long term treatment, stabilizing people in housing, it’s a very different group.” The very presence of so many services in one place would prevent another chaotic encampment, she and her partners believe. State officials add that the opioid epidemic is savaging Black communities, too, with the overdose death rate for Black residents jumping by 42 percent from 2021 to 2022.
In any case, everybody involved with the proposal says this is only the start of the process, and that they are open to modifying the plan to take account of people’s concerns.
You can forgive some of the neighbors for being wary, however. Will they really be listened to, in the end?
“We already deal with a lot,” Worrell said. “Why not look into Wellesley and places like that?”
There should absolutely be treatment and emergency shelter in Wellesley and other towns across the Commonwealth. Though of course residents there would likely put up a huge – and successful – fight if anybody tried it on this scale.
There is other painful history here that makes some Black neighbors particularly wary of the Shattuck proposal: Too many of them remember a time when substance use disorder was criminalized, when, instead of treatment, those in its thrall — including large numbers of Black people — were thrown into prisons, up-ending generations.
“When the crack epidemic hit Boston, we were putting people in Norfolk,” Worrell said. “Now you’re telling this same community, ‘We put your son or your husband or your father in jail for crack, and now we’re giving these people housing … in your neighborhood.’ It’s a smack in the face.”
In the months between now and when the Shattuck plan takes its final form, the good people supporting this project and the good people opposing it are going to have to decide together whether it is simply too big, too isolated, too risky for families, trying to do too much for too many in one corner of town.
Most importantly, they’re going to have to agree on whether a cause even this worthy asks too much of communities that have already given so much.