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Apparent opioid deaths roil veterans center

“It’s tragic, and it’s heartbreaking,” said Brian Eilert, a 49-year-old Navy veteran and recovering heroin addict.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

In the shadow of Boston's City Hall, three men have died of opioid overdoses in the last several weeks at a facility where homeless veterans come to reclaim their lives, according to nearly a dozen of its residents.

The residents, in interviews with the Globe, blamed a brisk marketplace for drugs just outside the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, and an inability to protect veterans inside the facility from an influx of opioids.

"It's tragic, and it's heartbreaking," said Brian Eilert, a 49-year-old Navy veteran and recovering heroin addict. "It reminds me that this could be me."

C. Andrew McCawley, a retired aircraft-carrier commander who is president of the facility, confirmed Friday that three residents have died recently at the center, which houses about 300 veterans every night in a transitional shelter and single-occupancy apartments on Court Street. He said the deaths occurred over two months.


McCawley deflected questions about whether the deaths were caused by opioid overdoses, saying he wanted to protect the privacy of the men. However, he confirmed that Narcan, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses, was used as part of standard protocol in an attempt to revive two of the victims.

Two of the victims had been living in the transitional shelter, and the other had been residing in one of the long-term apartments that the center oversees for the Boston Housing Authority, McCawley said.

City ambulances made 25 emergency calls to the center from Sept. 28 to Oct. 28, according to the Boston Public Health Commission. The city agency did not specify how many of those calls were for fatalities.

The deaths occurred at a time when the opioid epidemic continues unabated in Massachusetts.

Last week, the state Department of Public Health reported that opioid overdoses had been linked to 684 deaths in the first half of this year, an increase of about 6 percent from the same period last year. In all of 2014, more than 1,000 people died of opioid overdoses in the state.


McCawley said opioid-related deaths occur from time to time at the center, a private facility where many residents have a history of chronic drug abuse.

"Certainly, we are very concerned about it," he said. "We also realize that the people we serve have significant challenges."

Boston City Hall (left) looms steps away from the New England Center for Homeless Veterans (right).John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Every veteran interviewed this week said those challenges include a brazen marketplace for drugs in the streets and alleys near the homeless center, whose rear facade borders City Hall Plaza.

Shelter residents said that many transactions occur on the plaza, and are conducted most frequently near the first of every month, when the homeless veterans receive money from the federal government.

"There's more drugs here than ever. You can get anything you want on the street," said one veteran, who asked that his name not be used.

Linda Sorrie Johnson, a 43-year-old shelter volunteer from Malden, said drugs also are sold inside the building.

"The drug addicts jeopardize it for everybody else" at the shelter, Johnson said. "I'm going to be honest. I'm scared."

When asked whether drug sales occur inside the center, McCawley replied, "I could not rule that out." He added that clinicians at the center estimate that 60 percent of the veterans there are vulnerable to opioid abuse.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Friday that the deaths, if linked to opioids, would reflect the indiscriminate nature of the scourge.


"Nobody is immune to it. It always saddens me to hear about our veterans who have served our country being impacted by substance abuse," Walsh said in a statement. "Addressing addiction in Boston is one of my top priorities, and we will continue to work every day to stop the devastation caused by substance abuse."

The overdoses have shaken the center's veterans, many of whom knew the victims.

Santos, a Vietnam-era Army veteran who asked that his last name not be used, said Friday that he witnessed one death two weeks ago after the victim had smoked marijuana laced with fentanyl, a potent opioid painkiller.

"He had bought some pot and said to me, 'This is supposed to be excellent. I just got it from somebody in the shelter. It's been laced with fentanyl,' " Santos recalled as he leaned against a wall outside the center.

The pair went to the victim's apartment in the center and briefly watched a Patriots game on a big-screen television, he said. But less than 15 minutes after his friend began smoking, Santos said, the man fell to the floor.

"All of a sudden, he's dead," Santos said.

Another resident who said he knew the victim is Shawn Bresnee, a 55-year-old Navy veteran who said he tried repeatedly to persuade his friend to kick the habit that killed him.

"This makes me sick to my stomach," Bresnee said. "He was a great guy, a generous guy."


Several veterans said another victim was found overdosed in one of the shelter's bathrooms.

Jim McIsaac, director of the center from 2001 to 2003, called the facility "a wonderful organization that has helped thousands of veterans in need. It breaks my heart to hear that they have a drug problem inside."

McCawley said that the deaths have not altered the way the center operates, but that enhanced security would be part of a $31 million renovation project that is underway.

Currently, veterans walking into the center are not routinely searched, but they will be questioned if they appear impaired, McCawley said. Inside, residents are subject to drug and alcohol testing.

Eilert, the Navy veteran, praised the staff at the center, which is heavily supported by public funds and offers counseling and education, job, and housing support.

"There are a lot of good people here," he said. But the drug problem, Eilert added, is insidious.

Other veterans credited McCawley with improving the facility, which assists more than 1,500 veterans a year, since he arrived four years ago.

Still, McCawley acknowledged that keeping all drugs outside the center is impossible.

"We can't catch everybody," he said.

But what the center's staff can do, he said, is figure out "how we can be proactively prepared."

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at