Residents are conducting drug deals inside the New England Center and Home for Veterans despite the Boston shelter's stated zero tolerance for drug possession, according to nearly a dozen residents and former employees.
Several of them estimated that at least 20 percent of the roughly 300 people who stay at the downtown center, where many homeless veterans seek help for addiction, are looking to buy or sell drugs. The allegations come two months after reports that three of its residents had died of apparent opioid overdoses.
"I've bought drugs from people there, so I'm not an innocent party," said one heroin addict who has lived at the center and did not want to be named for fear of retribution. "But there are deals being made all the time. You try to do what you can and not get caught."
Center president C. Andrew McCawley, in a written statement to the Globe, strongly defended efforts to keep drugs out of the facility.
"The staff coordinates closely and regularly with the Boston Police Department and reports any and all suspect activity," McCawley wrote. "Occasional random inspections of the premises and searches of personal belongings are conducted to help maintain the facility standards and rules, while preserving dignity and privacy."
However, he added in a telephone interview, "I can't tell you that people are not approached while they're in this facility."
All the residents and former employees who spoke with the Globe, many of whom asked not to be identified, said nearly all the transactions are completed just outside the doors of the center. A private nonprofit facility founded in 1989, it houses veterans in a transitional shelter and single-occupancy apartments and is within sight of Boston City Hall.
"The only way to describe it is rampant," said Bob Guerriero, 49, who said he worked as an overnight supervisor at the center until January. "Being in the position I was in, at least twice a week I was calling 911 for a drug overdose. You name it, you could get it."
Boston police said they have arrested residents on drug charges after being alerted by staff members at the center. A police spokesman, Lieutenant Michael McCarthy, said he did not have a figure for the number of residents arrested, but that arrests have been made both inside and outside the Court Street facility.
McCarthy said the center and its immediate surroundings are not regarded as a hotbed of drug activity. "We haven't seen much activity around it, but that's not to say there isn't stuff happening," McCarthy said.
However, the heroin addict who asked not to be named told two of his sisters that being approached about drugs at the shelter had crippled his efforts to become sober and had endangered his life.
"I know it's my own fault. I keep telling myself I'm not gonna do it, but as soon as I get paid, it starts all over," the addict wrote while he was staying at the shelter. "I pray sometimes I won't wake up. I'm just really tired of this."
The sisters — Holly McCarthy of Port St. Lucie, Fla., and Karen Korhely of Riverside, Calif. — showed the Globe several texts from their brother.
"I'm sitting here at 1 o'clock in the morning, and they're asking me whether I want drugs," he wrote in one text from the shelter. Another said: "I hate to tell you this, but I bought $100 worth of heroin and did it in two shots, hoping I wouldn't wake up."
McCarthy said her brother felt trapped by the easy availability of drugs, whose sales reportedly peak near the first of the month when many residents receive income from Social Security and disability benefits.
"He told me it's hard to say no," McCarthy recalled. "He said, 'They tell me I can pay them when I get paid.' He had a lot of services there, but they weren't working."
McCawley said the center faces a difficult and complicated mission: striving to help at-risk veterans who also face frequent temptations. Clinicians at the center estimate that 60 percent of residents are vulnerable to opioid abuse.
"It's not like they're not trying," the heroin addict said of the staff. "It's like anyplace else. If you want to find something, you're going to find it."
Guerriero, the former overnight supervisor, said he worried about residents locking themselves in bathrooms to shoot heroin or take powerful opioid painkillers. Overnight staff made rounds of the transitional living areas twice per shift, and residents discovered with illegal drugs were reported, he said.
"There's only so much they can do," Guerriero said of the administration. "But, personally, I think they could be doing a whole lot more."
Center officials in late October confirmed that three residents had died in the previous two months, but they have not said whether opioids are suspected.
One Vietnam-era veteran who has stayed at the shelter said he watched one of the victims collapse and die in September while smoking what was believed to be marijuana laced with fentanyl, a powerful painkiller.
The pair were watching television in the victim's single-occupancy apartment, said the 63-year-old veteran, who asked to be identified only as Santos.
"He fell on the floor," Santos said in an interview. "I tried to pick him up, and he was dead."
McCawley said no deaths have occurred at the facility since officials confirmed the three fatalities, and that the staff works hard to steer addicted veterans toward long-term recovery, including assigning a case manager to every resident.
The center conducts scheduled and random drug tests; monitors compliance with clinical plans, including attendance at recovery programs; and tracks relapse, success, and mortality rates, he said.
"The center and its dedicated staff have extensive firsthand experience with the terrible effects of opioids," McCawley said. "The staff does not judge. However, they work diligently to mitigate the risks that veterans may face."
Homeless shelters make frequent calls for emergency services, according to Che Knight, spokeswoman for the Boston Public Health Commission. From Oct. 28 to Dec. 10, she said, Boston emergency crews responded 20 times to the veterans center, primarily for illness or injuries. Knight said she did not know how many calls were for drug overdoses.
McCawley said that any resident found with heroin or other illegal opioids most likely would be ordered to leave. However, McCawley added that the response to each drug and alcohol infraction is balanced against the risk of displacing a resident without food, shelter, and continuing treatment.
"We weigh every single case very carefully," McCawley said.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.