Public art, cleaner streets coming to Boston thanks to partnership

Planters on Massachusetts Avenue are part of an effort to clean up and beautify that street and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Planters on Massachusetts Avenue are part of an effort to clean up and beautify that street and Melnea Cass Boulevard.

The crew that has started cleaning the streets and sidewalks of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, an area plagued by drug addiction and homelessness, knows what it means to live on the streets — they’ve all been there.

So as they plant mums to beautify traffic islands, or sweep up the needles that litter the pavement, they look for openings to talk to the men and women still caught in the grip of addiction and poverty.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this: ‘Let me pick this up, sweep, clear this out of the way, and let me tell you my story,’ ” said Sheila Dillon, Boston’s chief of housing and director of neighborhood development. “We don’t want to just sweep people with problems and issues; we want to make sure they’re getting offered services.”


The cleanup and outreach effort is the product of a new partnership scheduled to be announced Monday between the city of Boston; Project Place, the nonprofit that employs the cleaning crew; and Boston University, which has committed to funding $105,000 for the work.

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The workers doing the cleanup, which will also include installing public art, started about a month ago. They are all formerly homeless people working for Clean Corners, Bright Hopes, which is owned by Project Place. Not only does the four- or five-person team, overseen by two supervisors, improve the lives of those on Melnea Cass and Mass. Ave., they are improving their own lives as well.

“When we all come together, we can take on the toughest of challenges,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement. “I’m looking forward to seeing the results of this partnership that provides opportunities to those who need it most.”

The idea for the partnership arose after Walsh convened a host of city departments to brainstorm ways to improve the troubled area, which includes homeless shelters, two methadone clinics, the headquarters of Boston Health Care for the Homeless, and several Boston Public Health programs targeting those with drug addiction. The services draw many seeking help — but they also draw those who buy, sell, and use drugs out in the open.

At all hours of the day, people can be seen clustered on corners, sleeping on patches of grass off the sidewalks, and shooting heroin behind cars, walls, or trees. Many derisively call the area “Methadone Mile,” but city officials call it “Recovery Road.”


“These are my neighbors,” said Valeda Britton, executive director of community relations for the BU Medical Campus, who said funding the cleanup, beautification, and outreach program was in line with the university’s commitment to improving public health. “We think this is a wonderful opportunity to support Walsh’s efforts.”

Three BU schools — the School of Medicine, the Dental School, and the School of Public Health — are in the area.

The cleaning crew members are enjoying the work, Project Place Executive Director Suzanne Kenney said.

“Our focus is to help people get back on their feet through work,” she said. “It’s not just about getting them a job. It’s about addressing their depression, their mental illness. Their housing. Their debt. Work can be a very stabilizing force.”

Project Place, which turns 50 next year, has teams cleaning other areas of the city, including Fenway and the New England Holocaust Memorial, but the Mass. Ave. and Melnea Cass area is new territory.


About 500 people every year enroll in Project Place’s programs, which give them access to job training, assistance with housing, and opportunities to work in the businesses that Project Place runs as training grounds for when they get outside jobs. One of these is Clean Corners, but the organization also runs a third-party vendor operation for Pepsi, a catering business, and a fudge-making enterprise. After about three to six months, workers move on from these training jobs to work in the community.

‘Our focus is to help people get back on their feet through work.’

Suzanne Kenney 

Project Place routes another 1,000 or so people each year to other local agencies that can provide them with drug treatment, medical or mental health care, or other services, Kenney said.

Clean Corners workers pull eight-hour shifts five days a week, Kenney said. As they sweep around the people using drugs or hanging out on the corners, they share their own stories, hoping to inspire those still struggling. They field about 30 questions a week from people seeking employment or help with recovery or housing.

The city has poured many other resources into the area. Four Boston Public Health Commission Outreach Team workers are out every day, talking to about 400 people a week about how to get help. They help about 10 percent of the people they talk to access treatment, the city says. The PAATHS program, headquartered nearby on Albany Street, sees 175 walk-in clients a week and has answered questions about substance abuse treatment for more than 10,000 people this year.

“To offer people services takes longer than doing sweeps and having them leave the area,” Dillon said. “It’s more work, but I think it’s the right way to approach the problem.”

Evan Allen can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.