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City pleads for state, regional help with homelessness, drug crisis in South End

Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

It seems like the most Boston of problems, geographically located at the intersection of two of its busiest streets in the heart of the city.

But city officials are saying the growing chaos near Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, where a congregation of people struggling with homelessness and addiction have clashed with neighbors and police, is a regional crisis that demands swift action from the state and other municipalities.

Of the 34 people arrested there in recent sweeps, 21 were residents of other cities and towns, including Attleboro, Lynn, Springfield, Fitchburg, New Bedford, and Manchester, N.H.


Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Police Commissioner William Gross say the fact that so many people have come to the area from other cities and towns suggests the open drug use, prostitution, and aggressive behavior in the area demand a statewide response.

Their cry for help reflects the frustration among officials in City Hall who feel they are being blamed for problems in the area that are not entirely of their own making.

“People see the police as a panacea and the city services as a panacea, but we’re dealing with a population there where half or two-thirds are not from the city of Boston,” Gross said. “People are telling people to come to Boston [because] we have the clinics, we have the Narcan, we have the help and, unfortunately, they talk about the drugs available.”

Gross said other cities and towns must fund more beds for drug users and homeless people in the area, which some refer to as “Methadone Mile” because of the concentration of drug-treatment centers there.

“We need to outreach to our cities and towns across the Commonwealth to support us when people come from outside of Boston and they end up here,” Gross said. “They’re in dire need and dire straits.”


Around Mass Ave. this week, several homeless people said the area has become a magnet because it’s one of the only places in the state where they can find shelters, drug treatment centers, clothing vouchers, and other assistance.

Paul C., a 50-year-old homeless man from Stoneham, who did not want his last name used, said he arrived by bus about six months ago because he had nowhere else to go.

“I got kicked out of a house and heard from family and friends there’s shelters in Boston,” said Paul, who is staying at the city-run shelter on Southampton Street. “I’d rather be in Stoneham. That’s where my family is,” he added, but “there’s no services out that way.”

Richard D., a 40-year-old homeless man who declined to give his last name, said the area has become known as a destination for anyone kicked out of drug treatment.

“All the people talk about in detox is Mass. Ave., Mass. Ave., Mass. Ave.,” he said. “They have nowhere, and they say, ‘Take me to Mass. Ave.’ like the streets are paved with gold, not needles.”

Walsh said he has had preliminary conversations with Governor Charlie Baker in hopes of enlisting his help. He said the South End has become a haven for drug users released from prisons and jails without services or housing.

“We need programs spread across the Commonwealth, and the state to help us with that,” Walsh said. “It can’t all be the burden of Boston to work on this issue.”


Baker aides declined to make state officials available to discuss their role in addressing substance use and homelessness in the area.

In a statement, they pointed out that Massachusetts currently funds 990 shelter beds in Boston, representing 42 percent of all beds in the state, and, since fiscal 2015, has more than doubled the funding it provides to address the opioid epidemic.

“While there is much work left to do, Massachusetts continues to expand access to addiction treatment and is one of very few states where opioid-related overdose deaths have decreased in 2017 and 2018,” the statement said.

Suffolk Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who called a meeting of state and local officials after a deputy sheriff was attacked in the area on Aug. 1, said he wants more State Police in the area, more housing and health care for the homeless, and more treatment beds.

He said he also wants the state to pressure Quincy officials to drop their opposition to the reconstruction of the Long Island bridge, which closed due to safety concerns in 2014, forcing the elimination of hundreds of treatment beds on the island.

Quincy officials say rebuilding the span will worsen traffic, and they have taken legal action to stop the project. Boston officials believe it could help alleviate the demand for help in the South End.

The demand for services in the area is so high that Hope House, a residential drug treatment facility on nearby Farnham Street, has a 45-person waiting list for 95 beds, said Allison Burns, the president and chief executive.


She said people who are not in treatment also come to Hope House’s parking lot to inject drugs because they know the staff carries Narcan, which can reverse an overdose. The parking lot, she said, has become a de facto safe-injection site.

“If finances were put aside, I think there needs to be more direct care in these communities,” Burns said. “There are no services in other places and no transportation in other towns. At least here they can get around and get services at each level of care.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.