When the drug crisis escalated this summer in the South End, the city’s point-person — a longtime municipal employee most recently tasked with overseeing building compliance and permits — was just settling into the job.
William “Buddy” Christopher, a longtime City Hall insider , was appointed in June by Mayor Martin J. Walsh as Boston’s first-ever czar to coordinate its response to the intersection at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, known as Methadone Mile because of the concentration of addiction recovery services in the area.
Seemingly overnight, Christopher has been thrust into the spotlight as tensions flared in recent weeks between the area’s addiction service providers, advocates, residents, and businesses over the open-air drug dealing and disorder in the area.
In an interview, Walsh said that the city had recognized the growing unrest in the neighborhood, and that he had tapped Christopher to coordinate services to the area because “I know he’ll get it done.”
“He understands what the issues are, and he’s a collaborator,” the mayor said on Friday. “I think it’s important that people know, when he’s at the table, he’s advocating on my behalf to make this happen.”
The two are old friends, going back three decades to when Christopher headed the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association, in Walsh’s old neighborhood in Dorchester. They were also once neighbors — Christopher bought the mayor’s old house in a private sale. An architect by trade, he most recently headed the Inspectional Services Department, where he oversaw compliance with city building, zoning, and health codes, and Walsh has praised him for streamlining the permitting process.
Christopher, 63, said in an interview this week that he recognized the challenges of his new job, saying he has been committed throughout his personal and public life to helping those in need, dating back to when he studied architectural designs for people with physical and mental needs. He also said he has family members who have gone through the recovery process, and “I’ve had that emotional whirlwind as well.”
“On a personal level, I’m very committed to this,” he said. “Putting me in this position puts a person, a face on this, so that people who have [concerns] . . . have a person they can go to.”
He also took issue with the reference to the South End as Methadone Mile, calling it derogatory and insulting to the attempt to provide much-needed services to those in need.
“It’s a whole series of bad connotations,” Christopher said. “It’s not fair to the people who live there, it’s not fair to the people who work there.”
Walsh previously leaned on Christopher to oversee the opening of an engagement center for homeless and addiction recovery patients in the South End neighborhood following the relocation of services that were offered on Long Island in 2014. He was also his point person to manage the rehabilitation of a building for a homeless shelter on Southampton Street.
Today in the South End, Christopher’s work includes coordinating the seven law enforcement agencies that patrol the area, outreach workers, and health care providers — all the while balancing the needs of some of the city’s most troubled patients with those of a thriving neighborhood and business community. He is paid $135,000 in the new role.
Two weeks ago, an off-duty corrections officer was severely beaten on Atkinson Street, in the shadows of a homeless shelter and engagement center where people congregate — and on the front steps of the county jail where he worked. Police responded with targeted raids to arrest dozens of people who were wanted on warrants, or who authorities said were dealing drugs.
Advocates for patients pointed to the complexity of problems in the area, and called for more of a focus on public health. Many criticized the arrests of dozens of people in a recent law enforcement sweep, saying it was heavy-handed and will only punish addicts seeking recovery, and will keep them away from the area.
Walsh was also criticized for deploying Department of Public Works crews to the area after photos emerged of the crews discarding people’s wheelchairs and backpacks.
“What I’d really like to see is us approaching the issues at Mass and Cass from a public health mind-set,” said Jessie Gaeta, chief medical officer for the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, who recently discussed the city’s drug epidemic with the City Council.
But residents in the South End and Roxbury said longstanding problems in the area have recently intensified. An influx of addicts who have flocked to the area and the introduction of methamphetamine on city streets have exacerbated an already existing opioid epidemic. Residents say they have encountered people shooting up drugs outside their home, bathing in fountains in public parks, and defecating or having sex on their front steps. Businesses have reported increases in shoplifting and people intimidating patrons.
“Do we need to do more? . . . That’s why I asked Buddy to kind of take a look at that area and come back with some ideas,” Walsh said.
Christopher said he recognizes that his role is to strike “a delicate balance.”
In meetings in Roxbury and in the South End, residents said the need for city action is urgent, putting pressure on Christopher. Advocates say his work will reflect the mayor’s priorities for the area.
“This has gone on for way too long,” Domingos DaRosa of Roxbury told Christopher and other public officials during a raucous neighborhood meeting last week.
City councilors called Christopher’s appointment much-needed for residents, who have grown frustrated with the disorder on their doorsteps.
“Nobody has an idea of the whole package of what’s going on [there], so the first thing Buddy is doing is trying to figure it out,” said Councilor Frank Baker, whose district includes the area, and who has long advocated for a new approach to addressing the crisis. “When [Buddy’s] calling people, it’s the mayor calling them.”
Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, who chairs the council’s committee on homelessness, mental health, and recovery, agreed with the need for a coordinated effort.
“To bring attention to that area in particular is an important step in the right direction,” she said. “We need to make sure the mayor gives him the resources and tools to do something down there.”