On the sidewalk in front of the CVS parking lot at the corner of Harrison Avenue and Northampton Street, John Jerry tore at a beef teriyaki skewer from a nearby Chinese restaurant. On his lap, he cradled packets of condiments, Double Diamond cigars, loose dollars, and a bottle of vodka swaddled in a paper bag.
Overhead, a blue light on top of a three-camera surveillance tower flashed in warning. Jerry’s not supposed to be here. CVS, which recently installed the security system, has made that clear, as have the police, who swing by regularly to shoo loiterers away from the store parking lot in the South End.
Jerry is homeless and disabled, having lost the lower halves of both his legs. Where, he asks, is he supposed to go?
“There’s no place to stay,” he moaned one recent afternoon. Jerry, who uses a wheelchair, has begun to pretend he’s sleeping to avoid confrontations with the police. “They say you got to move over here. Then I move over there and they tell me I got to move over here. And it’s like, where the [expletive] do I go?”
That question has divided this stretch of the South End since police raids, dubbed “Operation Clean Sweep” Aug. 1 and 2, led to the arrest of 34 people and the dispersal of many who congregate here, close to addiction treatment services. The homeless, those struggling with drug use or mental illness, and service providers who work with them say the police crackdown has uprooted an already vulnerable population. But others who live and work in the neighborhood wonder why law enforcement isn’t doing more to curb the rampant drug use, or when City Hall will find a solution to the issues, rather than slapping on another bandage.
“Operation Clean Sweep may have taken 20, 30 people off the street who should not have been on the street . . . but it’s not going to solve the problem,” said George Stergios, president of the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association, a community organization in the tree-lined enclave of pricey brownstones not far from where the police raids occurred. “The problem will only be solved when the rest of the city and the rest of the Commonwealth take care and add services in their own neighborhoods.”
Since the raids, the homeless who gathered near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard have scattered into more residential parts of the South End, Roxbury, and South Boston. Police have ramped up patrols in those areas, as 311 complaints and calls for service have spiked over the past six weeks, according to Michael Stratton, deputy superintendent of the Boston Police Department.
Meanwhile, fear and unease have swelled among the homeless.
“It’s the worst it’s ever been,” said Ryan, a 35-year-old freckle-faced Dorchester native who’s been homeless for the past decade. He asked that his last name not be published because he’d just swiped a 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola from the South End CVS. “[It’s] the most addicts I’ve seen on the street and the angriest I’ve ever seen the police.”
Ryan and others attribute the rising tension to an Aug. 1 melee on Southampton Street between a Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department corrections officer and a group of about five people who attacked the officer on his way to work. On Twitter, a photo of the ensuing police raid, showing a Department of Public Works vehicle crushing people’s wheelchairs in a trash compactor, triggered widespread outrage and condemnation.
Activists like Cassie Hurd, cofounder of SIFMA NOW, a statewide coalition advocating for supervised injection facilities, worries the stepped-up police activity will discourage people who depend on health care and drug treatment services in the South End — at Boston Medical Center or Boston Health Care for the Homeless — from seeking treatment.
“We’re just further dispersing people, in alleys and streets farther away, and communities where they don’t have access to the care they were receiving before,” Hurd said.
There are indications that’s already happening.
Visits to the city-run “engagement center,” a day shelter inside a large tent on Atkinson Street, which typically operates at full capacity, dropped by half in August, according to city estimates. AHOPE, the city’s needle exchange program on Albany Street, saw a slight decline in participation from July to August, including a 6 percent drop in the number of syringes received.
On the other hand, walk-ins at PAATHS, a city program at the same Albany Street location that offers referrals and recommendations to a variety of inpatient and outpatient treatment programs, rose slightly, from 1,056 in July to 1,118 in August.
“People just don’t feel safe. They feel like their security and freedom is at risk if they try to access the health care services and harm-reduction services that they’ve been able to for so long,” said Aubri, secretary of the Boston Users Union, an organization promoting the safety of people who use drugs. She asked that her last name not be used, fearing her association with drug users could jeopardize her subsidized housing and health care.
Others are going elsewhere for treatment. Since Operation Clean Sweep, the AIDS Action Committee’s needle exchange programs in Cambridge and Jamaica Plain have seen an uptick in new enrollments and returning participants, according to Kristin Doneski, outreach manager at AIDS Action’s Access Drug User Health Program.
People have also been returning to locations in Malden, Everett, and Somerville, she said.
Marty Martinez, Boston’s chief of health and human services, acknowledges that trust between the city and the homeless has eroded as a result of the police raids. But the data from AHOPE and PAATHS, he said, is proof of how hard the city’s public health and outreach employees have been working in recent weeks to rebuild relationships.
“I think police activity creates challenges for some folks, and I totally get that,” Martinez said. “But it’s a necessary presence in this work. Does it mean sometimes we don’t get the balance right? Yeah, sometimes we don’t get the balance right. And I think we’re always trying to figure out what is the right way to do it.”
Martinez said the city is devising new strategies for addressing the impact of the homelessness and addiction crisis roiling the South End in what is unofficially being called “Mass. and Cass 2.0,” drawing input from elected officials, service providers, and people “with lived experience.” He said more information will be released soon.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh is also touting a plan to build a regional drug recovery campus on Long Island, formerly the site of the city’s largest homeless shelter, which abruptly closed in 2014 after officials condemned the bridge to the island from Quincy. But any movement on such a plan could be years away.
In the meantime, many residents of the South End are demanding a long-term solution from the city.
“In the two or three weeks following that operation, I would say the number of homeless on our block probably went up by a factor of three or five,” said Phil Snyder, who lives with his wife and two dogs in an apartment at the corner of Reed and Northampton streets. The number of discarded needles, he added, has soared.
“I’ve never seen what I’m seeing in the past month and month and a half,” said Roberto Miranda, senior pastor of Congregación León de Judá, a bilingual Protestant church on Reed Street. “We’ve seen the homeless population not only increase alarmingly but also the quality of what were seeing.”
Since the sweeps began, more people have begun sleeping on church property, Miranda said, leaving behind litter, used needles, urine, and feces that his staff has to clean up.
Desmond Murphy, vice president of the Worcester Square Neighborhood Association, said he would like to see a decentralized approach from City Hall that would relieve the South End of the pressure of having so many addiction services clustered in the area. The PAATHS program, for example, could operate at multiple locations; every community health center could run its own needle exchange program.
“This neighborhood has a long history of helping people in need,” Murphy said. “We’ve got to find a way to make this neighborhood into a place that works for everyone.”