Boston is in crisis.
The recent attack on an officer from the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay is indicative of a larger problem confronting all of Boston. It’s easy to believe that the opioid and homelessness crisis is contained to the Newmarket Square area, which some refer to, unfortunately and inaccurately, as “Methadone Mile.”
This isn’t so. Many of the homeless are not originally from Boston but find their way here for the ease of access to narcotics, and others come for the services offered to addicted people. The scope of the problem goes beyond Newmarket. It reaches down Melnea Cass Boulevard into Roxbury and to the Orchard Hill School, where needles are commonly found on playgrounds. It reaches into the South End, Andrew Square, and beyond, unabated.
Unfortunately, while many organizations — including our own — work to stem this rising tide of addiction, it’s not enough. The water is too high, the current is too persistent, and our resources are too limited.
This is utterly unacceptable.
All of these neighborhoods must be returned to the livable/workable environments that residents and businesses rightly deserve, not for a day or a week, but permanently. To do any less is a failure of the collective leadership of Boston.
Last week, I was joined by several public safety officials, including Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, MBTA Police Chief Kenneth Green, Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn, and representatives from the mayor’s and governor’s offices, the Boston Public Health Commission Police, and the Newmarket Business Association. This initial conversation was productive, with all agreeing to work together to bring stability and safety to the Newmarket area.
However, this was only the first step. Moving forward, we must bring other allies into this fight. That includes the Boston Medical Center, the Boston Public Schools, and others.
We also must demand action from our representatives in city, state, and federal governments. We need a coordinated funding approach to create and maintain more treatment and recovery beds, with money to provide critical aftercare services.
I agree with the sentiment that we cannot arrest our way out of this situation. Conversely, I applaud Commissioner Gross and his officers for targeting the drug pushers and others who are preying on our vulnerable homeless and recovery population. But what do we do with those who are not dealers, but victims?
The answer, again, lies partially in funding and beds. We simply do not have enough capability to treat those in need. Additionally, we need a coordinated plan to prevent the cycle of recidivism. I urge DA Rollins to continue her leadership on this issue by engaging directly with the Boston Municipal Court and Massachusetts Probation Service to develop plans stressing treatment and recovery for those without serious criminal records — not a 48-hour return to the street with no plan, no resources, no recovery, and no hope.
As sheriff of Suffolk County since 2013, and with 16 years in the department, I’ve watched our incarcerated populations change dramatically. More than 70 percent are remanded to our care and custody for addiction-related crimes, with more than ever before self-reporting opioids as their primary addiction. I see firsthand the devastating impact of addiction, not only on the directly afflicted but also on their families and our communities, while the opioid epidemic continues to rage.
Our department has transformed from an incarceration facility to a de facto mental health institution and substance-abuse treatment center, with detox services. We created our groundbreaking OASIS program to administer intensive treatment for substance abuse, complete with discharge planning, along with our PEACE program for emerging male populations; the Common Ground Institute, which teaches vocational skills to help those returning to the community secure employment; and our Family Matters program, which works with inmates’ families to ensure that a safe, stable environment awaits them upon release.
More long-term solutions are required. A reinvigorated Long Island facility would allow recovery practitioners to bring addicted people out of harm’s way from the treacherous crosstown expanse of highway that has become home to so many; offer protection from the lurking threat of drug dealers who, in their attempts to prey on those suffering the illness of addiction, add an additional obstacle to an already interminable conflict; and reduce the sheer numbers of people taxing the services of residential and recovery organizations — services that are already stretched thin after the emergency influx of new clients created by Long Island’s closure.
Reestablishing Long Island is critical, but if bridge reconstruction remains stalled, other solutions must be considered. Newmarket can’t wait, Boston can’t wait, and a vulnerable homeless population can’t wait.
While the abrupt closure of Long Island exacerbated the problems around Newmarket, those problems did not begin overnight. Similarly, they won’t be solved overnight. In that spirit, I call on our friends and partners to continue meeting regularly, support each other, and not disparage each other on social media. We can and must take back this vital part of the city while finding dignified means of helping our residents most in need of mental health and recovery services.
The situation in Boston with opioids and other addictive narcotics is reflected across this country. I call on my fellow elected officials to join me in making Boston a model for confronting it with compassion, science, and courage.
Steven W. Tompkins is the sheriff of Suffolk County.