ON A RECENT afternoon at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, a group of people tried to revive an unconscious man lying on a strip of grass. Only the white soles of the man’s sneakers were visible to motorists as they waited for the light to change. Another man darted between the idling cars toward a Boston firetruck and said, “A guy over there OD’d, he needs help.”
It was a shocking, but not at all surprising occurrence in an area near Boston Medical Center known as “Methadone Mile.”
Mayor Martin J. Walsh wants to eliminate such harrowing scenes with a plan to spend as much as $1 million a year on a new day shelter for addicts and the homeless. This summer, the backyard at the Southampton Street Shelter will be renovated into a barracks-style tent, complete with air conditioners, televisions, cushy seating, coffee, and snacks. To encourage attendance, there will be few rules or restrictions. “It’s about getting people off the streets, and creating a safe space,” Walsh told the Globe. “We want to make it a warm, welcoming space.”
Methadone Mile, in the city’s Newmarket area, burgeoned after the Long Island Bridge was condemned, in 2014, leaving addicts and the homeless without shelters and treatment facilities on the island. The problem was also exacerbated after an underpass across from Suffolk County Jail, where people often congregated, was fenced off earlier this year.
Walsh’s goal is multilayered. If enough people use it, a day shelter could alleviate concerns of residents and business owners, who have long complained about a major thoroughfare overrun with activities ranging from objectionable to illegal. Yet the most important part of the plan will involve shelter outreach workers hoping to convince addicts to seek treatment.
For this to work, efforts to help addicts get clean must be as vigorous as the desire to restore an area that has become emblematic of the state’s opioid epidemic. While the state Department of Public Health recorded a decline in opioid deaths for the first three months of 2017, compared with the same period last year, no one is yet ready to declare victory. In 2016, Massachusetts made a dubious state record, with 1,933 confirmed
opioid overdose deaths.
Some residents are already expressing doubts about the day shelter’s potential efficacy, believing it could draw even more addicts to Newmarket. After the Southampton Street Shelter opened, violent crimes increased 30 percent, and drug violations rose 55 percent in the area, at a time when such crimes declined 3 percent citywide.
Walsh admitted to the Globe that the day shelter, scheduled for completion in late July, “might not work,” but he remains hopeful. These are times when every effort should be considered to lessen the twin epidemics of homelessness and opioids, and their devastating impact on addicts and the communities where they live.