Tensions flare as homeless and drug users spread into South End
The contrasts of urban life were on display on a recent sunny afternoon in the South End’s Franklin Square, an oasis of greenery crisscrossed by diagonal paths that converge at a fountain.
While a man played fetch with his dog, another nearby screamed expletives from his bicycle. Among those strolling in the shade were two disheveled people pushing carts piled with their belongings.
Then a police van pulled up. Three officers hopped out, approached a couple sprawled under blankets, and told them to leave. The couple packed up a large black duffel bag and trudged off. An officer picked up a discarded syringe nearby. “Imagine if this was your neighborhood,” he remarked to no one in particular.
South End residents don’t need to imagine it; they’re living it every day. Many of them say the neighborhood has undergone a troubling transformation in recent months, as the homeless people and drug users they used to pass by on their way home are now greeting them on their front stoops.
Residents have been complaining for weeks, documenting with photos and videos that people just outside their windows are dealing and injecting drugs, bathing in the fountains, having sex, and leaving feces on the curb. At the same time, residents expressed concern for the homeless, and some speakers at a community meeting Wednesday expressed outrage over the seizure of wheelchairs during a police operation this week.
Their complaints reflect the tensions that many cities are facing as the opioid crisis drives people suffering from addiction to the streets.
Speaking at a community meeting Wednesday evening, 11-year-old Jay’dha Rackard said she plans to transfer out of the Orchard Gardens K-8 School on Albany Street because she feels unsafe.
“Please tell me, where is my safety?” she asked. “We have seen people shooting up on the streets and we have seen people having inappropriate actions, and nothing has been done.”
The problem reached a boiling point early on the morning of Aug. 1 when a deputy sheriff driving to work at the Suffolk County House of Correction was assaulted with a metal pipe on Atkinson Street. That night and the following night, police swept the neighborhood, arresting a total of 34 people, many on warrants for previous offenses.
The South End has always been a diverse community. Public housing projects share the neighborhood with multimillion-dollar brick townhouses. From under the yellow awning of an elegant restaurant, diners can gaze at the drab headquarters of the Salvation Army.
And there have always been homeless people in the vicinity, especially since 2014 when Mayor Martin J. Walsh shut down the Long Island shelter and treatment program and the city moved some services to the neighborhood.
But residents say this summer is different. More homeless people are staying overnight in local parks, their behavior is more disturbing and aggressive, and they have ranged farther north from the Massachusetts Avenue, Melnea Cass Boulevard, and Albany Street areas where they have traditionally gathered near Boston Medical Center and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.
“From our perspective, this is new. The intensity of what we’re talking about is new,” said David Stone, president the Blackstone/Franklin Square Neighborhood Association in the South End.
“People seem more aggressive this year than in past years,” said Desmond Murphy of the Worcester Square Neighborhood Association. “You’re more likely to encounter someone who’s yelling at you. . . . Some of the business owners say if someone is loitering and you ask them to leave, they’re more likely to create a scene.”
In the past, said Stephen Fox of the South End Forum, an umbrella group of neighborhood associations, “We knew it was going on, but we never saw the kind of open-air drug deals that we’ve seen now, and that unnerves people a lot.”
Michael Stratton, deputy superintendent of the Boston Police Department, said the police had been working on the problem long before last week’s assault, and had planned a “directed patrol” in response to rising crime in the area.
In the first eight months of 2019, compared with the same period last year, robberies and aggravated assaults have increased 41 percent in the quarter-mile area surrounding the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, he said.
But assaults as severe as the attack on the correction officer are “not common,” Stratton said.
Still, homeless people have become more visible in recent months in the area that is sometimes disparagingly referred to as Methadone Mile. (Advocates and city officials prefer “Mass and Cass” or “The Mile.”)
More drug users are drawn to the street because illicit forms of fentanyl, now ubiquitous in street drugs, produces a briefer high, prompting people to buy drugs and inject them more often — as much as 16 times a day.
Additionally, stimulants, especially methamphetamine, are gaining popularity in Boston, and that makes users more jittery and irritable.
There is also a sense that the population has grown because of an influx of people from outside the city. Stratton said two-thirds of the homeless are not originally from Boston but are drawn here by services not available elsewhere, including addiction treatment, a needle exchange, multiple shelters, Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and the Boston Medical Center — all located in the South End.
“They’re learning of the services and making their way to Boston,” he said.
Sarah Porter, interim CEO of Victory Programs, a treatment center located in the neighborhood, said she has never felt afraid going to work and doesn’t believe the population on the street has grown significantly.
“They’re concentrated together, as neighborhood groups and police try to clear the street,” Porter said. “And it becomes potentially more volatile, you have so many people with such a high level of need.”
After the arrests last week, police repeatedly have made their presence felt in the neighborhood, including on Wednesday night when a convoy of 12 to 15 police vehicles poured into the neighborhood, telling homeless people to leave and crushing their possessions, including wheelchairs, in garbage trucks.
Advocates denounced the patrol as intimidation. City Councilor-at-large Michelle Wu called it “cruelty.” Leo Beletsky, Northeastern University associate professor of law and health sciences, said such actions separate people from services they need and put them at risk of death.
“It doesn’t make it disappear. It actually makes the problem worse,” he said.
Aubri Esters, secretary of the Boston Users Union, an advocacy group of people who use drugs or have used drugs, said the police presence is scaring vulnerable people away from services. She advises reducing the police presence, providing public restrooms and clean water, and having conversations to reduce the “vitriol” between neighbors and street people.
Speaking to reporters at an event in the South End Thursday, Walsh said the police patrol last week “got rid of a lot of drug dealers, a lot of people preying on the sick and suffering that are there and that’s really what it’s all about.”
“We can’t have people shooting up on the streets, we can’t have that kind of devastation,” he said. “We’re having drug dealers coming down. They’re preying on these folks. We need to do everything we can to keep them safe and trying as best we can to get them into treatment.”
William “Buddy” Christopher, recently appointed as special counsel to the mayor on the “Mass and Cass” neighborhood, said that the police were merely removing those “who were preying on people.’’
Residents say the police presence is welcome and sorely needed.
Chad Seay, a manager at Andre’s Café, said that dozens of people used to occupy the sidewalk outside the Worcester Square restaurant, discouraging customers. He said the police activity has changed everything.
But Murphy, of the Worcester Square association, said the problem is complex and won’t yield to fast solutions.
“I do appreciate the city putting more emphasis on the area but on the other hand, we’re in a very tough situation,” he said. “You can’t force people into treatment. You can’t force people to take shelter. It ends up moving people around.”
Marty Martinez, the city’s director of health and human services, defended the city’s record handling addiction. It opened an “engagement center” in a tent behind the Southampton Street shelter, which gives people a place to go during the daytime.
It has deployed outreach workers to the street — and plans to hire more.
But he acknowledged the difficulty maintaining a balance between the needs of the vulnerable and the rights of neighborhood residents.
“They need care, they need treatment, they need support,” Martinez said. “The mayor is not willing for us to turn our back on those folks who need care and treatment.”