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Residents reject addiction programs for former Radius Specialty Hospital on Townsend St.

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Residents reject addiction programs for former Radius Specialty Hospital on Townsend St.
Roxbury resident Anthony Brewer addresses city officials at a community meeting held Dec. 4 to air views on a proposal to locate addiction recovery programs in the former Radius Hospital building.

A vocal audience of Roxbury community members last week delivered a resounding “No” to a city proposal to move addiction recovery programs into the former Radius Specialty Hospital on Townsend Street.

At a community meeting at the Trotter School Dec. 4, city officials cut their presentation short and were largely silenced as residents made no secret of their anger and frustration at the proposal and how it was communicated.

At issue is consideration of the facility, the former Jewish Memorial Hospital, as a long-term temporary site for some of the programs uprooted from the city’s Long Island homeless shelter Oct. 8 when engineers declared the bridge to the island unsafe. The six programs considered for the Radius site include city- and privately-run detoxification, recovery, health care and transitional housing services. They would bring approximately 190 clients and 110 staff, officials said. The island facilities had served some 700 homeless clients before the bridge closing forced an evacuation.

Residents, workers and elected officials spoke passionately against the plan. Common themes came up over and over: locating addicts in a neighborhood with a high concentration of children and schools is too risky; Roxbury already suffers more than its share of rehab facilities and should not be expected to absorb more; such a facility would be a blow to property values in a neighborhood finally on the rise.

“You’re taking us five steps back. We are trying to make Roxbury safer. Respect that,” said one resident.

“Dropping this stuff in our community, and not in [other neighborhoods], it’s just not right,” said one man. “Tell the mayor NO. This community does not want this — and we will fight it.”

A source of frustration for many was that officials did little to publicize the meeting. The city-issued flyer mentioned only that the meeting was to “discuss possible alternative uses for Radius Hospital.” A few alert community members distributed the flyer door to door in the surrounding neighborhood along with information that the city was eyeing the site for substance abuse recovery programs.

“I think it’s quite egregious that we didn’t get a notice of the meeting,” said Louis Elisa, acting president of the Garrison-Trotter neighborhood association. “The fact that someone in your leadership did not feel they had to give respect to people at the community level leaves the people frustrated.”

The meeting, conducted by Felix Arroyo, Health and Human Services chief, Jerome Smith, Office of Neighborhood Services director and Dr. Huy Nguyen, medical director and interim executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, was contentious from the start, as a restive audience full of questions had little patience for a slide show of substance abuse data.

Elisa said the slide show was not addressing questions the people in the room had, including what other facilities and other neighborhoods are being considered, the record of service for the agencies administering the recovery programs, and what types of clients would be coming in.

The tension worsened when Nguyen, who stepped into his interim post in October following Barbara Ferrer’s departure from BPHC, referred to an earlier meeting he had with Roxbury community leaders, saying he was very impressed with how “intelligent, strong, resilient and organized this community is.”

A chorus of indignant murmurs erupted as attendees perceived Nguyen had found this surprising. Residents who rose to speak after that took care to remind officials that the packed school auditorium included Harvard graduates, lawyers, teachers and plenty of other learned and civically engaged people.

“No one should be surprised at the intelligence of the Roxbury community,” declared state Rep. Gloria Fox.

Fox told the crowd she regretted the closing of Radius, which she knew left an empty building that “everyone would be hungering for.” She said other sites have been considered in the South End, Dorchester and Mattapan, but that the recently vacated Radius presented a particularly “delicious” option. But she pushed for a Roxbury meeting to seek resident input, she said.

“No one in the Boston delegation agreed with this move, because we said it had to go to the community first,” she said.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, in a brief appearance, was unable to appease the crowd with her suggestion that if chosen, the Radius location might present job opportunities for local residents.

Leaders of two of the recovery programs never had a chance to address the audience, as officials hastily turned the meeting over to public comments.

The timing of the meeting, on the heels of a week of outrage over grand jury decisions not to indict police officers who killed unarmed black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner may have lent a sharper edge to the discourse. Some held little back, one woman shouting in fury, “They hate us!” Some who spoke less harshly still expressed deep skepticism about the city’s intentions.

“You say you want to use Radius for the short term — but it will be long term,” asserted one resident.

There was widespread distrust that security could be guaranteed, though Arroyo emphasized that no recovery clients would be free to come in and out of the facility on their own.

“But it’s not a lock-down facility,” Fox countered.

“They’ll find an unlocked door,” said a father living adjacent to the Radius site. “Children in my home, and in other abutting homes, could be the first contact with a person who is on drugs.”

Jed Hresko, one of the residents who distributed the flyers, quoted a website describing one of the programs’ Long Island site: “Although it is an unlocked facility, the remote location, surrounded by water, provides a natural level of security.” He wondered how such security could possibly be replicated in a densely populated residential area.

Even Yvonne Desmond, a senior treatment coordinator for the Boston Division of the Trial Court of Massachusetts — whose job is to find treatment programs for substance abusers in the justice system — spoke against the Radius siting.

“Treatment is important,” she said. “But the programs proposed are not secure facilities. We do not want this in our neighborhood.”

As attendees began to leave, former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson sounded a compassionate note and tried to move the conversation toward next steps.

“The question does remain, because we are humane and considerate: They are cold, they are freezing. If this isn’t the right thing to do, what do we do? What’s the next conversation?” she asked.

Wilkerson contended that some of the so-called sober houses already in the community are in reality “a living hell,” and echoed the concern that Roxbury, as a child-dense neighborhood, was not a proper site for more recovery services.

“It’s not that Roxbury residents don’t care,” she said. “We want to figure out what works — we just don’t think this is right.”

One of the last speakers was City Councilor Tito Jackson.

“I think you’ve heard loud and clear that people in this community do not want this,” he told the officials. “This is not a ‘Not in my backyard’ — it is ‘Not ALL in my backyard.’ We have a disproportionate number of sober homes.”

Jackson said he would not vote for any city budget that includes acquisition of the Radius facility for these uses, adding, “What we should be thinking about is how we bring a developer here who could bring jobs and housing to that site.”

City Councilor-at-large Ayanna Pressley attended but did not speak at the meeting. Afterward, she said she was not surprised by the emotion in the room, given historic breaches of trust in Roxbury that make it difficult for people to believe their wishes will be honored. Pressley spoke of the bigger picture of the Radius facility’s future and the unresolved dilemma of where to serve displaced Long Island clients.

“What we know for sure is we need to repurpose that space and that it adds value to the neighborhood. Roxbury is begging for economic development,” she said. “Homelessness and addiction is everyone’s problem, but there needs to be equity. Some areas, like Roxbury and the South End, are already saturated.”

At the meeting, there was talk of creating a task force to examine the siting issue, though a few attendees protested that no task force or additional discussion is needed, as unequivocal rejection has been voiced.

Smith ultimately promised that there would be no movement by the city on the Radius proposal without further community input.