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Neighbors call for action on Mass & Cass

Ha Ta and Mayra Parrilla Guerrero
Neighbors call for action on Mass & Cass
Demonstrators at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Washington Street. PHOTO: Mayra Parrilla Guerrero

Residents and business owners of the South End and Roxbury and advocates came together last week for a rally at the corner of Mass Avenue and Washington Street to demand actions from city officials to address safety and hygiene issues in the area commonly referred to as the “Methadone Mile.”

More than 100 people attended the rally, some carried signs with demands for city and the state officials. Demonstrators were chanting “Open the bridge,” referring to the Long Island Bridge, which was taken down in 2014 cutting off access to a recovery center for people experiencing homelessness and addiction on Long Island. As some demonstrators moved to the middle of the busy intersection, Boston Police blocked off portions of Massachusetts Avenue and Washington Street.

Organizer of the event and resident of the South End and Lower Roxbury for over 20 years Yahaira Lopez said she hopes to bring together residents from low-income housing, and those who are wealthier.

“The purpose of the standout is to allow the community members to come out with their signs of demand and showcase that the community has demands that they’ve been asking for well over four to six years,” Lopez said. “And I think this is the first protest or rally to be done in the corners of Mass Avenue … which brings back how this is impacting two different communities, both low income communities and financially established communities.”

She said she empathizes with those gathering in the area for services but believes the government should take action to address safety issues for both residents and people struggling with substance abuse.

Lopez said she started speaking out and calling for actions to ensure safety in the South End and Roxbury neighborhoods to advocate for her mother and neighbors.

“My mom has been experiencing a lot of traumatic events where she is witnessing people continuously injecting themselves on the back of her property, having sexual intercourse on her property, defecating on her property, trying to break into her home knowing that there’s the Ring [security camera] on the front door,” she said. “It’s coming to a point that I am extremely worried about my mom’s health and safety, along with her mental health.”

Lopez took the images her mother and neighbors were sharing to her and sent them in an email to Boston city councilors, the mayor of the city of Quincy, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, state Rep. Jon Santiago, among others. She also posted those photos along with the email on her Facebook page, tagging city officials in the post.

The post garnered hundreds of shares and comments. City Councilors Julia Mejia and Annissa Essaibi George have responded voicing their support.

By organizing the standout on Thursday, Lopez said she and other residents hope to leverage the growing attention to the issues to bring changes to the community. She reached out to business owners, members of the Boston Teachers Union who have been working on the issues, as well as student organizers from nearby Northeastern University, among other groups.

“We’re hoping that the city officials see that there’s power in numbers,” Lopez said. “We’re no longer going to tolerate people living in unhealthy and unsanitary conditions while [the city] is ticketing people for having trash in front of their home due to those who are under the influence of drugs coming into the community rummaging through people’s trash.”

Lopez said she and members of the South End and Roxbury Community Partnership, the group that organized the standout on Thursday, drafted some demands they have for city officials to tackle the issues. One of the demands, she said, is to transform the Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain into a temporary recovery center to help individuals seeking recovery. Another is to rebuild the Long Island Bridge and the recovery center there.

On Thursday, Mayor Walsh’s office released a progress report on the Melnea Cass/Mass Ave 2.0 Strategic Plan, which was aimed at addressing the opioid crisis in Newmarket Square and the surrounding areas, which the city said has intensified during COVID-19.

According to the mayor’s office, the plan designated a Public Works team to provide daily street cleanings every day in the Melnea Cass and Mass Avenue area and increased ground sweeps of Boston Public Health Commission, Parks & Recreation Department and Boston Public Schools properties.

The City also established a 25-member Task Force with community leaders, non-profit partners, institutions, residents, business owners, and elected officials who are stakeholders in the Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue area to discuss efforts to combat the opioid and homelessness crisis, according to the press release.

But many residents said they think this is not just an issue of the City of Boston, but of the state.

A resident of South End for 25 years, David Stone said there has always been the presence of homelessness and addiction in the neighborhood, but the issue has gotten significantly worse over the last couple of years for both residents and for people who are experiencing homelessness and addiction.

Stone called for Governor Baker to provide more services around the state for people experiencing homelessness and substance abuse so that “people aren’t all here in Boston.”

“A lot of the individuals here who are seeking services are from elsewhere in the state because they don’t have options closer to home,” he said. “People come from Central Mass and Cape Cod, the North Shore, you know they want to get their services where they live but there aren’t any, especially in the pandemic but even before.”

Jamie Bentley, a nurse practitioner and a harm reduction specialist who works with drug users, said she thinks one of the solutions for the issue is to build safe consumption sites, not drive people experiencing homelessness and addiction out of the city.

“At the end of the day, we all want the same things, we want needles off the street. We want people experiencing homelessness to have a safe place to stay at night; they shouldn’t be out on the street, you know that’s unsafe, especially now with COVID, shelters have less capacity and everything.” she said.

Safe Injection Facilities for Massachusetts Now steering committee member Jim Steward said people suffering through addiction should be treated in Boston, not on Long Island.

“Shipping people off to an island in the middle of Boston Harbor … isn’t going to do anything to change this problem,” he said. “And it’s certainly not going to offer or open opportunities to people who are afflicted by substance use disorder.”

SIFMA Now has been a strong advocate in Massachusetts for safe injection facilities, where those struggling with substance abuse can inject drugs in a hygienic environment under medical supervision. Although these facilities exist in other parts of the world, there is not yet a facility in the U.S.  Advocates for safe injection facilities say that by providing spaces with medical help for people with addictions to inject, there would be less overdose deaths. However, efforts to open safe injection facilities in places including Washington state or Philadelphia have been scrapped after widespread opposition.

Stewart said he sympathizes with residents’ concerns of safety and hygiene in the area but said he fears sharing photos of drug users publicly would further stigmatize people who are struggling with substance use disorder and who have no other option.

“It’s public officials that aren’t being responsive to the situation that we need to hold responsible, not victims of clear and well documented medical conditions that do respond to treatment,” he said. “I understand [residents’] concerns but simply highlighting and posting pictures of them in embarrassing situations, doesn’t do anything for anybody to address the problem.”

This article appeared in The Scope, a project of the Northeastern University School of Journalism.