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Roxbury has had more than it can take

Lorraine Payne Wheeler
Roxbury has had more than it can take
A needle collection box was installed in 2019 near the Orchard Gardens K-8 school. BANNER PHOTO

While temporary housing is warranted to increase protection of those living in tents around Mass and Cass, this could lead to an increased concentration of drug treatment facilities in Roxbury.

Mayor Wu’s decision to move people living in tents in the Mass and Cass area into housing is to be applauded; how exactly the city plans to achieve this goal is of great concern to many in Roxbury.

Roxbury has for years borne the brunt of the kinds of supportive housing that the Wu administration is proposing for the people currently struggling with homelessness and addiction in Mass and Cass. We have a higher concentration of sober homes, transitional shelters and other forms of group care homes than any other neighborhood in the city. Adding anything more to a group of existing programs and supportive housing will tip the scales in residential areas we worked hard to reclaim.

Now that the city and state government are finally engaged in finding solutions to the human service crises happening along Mass and Cass, too much of the response is directed at Roxbury. The Roundhouse Hotel, Shattuck Shelter and EnVision Hotel are all within the historic boundaries of Roxbury. None of the sites is more than a mile from the heart of our neighborhood. It’s telling that the city has not yet identified one site outside of our neighborhood.

It’s already challenging to travel in Nubian Square. Police and business owners have worked tirelessly over the last year to keep the sidewalks and bus terminal free of human waste and keep customers free of harassment. It’s clear we already face enough challenges managing this difficult population without the city and state siting more programs and units here.

Roxbury residents are currently dealing with the expansion of services for people with substance abuse problems on Blue Hill Avenue at the site of the former Breezeway Bar, where North Suffolk Mental Health Associates has a permit to open a peer counseling program. They do not have a health center in Roxbury. No needs assessment was conducted. Organizational leadership does not reflect the complex cultural needs of the neighborhood. Neighbors found out about the program and made repeated calls to elected leaders, because no other street outreach programs without on-site clinical support exist in Boston. Besides that, this program joins a myriad of residential treatment programs, methadone programs, sober homes and other supportive housing located within less than a mile of the Blue Hill Avenue site.

No other neighborhood in the city has been asked to bear a fraction of what Roxbury residents are dealing with.

We’re not saying we shouldn’t shoulder our share of the burden. We’re saying we already are. There are existing programs that focus on the Roxbury community and the unique needs of Black people for culturally appropriate treatment. They already exist and have the support of their neighbors. These groups should be receiving additional government funding. But instead, Roxbury is being asked to continue to absorb the population of homeless, substance-dependent and mentally ill people from across the state and region in new locations while no other neighborhoods and few other cities across the state lift a finger to help.

Politicians and providers need to listen to us, rather than just moving more programs into Roxbury. We understand that the challenge the city is facing is one of political will, rather than simply one of resources. We expect Mayor Wu will have as much courage to do right by our community as she has to take care of the population at Mass and Cass.

Lorraine Payne Wheeler is an attorney and is president of the Roxbury Path Forward neighborhood association.