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Mass & Cass problems spread to Nubian Square

Many fear problems will worsen in Roxbury with warmer weather

Anna Lamb

In mid-January, Mayor Michelle Wu enacted a policy that removed the dozens of tents in the area around Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard that were home to hundreds in the throes of addiction and struggling with homelessness. Wu’s policy came with plans to provide housing to anyone who wanted it, regardless of their sobriety.

Despite more than 150 people being able to utilize the low-threshold temporary housing across six different sites, a recently published report by GBH News states that nearly 100 were not able to access beds in the wake of the mayor’s tent removal policy. Neighborhood residents say those left behind have now taken to dealing and using substances in and around Nubian Square and other parts of Roxbury and the South End instead.

“They are in Nubian Square, they are on Washington Street, they are on Blue Hill Avenue and in Grove Hall,” said City Councilor Tania Fernandez Anderson, whose district includes much of the area where street drug use and lewd acts have been observed over the last six weeks.

Anderson added that her constituents have also faced new violence as a result.

“There’s a certain level of culture that comes with the heroin crisis, in contrast to the crack epidemic,” she said. “When I was growing up in Academy Homes in the projects, and I faced this and I saw bodies laid out or even found dead bodies or even saw people suffering from the sex industry, there was a sense of community still, even with people suffering from addiction.”

She spoke about a personal experience where one of her staffers was physically hurt by someone using while her team tried to use a community space — something she said the usual homeless population in the area have not been known to do.

“We’re in a crisis. And this is hurting everyone, and everyone’s afraid,” she said. “But I also don’t see full transparency in terms of what is the outreach plan for Roxbury? What is the outreach plan for Grove Hall? What I don’t see is that level of communication, and the community is extremely frustrated.”

Her assessment of the issue was echoed by Roxbury Main Streets Executive Director Robert George.

“We saw an increase shortly after that happened in terms of the homeless population loitering in the Square, along with mentally, psychologically ill, as well as increased public use of illegal drugs,” he said. “And we could tell from the population, that wasn’t the traditional folks we are seeing in Roxbury, and Nubian Square specifically.”

George said he’s been working with the city to coordinate street workers and law enforcement in order to protect residents and also to connect struggling folks with the right resources.

“Those who do not want help, as we say in Roxbury, ‘We’ll deal with you through the law,’ because we will not stand for that in our community, especially our business district.”

Reporting by GBH News also points out that it’s now become more difficult for families to track down their loved ones who now congregate in different spots across the city.

“This push for housing that we’re seeing now is far and away the biggest push for housing that we have ever seen in six years of doing this. Nothing else has come close,” Bob Morgan, a social worker with nonprofit Project Do Something Boston, told GBH News. “But they undercounted the number of people out there. They underestimated the need, and people fell through the cracks. Now it’s a scramble to figure out what to do with them.”

With flashes of criminal activity around Mass and Cass and continued steady traffic into the local “Engagement Center” in the area, concern remains that those who have accepted housing during the winter months may make a return to Mass and Cass once warmer weather approaches. Warmer weather may also create an environment where outdoor sites around shelters become new hotspots for open-air drug dealing and violence.

Mike Carpentier, a Franklin Park Coalition board member and board liaison to the Shattuck Hospital Campus on the park’s outer edge, where some temporary shelter has been set up, said things have been been pretty quiet in that area so far, with some limited drug dealing in the adjacent parking lot but no violence or activity in the park. Currently, the state-run site is employing 24-hour security details, which will remain in place for the remainder of a six-month pilot period.

There is concern, though, heading into spring and summer.

Louis Elisa, longtime Roxbury resident and fellow Franklin Park Coalition member, said the park is too valuable a resource in an urban area low on green space to risk if nefarious activities do start up there.

“It really makes a difference — that you have a place that people can go to in relative safety,” he said.

Carpentier said, “We’re going to be trying to work with the state as the weather gets warmer, about ways that we might be able to extend some of our programming or do other things to interact with the residents. You don’t want to isolate them.”

Despite challenges, however, many agree that having an imperfect solution is better than not having one at all.

“The removal of the tent city was necessary and needed and long overdue,” Robert George said. “Unfortunately we saw some residual effects.”