BOSTON — If you don’t live or work around the area of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston’s South End, it’s hard to adequately convey how dangerous and sad the situation is.
Tents and sleeping bags line the street. People openly stick needles in their arms on the sidewalk. Others urinate and defecate near parked cars. One correction officer said he and other officers are worried about their safety and sometimes have a hard time just parking for work.
During a mayoral forum Wednesday at the Suffolk County House of Correction, six candidates for mayor were asked the question, “What would you do about Methadone Mile?”
Former Boston Chief of Economic Development John Barros said the city is putting people who need health services in contention with businesses and it’s not fair.
“The tents have grown. They’re going to continue to grow,” Barros said.
Barros said he’s in favor of decentralizing health services so that Boston is not the only place where people can go to receive treatment. Barros said he would, “talk to the towns who are bringing people here in the morning,” because, according to Barros, most camped out by Mass Ave. and Melnea Cass Blvd. are not original residents of Boston.
“We need to hit the streets now. We need to triple the team on the streets and get services on the streets right now. We need to do it not in some meeting or in some group. We need to do it by doing it now,” Barros said.
City Councilor Andrea Campbell
Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell said it’s not just a public health crisis but also a public safety crisis.
“You come down here at night and there’re people rolling up in shiny cars, opening up their trunks for a good hour, selling and then driving off. Where’s BPD? Where’s the response?” Campbell asked.
Campbell wants “greater investments in the budget” and someone with a recovery background to lead the effort to clean up the area and get people help.
“There needs to be a leader at the cabinet-level. If I were mayor, I would have appointed someone who has a recovery background. We don’t have that right now in the City of Boston who is overseeing this,” Campbell said.
City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George
Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George said the city picked up 250,000 needles when she took office in 2016. This year, the city will pick up an estimated one million needles, Essaibi George said.
“There is a desperate need for an increase in our response, and we have to get to it quickly. We can no longer wait,” Essaibi George said.
Essaibi George said the city should use federal funding from the American Rescue Plan to increase needle pick-ups, EMS support, and clinicians providing mental health support. She also said the city needs to do a better job responding to what specific drug the addicts on the street are using.
“We have to respond specifically to the change in drugs that are on the street, the increase in violent behavior on the street because of the change in drugs,” Essaibi George said.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey
Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey proposed a $50 million emergency relief plan funded through the American Rescue Plan. Three million dollars would go towards “behavioral health and substance use,” including funding for opioid treatment and services, the city said.
Janey recounted how her uncle died “with a needle in his arm” in the 1980s, and said the opioid crisis impacts her personally.
“This is a public health crisis, and I reject the notion of people who continue to call this ‘Mass and Cass.’ These are people, people who are in need of support, services and treatment,” Janey said.
Janey said there are plans underway to rebuild the Long Island Recovery Center with or without a bridge connecting to Quincy. Janey said her administration is considering a possible ferry service to and from the island.
“I have my administration treating this the same we did with COVID,” Janey said. “That is how we are elevating this issue now under my leadership.”
State Rep. Jon Santiago
State Rep. Jon Santiago said the city needs to “decentralize, regionalize and modernize” services.
“I live just a couple blocks from here. I have to pick up needles. I see people sleeping on my stoop,” Santiago said.
As mayor he said he would direct the Boston Public Health Commission to declare a public health emergency at Mass and Cass, and would appoint a Mass and Cass Director of Services “to coordinate efforts while partnering with public and private stakeholders to ensure the community’s voice is heard,” according to his campaign website.
“I take a jog around here almost every morning. This morning, there were almost 20 tents outside,” Santiago said. “This is one reason why I first ran for office.”
City Councilor Michelle Wu
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu said the city shouldn’t bank on a “magical” $100 million bridge solving the Boston opioid crisis.
“What could we do with hundreds of millions of dollars today, not waiting for Quincy? [We could] get a ferry service set up, build supportive housing,” Wu said.
Wu said she’s talked with health care providers who have treated Mass and Cass patients and the outlook is bleak.
“They said even when [their] patients get on treatment, get physically well, they don’t have a safe, clean, healthy home to go back to. They can’t get a job. Then it becomes a cyclical experience once again with the opioid crisis. We need to take that funding and build supportive housing to get people off the streets,” Wu said.
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