By Seth Daniel
Earlier this month at a neighborhood function in the South End, two mayors came face-to-face for a handshake.
One of them was Mayor Martin Walsh – the mayor of Boston.
The other was George Stergios – the oft-mentioned Mayor of Methadone Mile.
It was good for a laugh or two, but the laughs stopped there.
Stergios, the president of the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA), is very serious about his pet issue to address the vagrancy and drug abuse issues that are front and center in his neighborhood – and he’s not beyond ideas such as pressing drug companies to pitch in and pay for the problems he believes, in many cases, they created with addictive pills.
While such problems have existed for years in the area, the problem has really blown up exponentially over the last two years.
“This is not the kind of addiction you used to see,” said Stergios during a walk through the neighborhood recently. “You would think about it being like it was in the 1960s and 1970s in the inner city with drugs and prostitution. These are white, middle-class and lower middle-class kids that started this trip on painkillers and pills and go addicted that way and have ended up here. Now, we’re being barraged with it and it’s really grown…It’s a national problem and we’re one of the places that ends up paying for it.”
To be certain, the WSANA area near Boston Medical Center campus was one of the few areas in the South End for a long time that had not been uplifted by development and investment, but that has changed. Now, residents who have paid $1 million or more for their homes, and have invested countless dollars in renovations, have to contend with addicts overdosing on their front steps, or homeless people sleeping in the back alley – and all too frequently, having to clean up human excrement from their back patio before guests arrive for a BBQ.
Part of the issue is the area is barraged by social services, and that isn’t new. There are two homeless shelters, a woman’s homeless shelter and three Methadone Clinics right within the general area. There are also a number of rehabilitation halfway houses as well as the safety net hospital, BMC, and fairly good public transportation.
All of it equals a Mecca for folks on the edge.
Even within the short span of a walk with Stergios one morning on Harrison Avenue, two individuals could be observed digging through neighbors’ trash bags, another man asked for money in an extremely rude fashion, and a third hoped to get some change for a beer – his last beer ever, he promised – as his public assistance check hadn’t cleared yet. Such encounters are a certainty anytime neighbors leave their homes.
Therein lies the contradiction Stergios has so often pointed to – that if WSANA is going to be this kind of place for social services, the City and state need to make sure residents are helped out in the effort to mitigate the growing wave of folks brought into the area by the opiate epidemic.
“I can’t send an e-mail to members of WSANA and tell them that we should all stop doing so much heroin,” he said with a laugh. “On the other hand, a lot of folks have paid a lot of money to live here and have to deal with a lot of problems. No one is asking for these places to close down or move. We all moved into an area with a lot of existing social services. We paid less money because of that. This was one of the last places in the South End to turn. We understand that. But something can be done. The City and state fund these things like halfway houses and Methadone Clinics and other services here, but they don’t fund the security you need to make sure they don’t overwhelm the residents. If the Methadone Clinics are going to be here, we ask they do it in a way we don’t feel it as much.”
Even BMC has felt the challenges, as have other businesses in the area. Many of the businesses have long abandoned the idea of offering restrooms to customers and they often keep added security to address the constant issues with loitering and drug abuse.
“The opioid epidemic, which recognizes no geographic or social boundaries, has created significant challenges to communities across the country,” said BMC spokesperson Jenny Eriksen Leary. “Boston is no exception. Here in our own neighborhood, Boston Medical Center will continue to partner with the City and the community to identify solutions and to ensure a safe and secure environment for patients, visitors, employees, and students. Boston Medical Center’s department of public safety, which has a highly visible presence, is always appropriately staffed with trained officers to swiftly respond to any and all issues concerning public safety.”
The Mayor’s Office said they are well aware of the problems in the area, and pointed to several budget initiatives in the current FY17 Budget proposal from the mayor regarding the two homeless shelters in the area, Woods Mullen and Southhampton.
“In FY17, the City is investing an additional $1 million in resources to enhance safety and service at the Woods Mullen and Southampton Street shelters,” read a budget announcement. “The investments, which include hiring a mix of coordinators, assistant coordinators, counselors, and security staff, will enable the Public Health Commission to efficiently operate the shelters on 24/7 basis and better assist Boston’s most vulnerable population with case management, medical and behavioral health services, career counseling, job training, substance abuse prevention, and housing support.”
In addition, the two shelters will benefit in the proposed budget from a full-time front door triage specialist. That funding and position allows flexibility, including the ability to provide money to help individuals coming in from the suburbs to get back to their home community.
“Across those two sites, the staff members will form a unified triage program and act as intake workers for individuals who are first entering the homeless system,” read the budget request. “The workers will assess the specific needs of individuals in crisis, and will rapidly direct them to the appropriate resources such as referrals to appropriate substance abuse or mental health treatment programs, moving costs, temporary storage costs, or transportation to reunify individuals with family and friends. Enhancing and expanding the number of these staff members is critical to ensuring that individuals receive the resources that meet their unique needs. In addition, the budget allocation includes flexible funds to help homeless individuals to return to their communities of origin.”
There is also a Needle Patrol that has been introduced by the City in the last year, and neighbors say the program is responsive and helpful.
That, of course, requires City funding, and Stergios advocates the somewhat unique idea of going after the drug companies who have profited off of the addiction of young people who started on pills and moved on to injected heroin – as the addiction path often travels.
“This kind of thing only happens here,” he said. “In Europe, they have the heroin problems, but they don’t have the OxyContin problem. They don’t allow those pills. Part of this problem lies on Big Pharma and we should be going after them and asking them what they’re doing. They are collecting all the dollars off of this and then dumping the effects on us.”