By Seth Daniel
Mayor Martin Walsh thanked South End residents for their patience in tolerating the problems on the Methadone Mile area of the neighborhood and asked for six more months to make measured improvements and to keep trying new ideas during an informal talk at the South End Forum’s annual Conversation with the Mayor on Thursday, Dec. 8.
Forum Moderator Steve Fox welcomed the mayor to the South End Library for an hour-long conversation to a completely packed house on Dec. 8, a conversation that touched on many topics but focused in on the issues of homelessness and drug addiction which plague parts of the neighborhood.
Fox said the Forum has taken a keen interest on the subject and has started sending representatives to an Addiction Task Force that meets with City officials on the problem, and Walsh said he has appreciated those efforts.
“What I’d like to ask you is to give me another six months to see how we can continue to get problems out of the neighborhoods,” he told the crowd. “We’re laser focused on it. It’s the same for Boston Common. We’re laser focused on Boston Common. That and the area here are the two hot spots. We’re meeting weekly internally on every aspect of the problem…You’ll still see homeless people, but we’re hoping to reduce it…You’ve been patient; you’ve been great.”
Walsh spoke with confidence that the problem can be toned down in a neighborhood – particularly in the Worcester Square area – that has had a front-row seat to the worst consequences of the opiate epidemic. Neighbors have pushed the City for the past two years or so to focus in, and Walsh said they are doing that now.
He said there are examples of things that are working, such as the needle pickup Sharps Team, and things not working, such as the needle drop boxes.
He pointed to the permanent housing program which he said has seen major victories in getting chronically homeless people into permanent housing. he said 1,000 chronically homeless persons have been housed since that effort started last year.
A great victory, he reported, was that the coordination of all the providers has resulted in a more intimate knowledge of those who are on the streets.
He relayed a poignant story about a young man who recently showed up at the Pine Street Inn, who wasn’t dressed appropriately for the cold and was a person none of the service providers had seen before. As part of the new effort to get to know those who are homeless, providers intervened and asked where the young man was from.
As it turned out, he had a home in New York City and his parents were looking for him. Apparently, he had gotten off his medications and taken a bus unknowingly to Boston. Once here, he was lost on the streets.
“In all reality, if we hadn’t intervened to ask what the situation was, that young man could have been on the streets for three or four years, probably would have been arrested by the police many times and it would have been years before we would have diagnosed him and treated him,” said the mayor. “All the while, he had a home and people looking for him…Today in Boston, we know every person that is homeless. When someone comes into Boston who is new, we find out what is happening and what the story is.”
The story drew silence in the room, as most were mystified by the effort and the simplicity of being able to save one young man from years of torture due to what essentially was a small miscue with medication.
Another popular revelation was the fact that the City is pushing other municipalities to take ownership of the issue, and also the Methadone Clinics to divert people to facilities closer to their homes.
“I would like to see the Methadone Clinics take people at facilities closer to their homes,” he said. “ Most people at the Methadone Clinics, we don’t see them. They leave. You have some who stay. They’re the young men with clean sneakers and a backpack in front of Cumberland Farms. They don’t live in Boston. They stay here all day. If you are an addict and you’re tempted, you’ll use. We’re working with the Methadone Clinics to see if they can divert them to other clinics closer to where they live.”
He added, “We are also trying to get other cities and towns to step up. Many of the people on the streets who are homeless do not come from Boston and don’t live in Boston. I’m not one to give somebody a bus ticket and send them home. I’m one to try to help. But we can alleviate some pressures if (others step up too.)”
Beyond that, Walsh said there is a new service using the 3-1-1 hotline where referrals for drug addiction treatment will be available 24 hours – a measure introduced last summer.
“You can now call 3-1-1 for recovery services 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “That didn’t happen in the past. We are now a 24/7 referral line.”