Camped Out : Addicted, Homeless Population Spreading

When Blackstone/Franklin President David Stone took a recent survey of the two Squares in his neighborhood, and found 11 people sleeping there one morning, and later observed folks bathing in the fountains, he knew something was mighty different than in past summers.

Add that to the frequent open drug use he and other neighbors have seen on the normally quiet residential streets of Blackstone/Franklin, and he and others have begun to conclude the Mass/Cass problems are migrating further into the South End.

“Blackstone and Franklin squares have always had some issues, but the situation has become more significant in the amounts and severity,” said Stone this week. “We see more people sleeping overnight and then returning day after day. They’re setting up cardboard boxes and they’re bathing in the fountains. They appear to be young and troubled, and we find clothing and needles a lot. It seems unmistakable. I think it’s more than an uptick, but a substantial increase. We don’t want this to be the new normal. Why it’s happening we don’t know yet. We are working with everyone to understand why, but we need to make sure it doesn’t continue.”

Stone is one of many voices in the South End and Fenway who have noticed a tremendous amount of new activity in their neighborhoods, including open drug dealing, intravenous drug use on their steps, and stealing from residents and businesses – compromising the community’s stability.

Problems this year have emerged in Titus Sparrow Park in the South End, as well as further up Albany Street and increasingly in the Fens and Fenway’s Boylston Street.

George Stergios, president of the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA), is no stranger to the opiate epidemic as his neighborhood has been at the epicenter for several years. However, what is new this year is the overall numbers of people, and their ability to camp out on the sidewalks overnight and during the day without a lot of oversight.

It is particularly noticeable on Harrison Avenue, where small but growing encampments of people are compromising businesses like the restaurants and convenience store.

He said he worries the City, the police and law enforcement are losing control of the streets.

“It is affecting the businesses,” he said, noting that they had a very spirited meeting in June regarding the pressure on local businesses. “It is effecting people trying to sell property and it is affecting people trying to live their normal daily lives…There are just people sleeping all over the place. You get up in the morning and there are just people lying there. They’re there all afternoon too. The City has to do something about it…You can’t lose control of the streets. You can’t lose control of this situation. But that seems to be what’s going on now. You don’t want to give people life in jail for stealing a loaf of bread, but you have to keep some degree of order or you’ll get anarchy.”

Stergios said the encampment problem has emerged this year, and it’s the first time the Mass/Cass problems have taken the “next step” many see in cities like Seattle and San Francisco.

He said it started last winter in the vacant Subway storefront – which closed nearly two years ago. One person started sleeping in the doorway, and then two or three others joined that person before anything was done. That grew to more and more people, and then the stolen hospital wheelchairs started arriving as well.

“The Subway person spread to two or three people, and then spread to the other storefronts and on down Harrison Avenue,” he said. “They were looking not to be bothered. They weren’t bothered at the Subway because it was vacant. Then, with more and more people, there’s less chance you get bothered.”

Several other WSANA residents have also become involved in trying to stop the encampments and the open drug dealing and usage.

A few residents have taken to making videos of the situation and posting them online so that the problem isn’t ignored – as they believe it is. Those videos show people routinely “shooting up” on stoops, on curbs, dealing drugs in the open on stoops, sleeping on piles of clothing in front of businesses and defecating in public as well.

One business owner relayed that on a recent afternoon, one of those in the encampment began spitting on his clients in the restaurant – chasing them out and leaving him with an empty dining room at the lunch hour. The next day, that same man came back and asked a restaurant worker if he could bum a cigarette. The man seemed to have no knowledge of what he had done in the restaurant the previous day.

“We have people literally shooting up and selling drugs at out front door,” said one resident that wished to remain anonymous. “Families don’t let their kids outside because of fear of needles being left on the stoops. We are literally subsidizing the health epidemic happening right in front of our own homes whilst the police play cat and mouse with them and the mayor and City Hall choose to ignore the very problem they imported into our neighborhoods.”

WSANA Board member Robert George said the police at the local D-4 station have been very responsive, and in the last week have tried to put a halt to the encampment issue. However, he said, now the same situation is playing out across the street at Boston Medical Center.

“The downside is that it pushed people across the street into the BMC park and benches,” he said. “We need to get BMC to do their part now and remove the benches adjacent to the street, and not allow people to loiter on their property. Last week the police arrested a drug dealer in the morning, and he was back on the street in the same location selling to the same people by 3 p.m. that day. It is a vicious cycle, but we need to stay vigilant. I would certainly like to see more services to help people, but I think a percentage of them wouldn’t take advantage of any services for a number of different reasons.”

WSANA Board member Desi Murphy said there has been a lot of planning going on for the long-term future – such as Long Island Recovery Campus and the Shattuck Hospital site. He has actually been on the resident advisory committee to help plan for the Shattuck Recovery Campus. However, long-term plans don’t equate to short-term solutions, giving rise to people living on the sidewalk.

“The City, state and private agencies are planning well for the future – three to five years and more…, but we need to do more for today, though,” he said.

Stergios and others in Blackstone/Franklin and WSANA insist this summer’s situation isn’t a migration of people from one place to another, but a large increase in the amounts of people living on the streets – homeless and/or addicted.

However, South End Forum Moderator Steve Fox said he believes the problem of encampments has arisen from the Boston Police and State Police clearing out the I-93 Connector road just beyond Melnea Cass Boulevard.

“We think the encampments are a result of people who were on the Connector – and because of several complaints from people driving in – they were moved,” he said. “People don’t disappear. They moved to places like Topeka Street and Southampton and Harrison Avenue. I think we need more Engagement Centers, but they don’t have to be large. Instead of one on Southampton, if you have 15 of them across the city, it gives an optional place for people to be instead of on the sidewalk…I do not think what we’re seeing is some kind of invasion of new people.”

Fox, who also chairs the Forum’s Opiate Working Group, said he thinks now is not the time to post videos or complain about the problem, but rather to seize the opportunity to develop a solution with political and financial power brokers.

“The whole point is to be in a dialogue,” he said. “We need ideas…The mayor has the ability to pull all these people together…There is an enormous upside if we can get everyone like that back on the same page and taking on their piece of the solution.”

Fox has submitted, with input from non-profits and providers in the neighborhood, a list of action items that it is hoped will solve the encampment problem.

Meanwhile, folks like Stergios are skeptical.

He said he doesn’t think the City wants to take stock in the problem, and he doesn’t see them wanting to solve it either.

“They seem like they want to collect as little information and facts as they can…because with facts come accountability,” he said. “With a baseline, you can tell if it’s worse or better or just a migration…You can’t do work to help people if you don’t know what the problem is and the City doesn’t seem to want to know what the problem is right now.”

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