In what has become the worst summer in decades for issues regarding homelessness and drug addictions on the streets of the Worcester Square neighborhood, residents reported they had hit a breaking point, and in a meeting Tuesday night, they pressed City leaders for answers.
While the area has long been the epicenter for the opiate epidemic, and the quality-of-life issues that come with that, this year has seen the advent of encampments on the sidewalk and far more people congregating in the area than ever before, according to neighbors.
In a two-hour, intense meeting, the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA) had a packed house to address the street encampment and opiate issues with new Special Mayoral Advisor Buddy Christopher, Jen Tracy of the Office of Recovery Services, Deputy Police Supt. Michael Stratton, and City Homeless Advocate Jim Greene – as well as BMC’s Chief of Security Connie Packard.
Right off the bat, the crowd was irritated, and in no mood for explanations or excuses.
They wanted numbers, and that was the first question from President George Stergios, who said he believes that there are just a lot of new, troubled people that have migrated into the neighborhood – as opposed to a shifting of the population from another part of the city.
“Yes there are some people we didn’t expect when we opened the Engagement Center,” said Tracy. “It was a place focused on Recovery at the time. Now we’re seeing three populations, those with substance abuse disorders, those who are homeless and those with significant mental health issues…It’s not a simple answer whether there are more people. For EMS transfers citywide, we’re up about 100 people per week from this time last year, but that’s not specific to the South End.”
But residents wanted the question answered as to whether or not more people were swarming into their neighborhood, and they didn’t want estimations.
“You knew we were talking about this area,” said Helaine Simmonds. “I don’t know why you came here and didn’t have that information. You weren’t prepared.”
One resident relayed a story about someone who on July 5 scaled her 6-foot-tall privacy fence, went into her backyard and shot up with heroin – all while she and her toddler were inside the home.
“I really appreciate the police because they are on the front lines, but we get a response in a case like mine that they are harmless and probably looking for food or water,” she said. “I have a 10-month-old and that’s not an acceptable answer.”
Added another neighbor, “Where is the line where we stop trying to accommodate the homeless and we start to push back?”
Others relayed that they are prisoners in their homes this summer, fearful to walk outside through the large numbers of people gathered on their stairs – sometimes shooting up and dealing drugs in plain sight.
Stratton said there is a lot of undercover work going on that residents don’t see, but it is happening. They are trying to divert people to programs and to arrest those dealing drugs. He said the complication is that Fentanyl has changed everything because it’s so potent, and it means people will hang around getting high over and over and over.
“When the problem was only heroin, we would have people using and shooting up three to five times a day,” he said. “With Fentanyl, people are shooting up 16 times a day. That means more people are going to be hanging around. You’re going to see more activity. The more potency, the more activity.”
However, it was the fact that the neighborhood – long known for trying to support recovery efforts and display compassion for those that mistreat their streets – is on the verge of turning against the City’s efforts that was of particular note.
Peter Sanborn, who has lived right at the epicenter on Harrison Avenue since 1980, said it is worse than ever – and he considered moving for the first time in his adult life.
“It has never been this bad,” he said. “We’re not here to talk about the South End, but we’re here to talk about the four of five blocks around here. I dare say Chandler and Clarendon do not have this level of problem we have because I dare say the residents of Chandler or Clarendon or Beacon Hill would not tolerate this. I understand the complexity, but it’s intolerable. For the first time ever, I wondered this year if I really wanted to stay in this house. It’s causing me – and I think I am a compassionate person – to start to get hardened by it. That’s a troubling thing. The City needs to do more.”
David Stone, president of Blackstone/Franklin Neighborhood Association, and Toni Crothall, also of Blackstone, said they have had much greater activity in their neighborhood and the two Squares – Blackstone and Franklin.
“Our side streets for the first time ever are starting to see the kind of activity and quality of life issues that our neighbors in Worcester Square have been seeing for many years,” he said.
Steve Fox, moderator of the South End Forum, said one difference he has seen is the lack of visibility by the police bicycle division.
That was duly noted, and Stratton said they are spending a lot of time in the D-4 area, but they are now often pulled over to the Fens or Copley Square – where similar issues are beginning to sprout there as well.
One of the highlights of the meeting was a standing ovation given to Officer Richie Litto and Sgt. James Freeman, both of the local D-4 unit. Both recently on their free time reported to Harrison Avenue and removed an awning that was acting as a shelter for those in the encampments – seemingly making the problem worse. The removal of that awning from the vacant Subway restaurant and a few other tweaks by D-4 Capt. Steven Sweeney have made a difference.
Resident Robert George said he feels like the tactical improvements like that seem to help more than any other thing with the folks that do not want to go into the shelters or recovery services.
“The neighborhood is losing empathy with the issue,” he said. “It’s going to be a big problem when the neighborhood is against you…What I see that’s highly effective in this neighborhood is the tactical things because they make a difference. Things like removing the awning, or putting a squad car on the corner – these strategic and tactical things do help…Long-term plans mean long time. We need more done in the short term.”
That was followed up in the same vein by Desi Murphy, who said the City needs to get better at putting out more information and data. Tracy said they are working on that, but it is a constant battle.
Christopher made his first appearance at a WSANA meeting, and explained that he was moved from Director of ISD to the special assistant role – directly charged with tackling the issues in Mass/Cass. He said he has been doing a lot of listening, and he is compiling a list of resources and services in the area with a goal of producing a first report next month.
Many residents asked him, Tracy and Stratton what there was to look forward to, why they should believe it’s going to get better.
“All the partners are communicating more than they ever have,” said Stratton. “I think you will see some changes. If we weren’t doing what we are doing now, it would be much worse here if you can believe that…If we keep communicating and looking to collaborate, I’d say there is room to be optimistic. We’ll get it done.”
In a closing moment, Fox advanced the idea of getting many of the major hospitals, universities and industry leaders – he used the example of John Fish of Suffolk Construction – to play a role in helping to find a solution to the problem.
“When you have John Fish on the phone asking what he can do, you need to be ready to tell him exactly what he can do that will help to solve this issue,” said Fox.
Christopher said he felt that was possible.
“I think we will get that partnership,” he said.