South End Library Park was packed full of Southenders and others on Aug. 7 for a contentious meeting held by the city in response to their “Operation Clean Sweep” effort, in which 34 individuals with outstanding warrants were arrested in the South End near what’s known as “Methadone Mile” as a result of an assault on a corrections officer two weeks ago.
The meeting was supposed to have taken place in the second-floor meeting room of the South End Library, but people were backed up on the staircase, in the library, and out the door, so city officials decided to take it outside to allow everyone to participate.
Special Advisor to the Mayor Buddy Christopher, Chief of Health and Human Services Marty Martinez, and D-4 Police Captain Steven Sweeney were on hand to explain to the community what had happened, as well as address comments and questions. People with differing viewpoints began shouting over one another at certain points, and it appeared that several people were uncomfortable with the behavior at the meeting, further adding to the confusion and chaos that the situation already created within the neighborhood. It was difficult to hear questions and answers at certain points, which also seemed to further agitate the crowd. There were people who were concerned for their own public safety in the neighborhood, as well as others who felt that the homeless people were not treated with proper respect.
Several elected officials or their representatives were at the meeting, including City Councilor Kim Janey, who led off the meeting by saying that it is “important that we do not vilify people who need help and services. This is an issue that impacts a lot of us.” She also reminded the community that this is something that they’ve been dealing with for a while, and it is important that neighborhoods and people are not pitted against each other.
“This is a crisis impacting the entire city,” Janey said. “We cannot just blindly push people along and hope for the best. We’ve got to have a real plan and a real strategy.”
Christopher said that he felt it was important to talk to the community about what has happened over the last few weeks, as he is aware that there are many concerns from the neighborhood. “Somebody got physically hurt; the police took the corresponding action they felt was appropriate,” he said. He said that the police have upped their responsibility of policing neighborhoods, but their “first concern is to try to get these people some help.”
“We are in the process of trying to get the homeless folks back to Atkinson Street,” Christopher said. He added that the “vast majority” of those arrested had “lengthy histories,” and “those were the pool we wanted off the street,” he said.
“The quality-of-life of your neighborhood is extremely important to the mayor,” Christopher said. A comment was made that a resident witnessed people being rounded up and pushed off the streets.
Christopher said that the police opening line when coming up to people is “can we help you? Can we get you to a shelter? People are not allowed to mill around and loiter in such a way that compromises the quality of life of a neighborhood,” he said.
Marty Martinez said that the city is trying to balance public safety and quality of life issues with getting people the help and services they need. He said that there has been an increase in outreach workers into the South End, Roxbury, Dudley, and Fenway neighborhoods and the city has partnered with Pine Street Inn to increase resources for those who need them.
“Has it been perfect? Absolutely not,” Martinez said of what has been done. There’s things that I wish hadn’t happened. There’s no simple answer. We’re trying to piece it all together so that people can get the care they need.”
“‘Not perfect doesn’t cut it anymore,” someone commented.
In response to the comment that people are being pushed off the streets in a group, Sweeney said that “It’s not the case that we’re just rounding people up.” He said that the police are working with city agencies to clean up from Harrison Ave. to Albany Street, as there are needles and feces on the ground.
“If someone has to be arrested, we try to defer them out first to one of the services to outreach workers,” Sweeney said. “We’re not going to allow them to prey on people and their property either. It’s both sides of the issue here.”
Martinez said 8,000 needles a month are picked up around the city, and there are more and more people being brought into shelters and treatment programs. “It is not perfect but it’s not true that the city isn’t investing resources, time, and energy into the city,” he said.
Several people were visibly upset about videos that have been circulated that show police throwing away wheelchairs that were being used by the homeless population, and demanded answers from city officials and police as to why that happened.
Christopher said the wheelchairs were thrown away because they were covered in urine, feces, and blood. “We have never and will never kick anyone out of a wheelchair,” he said. “Wheelchair removal is not protocol,” Martinez added.
Jim Greene of the Department of Neighborhood Development said that in the past five years, 1,000 homeless veterans have been housed, and “There are more acute addiction treatment and recovery beds than there were five years ago when the bridge shut down.”
“People come here from many places,” he said. “We are dealing with the opioid and housing affordability epidemic. I understand the outrage.”
Greene said that more supportive housing is coming to the city to house homeless people, and they are trying to increase the shelter capacity in other areas around the state. We’re not gone to let up to try and get people the help they need. We’re going to stay at it.”
Jada Ricard, an 11-year-old Orchard Gardens student, has spoken at many different public spaces, such as the school committee, in front of the city councilors, and even to the presidential candidates in Washington D.C. about the opioid crisis and how it affects her.
“We have seen people shooting up in the streets,” she said. She said that on her way to school, she has seen multiple drug users on the streets, and she said that the playground at Orchard Gardens is not safe as people are sleeping under the slides and needles are still there.
“Now that a corrections officer has been assaulted, now you’re doing something,” she said. She said she fears for her safety and reminded officials that “we have been asking for a change at that spot; it’s not fair.”
Ricard’s mother said, “People shooting up in front of students is abuse as well. If I was doing it in my home, you would have taken my child away.”
Martinez said that there should not be a distinction between what happened to the corrections officer and what happens in the neighborhood. He also said that they are trying to work with Boston Public Schools on making schools safer.
“We’re proud of the needle exchange program,” Martinez said, which provides clean needles for drug users in exchange for their dirty ones. There was also a question about safe consumption sites, which Martinez said cannot be allowed because there are federal restrictions to them, and Gov. Baker is also not in favor. However, “we have been working to increase harm reduction services,” Martinez said.
“We’ve watched this for countless years,” local coach Domingos DaRosa said. “The needle exchange program does not work. We know these folks need help and we all want to help them.” Several of his players were at the meeting, and expressed their concern for their safety on the field, as they have seen several needles around.
“They come to the field to get away from the shootings in their community, not to add to their stress,” DaRosa said of the kids. “Please make the phone calls, please keep complaining.”
At 7:30 p.m., people’s questions and comments were cut off by the city officials. Several people expressed their frustration with not being heard or not getting their questions answered. Officials said that police presence would continue in the neighborhoods, and encouraged people to reach out with any comments or concerns they may still have.