Mayor Martin Walsh made his annual trip to the South End Forum on Tuesday, Sept. 10, and devoted almost all of his 90 minutes with the packed house to the administration’s plans for combatting the opioid epidemic that continues to rock the neighborhood.
The context of the meeting for many neighbors was the fact that in 2016, Walsh appeared at the same meeting and asked for “six months” to get the problem under control. In that time, the situation has gotten far worse for those on the streets and the neighbors who live amongst the problems.
At the new More Than Words bookstore on East Berkeley Street, Walsh was passionate in his discussion and response, sympathetic to neighbors and resolute in trying to stem the problem that is centered in Worcester Square and has quickly fanned out to the rest of the South End this year.
“For each person we got into recovery, it seems like two people replaced them,” he said. “That isn’t a great answer. We were coming over to this meeting and I just thought it was overwhelming. We have every right to get our heads punched in today at this meeting. People have every right to be fed up. We’re trying. I ask you to say committed to us. We’re going to continue to move forward and push other cities and towns to do it too. It’s gotten worse.”
He said regardless of the resources put into the problem, it only seemed to magnify it.
“Regardless of all the work and efforts put into the issue, it just doesn’t seem to get it under control,” he said.
At all times – unlike in the past – the mayor was less defensive and ready to try anything. He was as passionate for getting rid of problems that residents are dealing with as he was about trying to help people on the street to get into recovery.
Walsh’s presentation was made all the more difficult because his former point person on the issue, Buddy Christopher, suddenly took a leave from this position in the wake of a scandal at the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). Walsh said they do have a new plan for addressing the situation that has unfolded – dubbing it Mass/Cass 2.0.
That plan is not quite ready to be presented, he said, but he did give plenty of hints at what it will entail – and there seem to be some new approaches and some old successes.
While most expected the audience to be in an uproar at the meeting, it generally wasn’t the case. Part of that was likely in response to the mayor’s initiatives in the new plan – which included a return of the bicycle officers that neighbors have said were so valuable in the past.
“We are also bringing in dedicated bike patrols,” he said. “In the neighborhood, those were in place and they made a difference. They were taken away and put in other areas, but they are coming back.”
In addition, he announced that there were going to be a lot more street counselors now dedicated to the Mass/Cass area of the South End. He said they were recently able – with the help of State Reps. Aaron Michlewitz and Jon Santiago – to get a $750,000 budget earmark that allowed them to hire 10 more recovery counselors to be on the streets. That will take the overall number up to between 18 and 20.
“That’s a big deal,” he said. “These people are dedicated solely to this neighborhood and you will see them out there…That means we’ll have 20 people on the streets and going around from person to person to person to encourage them to get into treatment.”
Deputy Police Supt. Michael Stratton told neighbors there was also going to be a much larger contingent of police on the beat in the area too.
“If you haven’t already seen a difference, you will because there are a lot of officers being devoted to this area,” he said.
One key piece of that new program, aside from the bikes, was an effort to decentralize the AHOPE needle exchange program on Albany Street.
“We’re probably not looking for more sites for the Engagement Center, but the needle exchange program we have a plan to spread that out,” he said. “Needle Exchanges shouldn’t frighten people. They are keeping people healthy. We’re exploring putting them in other locations in Boston. We should have them in health centers and in other locations. You have my commitment on that. It’s in our new plan.”
Walsh also talked at length about discussions he has had with other City and town leaders from the area during a recent meeting in Boston of the Metro Mayors Coalition. He said a key part of his plan is to really put pressure on surrounding communities to make sure they have resources available for those needing services in their communities. With more than 50 percent of those in Boston not hailing from Boston, he said there is a need for services to be regionalized.
“That’s a big part of 2.0,” he said. “It’s not just Boston sharing services around the neighborhoods, but it’s about 351 cities and towns sharing the services.”
He said many times it’s about working with local authorities because no one outside of Boston wants recovery services in their cities or towns. However, he said it will be incumbent to put pressure on leaders in other communities that it is the right thing to do.
Said one long-time neighbor, Roland Sullivan, from East Springfield Street, who basically summed up what many in the neighborhood feel at the moment.
“I’m so over and done with this,” he said, noting that he routinely sees people shoot up three or four times a day on his stoop. “I have no room for empathy and sympathy. I need action. I probably shouldn’t say this, but last month when the police came and did the clean sweep, it made a difference. For about a week, it was wonderful. I hate it to be a police state, but there is nothing else left to do.”
The mayor acknowledged some of the frustrations in the room, and said neighbors had every right to feel that way.
Then he once again asked for patience.
“I’m not giving a timeline tonight like six months,” he said. “We’re going to do what we can to solve the issue. I wish I had a better answer. We’re going to roll out 2.0 and try it. Stay with us.”