The homeless population and drug users have been on the forefront of the City’s mind for years, but with the recent “Operation Clean Sweep” of what is known as “Methadone Mile,” the focus has been a little tighter. As residents and city officials work to balance the health and safety of residents with that of those who are out on the street, the issue has become particularly prevalent in Charlesgate Park, according to residents in the area.
This is not the first time there has been heightened homeless activity in the park—when the Long Island Shelter closed several years ago, that led homeless people to come to Charlesgate Park, according to Derek Lee of the Charlesgate Alliance.
The Charlesgate Alliance came together after that and started calling city and state resources to help with the issue. “It leveled off a bit,” he said, but “it’s more drug users now.”
Lee said he’s witnessed people coming in and out of the Bowker underpass and completing drug deals under it. “It’s a consistent issue; we try calling it in when we can.”
What makes calling in resources for Charlesgate Park tricky is that the park is technically under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and the Massachusetts State Police, though Boston Police Department officers have responded to calls put in regarding issues at the park, Lee said. He said he “hasn’t seen much of a presence” from state police or DCR rangers in the park.
“The Massachusetts State Police (MSP) conduct patrols and law enforcement throughout the state parks system, which is managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR),” a spokesperson for the DCR said in a statement. “Being a park management agency, the DCR does not track homelessness data nor does it conduct outreach.”
Lee said that Boston Police have responded to calls and have come down to the area several times, but he said he is concerned that Charlesgate Park will become the next Methadone Mile. “I just ask that the neighborhood is safe, it’s not a huge ask,” he said.
George Lewis, Jr. of the Charlesgate Alliance said that he has recently witnessed a homeless man in a wheelchair with two dogs as well as a woman, but they have cleared out of the area. He said that people also set up tents at the other end of the Muddy River, who bring along with them tarps and piles of trash which they leave behind. He said he’s been working with Jim Greene of the Boston Department of Neighborhood Development as well as the DCR. “We have to figure out how to get thee people help but they’ve got to want help too,” Lewis said. “They’re getting moved from one place to the other—“ he said it’s been compared to the game “Whack-a-Mole:” when one area is cleared out, the people move to another.
“Until Long Island is back up I don’t know how to get these guys help,” he said. He suggested that people make 311 and 911 aware, because the more people who call in, the more enforcement there will be and the more cleanup and help the park and people will receive.
POSITIVITY LIES AHEAD FOR CHARLESGATE PARK
Randall Albright, another Charlesgate Alliance member, concurred that “it’s been a troubled area for many years,” and the park “suffers from being a jurisdictional island right in the middle of the city.” But the goings-on in Charlesgate Park are not all negative, and many people are working together to create a safer, healthier space for all.
Albright said that over the past few months, the Charlesgate Alliance has been establishing a relationship with the city to get help for the people who have set up camp in the park. He added that Charlesgate Alliance has paid for Project Place, a service that helps homeless and low-income people gain skills, education, and resources to get back on their feet, to bring in people three times a week to clean up the park.
The Alliance has also placed red chairs out in the park for people to enjoy a cup of coffee or a chat with a neighbor, and Albright said the DCR has also recently replaced the globe lights throughout the park.
Additionally, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy has been working on several initiatives that would increase the quality of the park and make it more appealing for residents to visit. One such initiative is a dog park, which Albright said he believes will “dissuade people from doing bad things” in the park.
Karen Mauney-Brodek, President of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, said that the organization is “working to do a lot of great work to improve Charlesgate. Over the last two years, we have seen tremendous strides.”
Mauney-Brodek said she thinks the area is looking “better,” and people have been using the red chairs that were put out. “The area is enlivened in a way that it hasn’t been in a long time,” she said. “More folks are embracing it and using it.”
There has been a community process for improving the park in partnership with the DCR and the City, she said, and they raised over $650,000 in public money to complete the design. They are now starting to raise funds to make the improvements actually happen, she added.
Mauney-Brodek said that the most important thing for any public open space is “lively, active uses.” The Charlesgate Park is 13 acres of open space in the heart of the city that is not currently being actively used, and she said that there are “hardly any facilities there for people,” as it lacks seating and activities for people to do. These are things they hope to bring to the park, she said.
Additionally, Mauney-Brodek said that MassDOT is currently working on a plan that would connect for the first time in over 50 years the open space on the Esplanade with the open space of Charlesgate to restore the connection that was originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted as part of the Emerald Necklace.
“I think that times change and we focus on different needs at different times; I think there’s a lot of opportunities here,” she said of the park. “Providing that sense of welcome [that is lacking] is a big part of what we’re working on in the plan.”
WHAT CAN BE DONE NOW?
But in the meantime, Charlesgate residents are still concerned with the issue of the homeless population and the drug use that has plagued the park. Albright said that he hopes the city can get more involved with this issue. “If we could call 911 and get a response from the city instead of having to deal with the state police, we feel that the response time would be better,” he said. Additionally, he said that Larry Callanan of the DCR has “been great about coming in and doing clean outs of the area.”
Lee suggested some solutions that could possibly be employed to help with the issue. He suggested sealing off the area as well as adding in boulders to make it uncomfortable to sleep in the park, but still be aesthetically pleasing. He also suggested that a park ranger or state trooper be placed in the park to “serve as a deterrent.” He agreed that getting the Long Island Shelter back up and running is a major priority for getting people the help they need.
“The problem is not just here, it’s all over the city,” Lewis said. He said that addressing the problem is a “matter of focusing on it and trying to eradicate the problem, help the people, and have the proper authorities police it.”
“We’re not trying to fight [the homeless],” he continued. “They leave a ton of trash around, not to mention needles.” He said that the other day he found his puppy chewing on a syringe in the Commonwealth Ave. Mall. “I pick up stuff all over the place. They drink out of nips and pints.”
“They are more than welcome to use [the park],” Lewis said, but they “shouldn’t be sleeping under the ramp or in the bushes.”
Parker James, another Charlesgate Alliance member, said that he’s come to learn through his interactions with people in the park that while there are a “few bad actors,” such as those using drugs, going to the bathroom in the park, and leaving behind messes, many other homeless people are embarrassed by this behavior. He said he’s discovered that many homeless people do not want the actions of the few bad ones to give homeless people a bad rap.
James said that he’s seen one homeless individual cleaning up the park several times and finally introduced himself. The man told James that he’s been a Boston resident for 30 years and has lived on the streets for about three years. He told James he was cleaning up the park because he didn’t want the reputation of the homeless population to be tarnished by those who leave messes behind.
“It’s an amazing amount of stuff that they have to clean up,” James said. “Their stuff gets confiscated and ends up getting put in the dumpster—it’s a really, really complicated situation. We’re just trying to do the right thing.”
James said that he, like many other people, want to deal with the situation in a “constructive and compassionate way,” but “we need leadership; we need more information,” he said. He said a lot of the confusion and problems with getting the area cleared is the jurisdictional issue.
“Our vision is to make it into a very active park,” James said. “The thing that we’re most focused on there right now is to get a dog park installed in the area where people hide to do drugs.” He said the hope is that with the plans to improve the park, more people will be in there and there won’t be as many places for people to hide.
“We’re trying to revive our park,” James said, “and we don’t want it to be branded as this terrible place.”