As the weather has begun to warm up, several mayoral candidates are now making the opioid epidemic at Mass/Cass a major part of their campaign – with at least three candidates stressing their plans for the area over the last week.
The South End residents have long-hoped that the drug and homelessness issues that have plagued the South End for some time, particularly in the Mass/Cass area, would garner significant weight in the race for mayor – particularly with so many candidates now vying for the job. However, until last week, only Councilors Andrea Campbell and Annissa Essaibi George had unveiled detailed plans.
The past week has brought on a flurry of activity in the mayoral race with regards to Mass/Cass.
That all changed last Thursday when State Rep. Jon Santiago appeared in the South End’s Franklin Square to make his detailed plan known. Santiago, a South End resident who has worked on Mass/Cass issues even before being elected, was more than expected to make the issue key to his election efforts. With a foreword by long-time Southender Nikki Fortes, Santiago unveiled one of the most detailed plans yet.
“Recently, I have taken it upon myself to advocate for my neighbors in Tent City when it comes to the growing, worsening, and dramatically increasing issues around homelessness and substance use disorder,” she said. “Jon sprang into action and has consistently been responsive, attentive, and most importantly, has delivered.”
Santiago said his plan is entitled ‘Decentralize, Regionalize, and Modernize: A Comprehensive Public Health Approach to Addressing Mental Health, Homelessness, and Substance Use Disorder,’ and he said he has put months of work into crafting what he believes – as a medical doctor, resident and politician – to be a successful solution.
Though he said he and others have put a great deal of work into cleaning up and resourcing Mass/Cass, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of improvement.
“But one walk down Massachusetts Avenue and you will quickly see that the situation has worsened,” he said. “It’s a full blown crisis and we are in desperate need of leadership. We need a bold plan, and a tremendous amount of urgency. But most of all, we need action. And a commitment to get things done at Mass and Cass and for the many people suffering from addiction all across Boston.
“Because this summer will no doubt prove to be the most difficult for Mass and Cass,” he continued. “And while last year was very challenging, this year, given the improving weather, the release from social isolation, the rising rates of mental health illness and drug use, I fear for the worst.”
His first actions as mayor, he said, would be to declare an emergency and get put a proven professional at the helm.
“When elected mayor, I will immediately declare a public health emergency at Mass and Cass that will allow us to dramatically scale up resources to address the crisis,” he said. “Appointing a Mass and Cass Director of Services to oversee and coordinate efforts will come next. And most of all, I will commit to partnering with the community and stakeholders to ensure their voices are heard.”
The first part of the plan to decentralize will include putting a moratorium on new public services within a one-mile radius of Mass and Cass, but that doesn’t mean there will be no services that will grow with the problem. He stipulated he is for building the Long Island Recovery Campus, and he also committed to redeveloping the Shattuck Hospital campus in JP with generous supportive housing.
Another part of his plan was to repurpose hotels used for COVID housing outside of the city, a new idea that few have suggested.
“COVID-19 has left us with a number of vacated hotel buildings in the region,” he said. “As mayor, I’ll work with the state to permanently procure and repurpose them to provide additional supportive housing in and outside Boston. But if decentralization and scaling up supportive housing are core tenets in how we begin to address Mass and Cass, regionalization is also paramount. This is of utmost importance as over half of Boston’s shelter population comes from outside the city.”
That would fall in line with his idea to regionalize the effort, also calling for the establishment of a Regional Municipal Task Force to bring a more regional approach to the problem, likely leaning heavily on his connections in the State House.
His idea to modernize the situation revolves around completely changing the dynamics of shelters, calling for the immediate investment in short-term residential beds.
“(That’s) where the bottleneck in our continuum of care currently exists,” he said. “I will partner with health providers to create a program to identify our highest at-risk residents for relapse and seek them out to provide intensive services. Creating rapid response teams to address individuals in acute distress and working with experts to find solutions to an increasing but largely ignored methamphetamine epidemic will be priorities. Expanding all three types of medication-assisted treatment – methadone, Suboxone, and Vivitrol – and increasing access to mental health clinicians at our community health centers will be central to my response.”
One final piece that has gotten attention is his part of the plan that includes a police sub-district dedicated to Mass/Cass. That has been an idea long-proposed at the community level, and also by Councilor Frank Baker – but to date it hasn’t been a key tenant in any mayoral plan.
“Public safety will no doubt play an important role in that,” he said. “The area currently suffers from a lack of coordination between multiple police and public safety forces. I will create a specific Mass and Cass police sub-district to curb drug dealing and better respond to violent crime.”
Santiago wasn’t the only candidate in Mass/Cass, however.
Candidate John Barros held a press conference on Wednesday, May 26, just beyond Sun deadlines to detail his three-layered approach to the issues at Mass/Cass. The conference was held at Orchard Gardens K-8 School, where discarded drug syringes are a constant issue for children trying to play on the playground. The details of his plan were not yet available.
Last week, Councilor Campbell held a press event on Northampton Street and Melnea Cass – attacking Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s decision to re-open the Comfort Station on Atkinson Street in Newmarket. She called on Janey to release an action plan by June 19.
“We have incredible service providers doing heroic work in the area alongside City departments, yet they are overwhelmed and siloed,” she said. “We need a coordinated effort and response to increase our collective impact, and it is critical our City and State administrations take the lead in building that partnership. I’m calling on the Administration including Acting Mayor Janey to meet with advocates and leaders on the front lines of this issue, and publicly release an action plan by June 19.”
Some of the highlights of Campbell’s plan, unveiled in January, include:
•Appoint a Mass & Cass Chief that is a public health professional.
•Create a dedicated Mass & Cass first responder unit made up of public health and recovery service professionals, mental health counselors, and first responders.
•Decentralize treatment and recovery services and increase accessibility of programs citywide.
•Activate vacant and underutilized spaces available to provide more safe spaces.
•Reactivate Long Island, with ferry service from Boston. •Partner with the healthcare community