Walsh flooding the Mass. and Cass zone

Extra street workers, police being deployed to the area

BOSTON MAYOR MARTY WALSH intends to flood the area around Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue with outreach workers, public works staff, and police officers in a bid to ease the impact of homelessness, drug abuse, and crime in a hard-hit neighborhood in the South End.

The strategy, dubbed “Melnea Cass/Mass Ave 2.0,” aims to address the needs of those struggling with substance abuse disorder and the neighborhood residents impacted by homelessness. “What we have on our hands is an opioid epidemic of historic proportions that is taking hold of too many lives,” Walsh said in a statement.

It’s all about “boots on the ground and more engagement,” said Marty Martinez, the city’s chief of health and human services, in a briefing with reporters on Thursday.

City officials said they have many goals: eliminate fatal overdoses in the area; decrease the spread of infectious diseases caused by used syringes; connect people to substance abuse disorder and recovery services; reduce the homeless population; and develop a citywide protocol for redirecting encampments.

The city’s three-year-old street outreach team, soon to get eight new members, will create a list of 40 to 60 homeless persons to be prioritized for service referrals and shelter placements. The group already works seven days a week to escort drug users to recovery services and get them overdose prevention supplies such as naloxone. In 2018, the team made 2,000 client referrals to shelters and programs.

New drop off locations for active users to return syringes will be created, and four new public works employees will be tasked to keep the area clean with daily street and grounds cleanings, especially around encampments. This is in response to the 62,000 pick up requests through Boston 311 in the first eight months of 2019.

Martinez said the city is also looking at syringe disposal outside of the Newmarket neighborhood. There are currently 17 needle kiosks throughout Boston to allow people to safely disposed their used syringes.

“We’re really invested in looking at where can we provide other services outside of this immediate area,” he said, referring to the area nicknamed Mass. and Cass.

But Martinez cautioned not to expect immediate results. “More people on the street doesn’t mean today I met you, so today I get you into treatment,” he said. But having specific individuals in mind will help street workers build relationships and trust that should help get more people into treatment, he said.

“We’re interested in working with St. Francis House and other day shelters and church communities to see if we can’t deconcentrate the number of homeless that are there during the day,” said Sheila Dillon, chief of the city’s housing and neighborhood development agency. The city is also looking into expanding night drop-in programs with nonprofit partners.

The second part of the effort focuses on reducing criminal activity in the area. The Police Department’s street outreach unit will grow from two to five officers, and more officers will be trained in de-escalation techniques and how to respond to overdoses.

Walsh and Boston Police Commissioner William Gross have both insisted that most of the people arrested as part of Operation Clean Sweep in August were people from outside the city wanted for violent crimes or outstanding warrants.

Now city officials want to work with the people still there. Martinez said cleaning out encampments and throwing everything away is not a solution.

“With this expanded team we can help more people,” said Michael Stratton, deputy superintendent of the Boston Police Department. “I find when I go to Melnea Cass Boulevard and respond to a person who set up a tent, when I can go with the team from Pine Street outreach, recovery coaches, and go as a team, we can offer more services, and long term care. This is our approach, not just enforcement.”

But he said if an arrest is what’s needed, it will be made.

The citywide police department bike unit will be deployed to more areas, including Worcester Square, Harrison Avenue, Blackstone, Franklin, and Ramsey parks — all near Melnea Cass and Mass. Ave. An anti-crime unit will also keep an eye on areas near  the Orchard Gardens and Mason schools, where residents and students have complained about drug activity.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

To oversee the effort and coordinate data collection on the initiative, the city plans to create a 24-member task force. More than one member will have “lived experience,” such as a former substance user or homeless individual, Martinez said. Others will be city and state elected officials, community and business leaders, residents, providers, and law enforcement.

City officials were unable to calculate the amount of money the municipality is kicking in to the effort, but they said $750,000 is being provided by the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services.