Breaking down “Operation Clean Sweep”

The tension between public safety and public health

How do you balance public safety and neighborhood quality of life concerns with support for the most marginalized people in a community?

Those issues exploded into public view with the recent arrests of homeless people and drug users as part of “Operation Clean Sweep,” a set of Boston police actions centered on the streets near Newmarket Square where the city’s South End, Roxbury, and Dorchester neighborhoods converge. 

But the issues are nothing new to state Rep. Liz Miranda and her constituents. She grew up in the shadow of Newmarket Square in a tight-knit Cape Verdean enclave of Roxbury, and says residents have been dealing for years with problems stemming from the concentration of drug treatment facilities and homeless shelters on their doorstep. The situation has gotten dramatically worse, she said, since the 2014 closing of the city’s shelter and addiction treatment facilities on Long Island.

For the former community organizer who is serving her first term in the House, the controversy that boiled over earlier this month brought some satisfaction that attention is finally being paid to the problems, mixed with concern over the approach city officials took, and questions about why longstanding community calls to deal with the deteriorating situation had gone ignored until now.

This “is a community that’s been speaking up pretty loudly for the last couple of years saying we need help,” Miranda said on this week’s Codcast. “There’s a clear saturation of services at this corner that I don’t see another city or town or even another neighborhood being able to withstand.”

“This is a statewide problem,” she said. “Boston cannot solve it alone.”

Miranda was joined by Yawu Miler, senior editor of the Bay State Banner, who wrote about the issue in the paper’s current issue.

The area near Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass, referred to by some as Methadone Mile because of the concentration of drug treatment facilities there, has long been a gathering place for the homeless and those dealing with drug addiction. But when a corrections officer driving to work at the nearby South Bay House of Correction was attacked by a group of people gathered on the street, the police response was swift. Police carried out several sweeps of the area, arresting more than two dozen people on various charges and outstanding warrants.

Advocates for the homeless have decried the sweeps, especially the most recent one, in which several wheelchairs used by people gathered on the streets were tossed into a city garbage truck and crushed. Some area residents, meanwhile, wonder why it took an attack on a law enforcement officer to have their longstanding complaints about activity in the area taken seriously.

Miranda said the issue raises complicated issues of race, class, and the challenge of balancing compassion with growing anger among her constituents at the concentration of social services in their community. (She unspooled some of these in a lengthy Facebook post.) 

Clifford Playground in Roxbury and the Mason and Orchard Gardens elementary schools grounds have become unsafe for children, she said. At Orchard Gardens, students, parents, and staff have been waging a years-long battle to draw attention to needles that drug users scatter on the playground.

“We have a prison, we have a biolab, we have multiple methadone clinics, we have a hospital, we have multiple shelters, we have multiple sober homes, some that are registered with the Commonwealth, some that are not — all concentrated in a community that’s already struggling, a working class, poor community,” said Miranda.

Unlike many communities, the area has always welcomed programs aimed at helping the homeless and those suffering with addiction or other challenges, she said. Indeed, Miranda has filed a bill this year aimed at helping homeless people. But “what’s a fair share?” she asked.

Miller said everyone he spoke with for his article felt those struggling with addiction or mental illness “need to be taken care of.” But he said there is also a growing sense that the situation is “becoming intolerable.”

He echoed Miranda’s lament about poor and minority neighborhoods being asked to shoulder more than their fair share of services for these populations.

He offered a concrete example of how that erodes efforts to revive a neighborhood. The gleaming new Boston Public Schools headquarters in Dudley Square was a great addition to a long-struggling business district. The Bolling Building initially made its restrooms open to the public, a nice amenity at a busy crossroads. But after drug users started using the facilities to inject themselves, that ended.

“There’s a sandwich board sign as you walk into the lobby that says, sorry, no public restrooms,” said Miller. “I put it under the this-is-why-we-can’t-have-nice-things umbrella,” he said of ways that minority neighborhoods are dragged down. “When you think about somebody who’s struggling with addiction in abstract, you’re, like, get them services. When their actions start to have an impact on your life, then you start to think about it in a different way.”  

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Miranda said she opposed the way police addressed the situation with the recent sweeps. “I think it was reactive,” she said. “You can’t do anything in isolation.” But she says business owners in the area and residents need their interests protected as well.

“I don’t have all the answers,” said Miranda. But the solution has to involve a way “to keep people safe, keep a high quality of life, but get people the help they need.”