D3 hopefuls offer views on Mass. and Cass

Mayor Wu speaks to reporters after administration officials and services providers toured Long Island on Wednesday. (Gintautas Dumcius photo)

Mayor Wu’s administration is moving to revamp its approach to Mass. and Cass, the area at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard known for homelessness and drug issues.

The area sits in District 3, a Dorchester-based City Council seat with boundaries that snake up through the South Bay shopping plaza into part of the South End. A seven-way preliminary for candidates seeking the open seat is set for Tues., Sept. 12.

The Reporter asked the candidates for their thoughts on Mass. and Cass, as Wu administration officials plan their next steps. City officials met last week with unions whose workers are in and around Mass. and Cass, as well as private sector health care workers, “as we work to adjust our strategy for balancing two goals of getting more people into recovery services and housing placements while guaranteeing that our workers can execute their jobs safely and effectively,” a Wu spokesperson said after the meeting.

The city earlier this month also received a major permit as it continues its effort, started under Mayor Marty Walsh, to rebuild the bridge to Long Island and the 35-acre recovery campus that once existed there. Long Island is also located within District 3.

Wu is looking to have the bridge rebuilt over the next four to five years, while the city of Quincy has opposed the return of a bridge, which would reconnect Long Island to a road that runs through one of that city’s wealthiest enclaves.

Wu said Wednesday that the rebuilt campus will be "less so of a majority overnight, just emergency shelter to sleep and that's it -- and more of that comprehensive campus with a long-term stay that provides for, as mentioned, all of the various needs that someone might have as they are living with substance use, which includes, of course, medical treatment, and recovery, and counseling, and care but also that workforce development piece and all of the other parts of your life that you can grow in and find stability."

The bridge came down in 2014 and people were evacuated off Long Island. Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said that "it's important also to remind ourselves just how critical of a resource this was and how much of an asset this was, for the city of Boston, as well as for the state and for the region ... We're seeing the brunt of not having it available at this point in time."

The responses of the District 3 candidates, obtained over the last several weeks, are available below in alphabetical order. Housing activist Rosalind Wornum of Ashmont did not respond to requests for comment.

John FitzGerald
Boston Planning and Development Agency official
Adams Village

“The District 3 city councillor has to be a champion on this issue,” FitzGerald said. He has walked along Atkinson Street, which is close to the intersection, and said officials should tackle the problem similar to how schools seek to offer small student-teacher ratios. Break down the people at Mass. and Cass into small groups, 12 or so, and place them in locations throughout the Boston region and New England.

He pointed to a Pine Street Inn home on Tuttle Street in Savin Hill as an example of the types of housing he’s talking about as a short-term measure. “You talk to the folks on Tuttle, they say they don’t even know it’s there. It’s not perfect but it’s the least intrusive,” he said.

In the long term, he added, the “best place” remains Long Island, where people can “get away from the world and focus on recovery. I was happy to hear about the permit but still we have a lot of work to do in the short term.”

Jennifer Johnson
Community activist and small business owner
Meetinghouse Hill

Johnson said she is heartened that long-term solutions like Long Island are “in our sights,” but she is also cognizant of the challenges of the short-term solutions and figuring out how to approach people who are at Mass. and Cass and do not want to voluntarily receive services. For some it could be mandated treatment, according to Johnson.

There is some discussion of a warrant sweep, which could be “useful” due to the reports of sex trafficking and drug dealing hidden by the tents, she said. Many of the people at Mass. and Cass have untreated mental health and trauma issues, she added. “We’re usually putting people into detox but what I’m hearing from service providers is we’re not making sure people get some of the longer-term mental health support that they need to overcome their addictions. And we have to make sure we are adding that in as well.”

Barry Lawton
Former schoolteacher and government aide
Uphams Corner/Savin Hill

Mayor Wu has “inherited a lot of problems and now she owns them all,” including Mass. and Cass, Lawton said. He suggested moving people out to a location along the Massachusetts Turnpike, a quicker trip than by a boat to Long Island. “There’s a lot of room out west,” he said, beyond Route 128.

“It’s a Long Island farther down the Pike,” he added. “Boston should not have to house all of these problems.”

As for rebuilding the Long Island bridge, “we can’t wait four years; we’ve already waited ten years,” he said.

A warrant sweep would be “only part” of the solution for him. He also suggested enforcing Mass. and Cass as a “drug-free zone” and added: “The keys with drug laws, traffic laws, parking laws, are that they have to be enforced.”

Matt Patton
Labor attorney
Savin Hill

Patton, who has been to Mass. and Cass multiple times, said there needs to be an “overall strategic vision” that advances public safety, public health, and quality of life. The crisis started when the Walsh administration demolished the Long Island bridge nearly ten years ago after it was deemed an unsafe structure. The bridge must be rebuilt, but the state must take a larger role in the crisis, he said.

The temporary cabins built at the site of Shattuck Hospital are working, he said, and that type of low-threshold housing should be expanded to something like the former state hospital in Medfield, which the town is developing after purchasing much of the property from the state.

“Parents who want to make sure their kids come home and don’t die, they can’t wait four or five years [for the bridge],” he said. “The women being trafficked in those tents can’t wait four or five years. My son, who almost picked up a needle in Savin Hill, can’t wait four or five years. We should build a bridge absolutely, but we need solutions between now and four or five years from now.”

Joel Richards
Teacher at Blackstone Elementary
Fields Corner

The city should be hiring more social workers, according to Richards, who said he helped fight to get more social workers hired in Boston Public Schools. They can help people stay out of the situations that eventually lead them to Mass. and Cass, he said. Teachers, police officers and nurses can “see the kids heading to that trajectory.” He noted.

His wife, Madeligne, who works in human services and housing agencies, has influenced his thinking.

Social workers could be hired as police officers after going to the academy, and they could be the ones who answer the call to Mass. and Cass. “I feel like it’s a problem that’s going to take time to get rid of, but we have to go at it socially and civilly,” he said of the area.

He declined to comment on whether a warrant sweep is appropriate.

Ann M. Walsh
Former nonprofit leader
Lower Mills

“This is a very complex, multi-layered problem and there are no quick fixes,” Walsh said. “And this is going to require a lot of attention and resources and stamina to be able to move to a better place on this.”

People have ended up in the area because they’ve suffered through domestic violence, trauma, and substance abuse disorder. “Understanding their stories and understanding how they ended up there is key to stopping the inflow,” she said.

The public health workers know who the bad actors are and the clients who are struggling, and a trusting relationship between public health workers and law enforcement is critical to getting to a place of stability, according to Walsh.

Help is needed from other cities and towns, as well as methadone clinics and treatment beds, she said. “The city of Boston can’t do this by ourselves, when folks are flooding in,” she said, noting that the methadone clinic at Emerson Hospital in Concord had closed.

“You can’t normalize what’s happening there. It’s human suffering at a ridiculous level,” she said. “We have to face it and call others to account.”

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.

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