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Curfew targets crime on Common

Homeless protest ouster from park

A park ranger on patrol passed homeless people on Boston Common yesterday. A park ranger on patrol passed homeless people on Boston Common yesterday. (DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF)

After mounting drug arrests and a recent shooting that lodged a bullet in the State House, police have begun enforcing a nighttime curfew on Boston Common to rid the area of drug dealers and force out the homeless who have long spent their nights on its benches and manicured lawns.

The curfew, which will last from 11:30 p.m. to 6 a.m., will bar people from the Common unless they are passing through.

Advocates for the homeless support the new effort to reduce crime in the historic park, which began Tuesday night, but fear the consequences for those who find refuge there.

"There is a general sense that it's good something's being done about the Common," said Melissa Quirk, assistant director of the Emergency Shelter Commission of Boston. "It's an issue that needed to be addressed. But the increase in drug-related activity is really distinct from people sleeping on the Common."

She and others worry that homeless people, many of whom refuse to go to shelters, will scatter to other parts of the city, where it may be more difficult for outreach workers to help them.

"When one area is off limits, the homeless just go somewhere else," said Jill Roncarati, a physician assistant on the street team of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. "I'm sure that will happen, and we'll start seeing more people in the Public Garden, Chinatown, and Downtown Crossing."

City officials have previously rousted the homeless from various locations, citing increased crime, but this is the first time they have enforced a curfew on Boston Common, one of the city's most visited parks, where about 50 people have been living this summer.

Since the beginning of the year, police have made 319 drug arrests on and around the Common and received reports of 45 robberies, 45 aggravated assaults, and one sexual assault.

The city's homeless population has steadily increased in recent years. In December, a city census found 6,636 homeless residents, 4 percent more than the year before and 36 percent more than 10 years earlier. Of the total, 306 were living on city streets, 17 percent more than the year before.

Some of those forced from their grassy beds beneath the tony townhouses of Beacon Hill were indignant yesterday.

"If that bullet didn't hit the State House, but instead hit one of us, would anyone have cared? I don't think so," said Nancy Durling, 48, who said she has been homeless and sleeping on the Common for the past year.

She and more than a dozen other homeless friends protested yesterday on the steps of the State House, where a bullet struck a window in the governor's office of constituent services during an attack Sunday that wounded a 15-year-old female and a 16-year-old male.

In a speech that Durling wrote on a crumpled piece of paper in preparation for the protest, she said, "I understand the police are trying to clear up the Common, but innocent people are paying the price for being homeless."

After spending the last six months sleeping beneath a tree on the Common, Tammy Whiteway, a 36-year-old from Cambridge who has been in a wheelchair for more than a decade, scrawled this message on a piece of cardboard: "Help the homeless! Don't condemn us!"

They and others who stay on the Common acknowledge seeing flagrant crimes, such as people smoking crack in broad daylight and shooting up heroin on park benches.

Some said they have been awakened at night in recent months by junkies seeking to buy or sell them drugs, and they agreed something had to be done. But they feel the city is blaming them for recent crime and forcing them from one of the few areas where they feel safe.

"A lot of us here are like one big family, and we look after each other," said Michael Taylor, 49, who said he has been sleeping on the Common for the past five months. "The shooting had nothing to do with us, so why bother us?"

In a statement, Mayor Thomas M. Menino said the city will try to help the homeless find shelter.

"It is my intention to create a better quality of life for everyone in our city," he said. "We will seek out and try to help anyone who needs a place to stay. We don't want to punish someone for being down on their luck, but we do want them to be safe."

On Tuesday night, city officials and advocates for the homeless arranged for vans to take the overnighters from the Common to the few beds available in local shelters. But not many wanted to go.

Richard Weintraub, director of homeless services for the Boston Public Health Commission, said the vans transported five people to Woods Mullen Shelter, where all of the 190 beds had been taken. Those who came from the Common had to sleep on benches in the lobby.

"We can set aside beds in the future, if this is an ongoing situation," he said.

The vans transported two others to the Pine Street Inn, which was also filled to capacity, said Shepley Metcalf, a shelter spokeswoman.

"We don't expect more than a handful to show up," she said. "There's never a night when we're not filled and people have to sleep in the lobby."

Lounging on a blanket on the Common yesterday afternoon, Ellen Burke and a friend said an outreach worker on Tuesday promised them beds at the Friends of the Shattuck Shelter in Jamaica Plain. But when they arrived, they said, the women were told there wasn't a bed available.

Shelter officials offered them a ride to the large shelter on Long Island, but they declined because they said they fear the shelter, which they and others say is rife with violence, drugs, and diseases. "It's much safer on the Common," said Burke, 48, who had been living there since 2003.

This week police began deploying a special unit of bike and foot patrols to enforce the curfew on the Common, which they said was sparked by the shooting. Police would not reveal the number of officers patrolling the area. By yesterday morning, police said, they had arrested four people who were dealing drugs on the Common.

It was not clear how long the curfew would last.

"The public safety plan needs to be nimble and flexible," said Elaine Driscoll, a spokeswoman for the Police Department. "We're going to see how this goes."

Some of the homeless, who are used to being rousted, said they plan to return when things quiet down.

"It feels like the city is more concerned about a piece of broken glass than us," said Bill Foley, 50, who said he has been homeless for 13 years.

"They treat us like we're ghosts, but we're not ghosts," he said. "We'll be back."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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