Health

‘We need help’: Mayor Marty Walsh addresses the impacts of opioid crisis on Boston neighborhoods

“I am not going to turn my back, and I have not turned my back, on the folks at Mass. and Cass.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told South End residents this week the city has “work to do” as it continues to tackle the impacts of the opioid crisis on neighborhoods surrounding the area known as “Mass. and Cass,” but called for other communities around the state to step up their own efforts to address the crisis. 

Even while highlighting the need for services to be expanded in other cities and towns, the mayor repeatedly said during a virtual meeting Monday that Boston will not turn away those who have come to the city for help. 

“I know for all of you on this call that live in the South End it’s been a challenging time,” he said. “I’m not going to kid you and sugarcoat what’s happening. Addiction is something that an individual in some cases can’t help, until they’re willing to go into treatment. I am not going to turn my back, and I have not turned my back, on the folks at Mass. and Cass.”

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The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the opioid crisis, city officials and community members agree, with COVID-19 prompting the closure of many services for homelessness and substance use disorder across the state and region.

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The closures led to a drastic increase in the number of individuals settling in the area officials call “Mass. and Cass,”  the stretch of city blocks surrounding Mass. Ave. and Melnea Cass Boulevard where services for substance use disorders and homelessness are offered, according to officials.

Services in Boston have remained open, with adjustments to factor in coronavirus public health measures. But with the increase in people in the area of Mass. and Cass, residents of the South End, Lower Roxbury, and Newmarket have been holding weekly demonstrations to draw attention to the worsening impacts to their neighborhoods related to the opioid crisis and increased population, including open drug use on the sidewalks, improperly discarded needles, and human waste left on public and private property.

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Steve Fox, who moderated the South End Forum meeting and posed questions to the mayor on behalf of attendees, told Walsh that hygiene issues — namely the presence of human waste on both public and private property — has reached “epidemic proportions” in the South End. 

The mayor said other parts of the city are also experiencing the same issue, as public restrooms in libraries and other locations closed down due to coronavirus and the city has been contracting with a company to respond to reports of human waste on public property and remove it.  

On Wednesday, the mayor’s office told Boston.com the Boston Public Health Commission is beginning to contract for the removal and disinfecting of public defection on private property in a citywide pilot program that will roll out next week. 

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“Upon receiving a 311 request for pickup in private property, a team will be dispatched within 24 hours for clean up,” the mayor’s office said. “From June to September 2020, the majority of the 311 reports related to this issue came from the South End and Back Bay, as well as the North End and Downtown Boston.”

During the meeting with South End residents, Walsh said the city is continuing to work on getting more supportive housing built, with wrap-around support for those who are struggling with homelessness and substance use. The city is also continuing with planning for building a recovery campus on Long Island in Boston Harbor, despite the legal challenges to the effort by the City of Quincy. 

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The mayor said he doesn’t believe the situation was “created” with the closure of services on Long Island in 2014, rather that the opioid epidemic has just grown and that there hasn’t been adequate programming either nationally or locally in Massachusetts to meet the need of those caught in the crisis.

“As a society, we’re not dealing with the issue of addiction in the right way,” he said.

City leaders created a task force in 2019 to implement the Melnea Cass/Mass Ave 2.0″ plan, which aimed at tackling the impacts of the opioid crisis locally across public health, public safety, and quality of life, but Walsh said Monday that the coronavirus pandemic slowed work on the plan. 

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“I’ve been talking with everyone, and quite honestly, I’m not happy,” Walsh said of the situation on the streets. “I’m not happy. And when people drive through there, all my friends and everyone I know drives through there, they send me a text. I get a text every time a family member drives through there, saying, ‘What’s going on here?’” 

A bus stop in the area of Mass. and Cass in May.

With regard to the rise in the number of improperly discarded needles as a result of the increase in the number of people in the area, Walsh said the Mass. and Cass task force is looking at other ways of addressing the issue. 

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The city has a team that responds to 311 reports of improperly discarded needles, and Walsh urged members of the public not to pick up the sharps or collect them on their own. According to the Mass. and Cass dashboard, the city collected 86,343 syringes in September alone. 

“The issue is, to me it’s not about the needles,” the mayor said. “It’s the arm the needle goes into and how do we reduce the amount of arms that the needle goes into, and that will reduce the number of needles in the street. I know that’s not the answer you want, but I think we’re open to any ideas. We’ll try the kiosks. Some of them work, some of them don’t. We put one kiosk across from the school, we got criticized for doing that, and that’s where the needles were. So I think we have to look at that more comprehensively.”

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Walsh stressed Monday that the combination of the pandemic with the opioid crisis has been a perfect storm, which underscores the need for other towns and cities in Massachusetts to step up in providing recovery services and other supports within their own communities, an issue he said he and other city leaders have raised repeatedly with the state. 

“Anyone who has an alcoholic or an addict in your family, you know what it’s like,” Walsh said of one of the basic challenge in combating substance use disorders. “You love them, you hug them, you want to try and help them, you try and get them into a program, they don’t go, you do everything you can.”

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He estimated that 50 percent of the individuals living on the street and struggling in the area of Mass. and Cass are not originally from Boston.

“I am not one to put a person back on the bus and drop them off in their neighborhood,” Walsh said. “New York has done that, other places have done that, we haven’t done that in Boston. But I am asking other entities to help us out here and provide opportunities for programs around the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It can’t all fall on Boston; it’s not sustainable.”

The mayor said he supports the calls from neighborhood residents to decentralize recovery and homeless services to other parts of the city, adding the decentralization needs to occur across the state. 

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“As I said at the start of this, I’m not blaming anybody, but we need other cities and towns to step up here …  What we have to do is have those areas step up and have them create more programming out there for people,” Walsh said. “That’s something that I think is a problem.”

That doesn’t mean anyone coming to Boston would be turned away — the services in the city are for anyone seeking them, the mayor said. 

“The issue is that we can’t continue, we’ve done it forever in Boston, long before I was the mayor,” he said. “We’ve done this forever, we’ve been the place that provides the services, we’ve been the place that takes care of people. And right now, with this crisis in addiction, we need help. That’s the bottom line.”

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Walsh emphasized that he knows the city can and has to do a better job in addressing the situation facing both those who are struggling and those who are seeing the impacts of the crisis in their neighborhoods.

The mayor pledged that he will do everything he can to make sure the community gets what it needs with the ongoing situation, thanking the residents for their “tolerance” of the process. He concluded by saying  he will continue to fight for recovery programs, an issue that he said he’s been focused on since originally running for office in 1997, noting his own personal experience with addiction and struggles of family members and friends.

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“It’s an awful awful illness and we have work to do,” he said.

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