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A year ago, James Bradley was looking for childhood friends he believed were living on the streets of Boston.
It was a scorching day. Searching the area around Mass. Ave. and Melnea Cass Boulevard, which city officials call “Mass. & Cass,” the 36-year-old from Braintree was struck by the conditions being experienced by individuals struggling with addiction and living unsheltered in the South End and Roxbury.
More people navigating substance use disorder, mental health issues, and homelessness have been arriving in the area of Mass. and Cass in recent years to seek help from service providers clustered around the neighborhood, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the crisis on the stretch of city blocks, which was known disparagingly for years as “Methadone Mile.”
“It’s hell,” Bradley said. “You’re walking through hell, if you’re walking through there.”
Bradley, who is in recovery from heroin addiction and now serves as operations director at the Greater Boston Addiction Centers, decided to act. He knew that if he put a call out for donations, the recovery community would respond.
So he did, asking people to donate socks that he could drop off for people at Mass. and Cass.
The response was overwhelming.
“It turned into something that I never thought it was going to,” Bradley said. “So many people wanted to help out, so many people had a loved one [out there] or some type of connection to the area.”
Based on the flood of support, Bradley reached out to his friend Justin Downey, who is also in recovery from heroin addiction, hoping that together they could find a way to harness the outpouring in an organized way.
They ended up creating a Facebook group, The Mass. Ave Project, with the initial goal of continuing to organize donation drives for people living unhoused in the area of Mass. and Cass.
“I called Justin, because nobody loves homeless people more than Justin does, and I knew that he was caring and loving enough to really want to help, and it comes from the right place,” Bradley said. “And it really just kind of bloomed into what it is now.”
For Downey, getting involved was personal. The 40-year-old’s sister is living in the area of Mass. and Cass as she wrestles with her own addiction. But when he goes down to look for her on his own, he also sees people he grew up with in South Boston.
He was ready to donate all his own shirts to help when Bradley reached out to him.
“I know that we both kinda fell in love with the street and we fell in love with the people down there and we have good hearts and good intentions,” Downey said. “We don’t want to see people suffering like this.”
Since it was launched a year ago, the project has grown beyond either of their imaginings, with more than 3,400 people joining the online group.
The first time they organized a donation drop-off, six people showed up to help. A year later, more than 50 volunteers are showing up to hand out items — ranging from food to clothes to winter gear to hygiene products — around Mass. and Cass. Sober living and treatment centers have also connected with the group to offer free care beds.
The hope is that the Mass. Ave Project can provide a stepping stone or a guiding hand — from people who have gone through the recovery journey — to those who are struggling, they said.
“We want to just let these individuals know that people still care about them,” Bradley said. “They’re not forgotten about because they’re in this crazy messed up system. … We wanted to be able to provide them with little resources that they don’t have, while being able to connect with them on a personal level, and number one, start by asking them their name. You would be surprised by how many people haven’t been asked their name by somebody who actually cared to listen in a long time.”
From there, conversations may move on to seeing if they’re looking for any services or treatment to get off the street.
If that is the case, Bradley and Downey work to help them do that, drawing on their own experiences and networks — and the network that has since grown within the Mass. Ave Project.
“If not, we just want to spark up a little bit of a conversation and let them know that people are still here that care,” Bradley said.
While Bradley and Downey continue to post callouts for donations and advertise when they are bringing items down to the area, the group’s page is also filled with people sharing their own experiences with recovery, urging people struggling with substance use disorder not to give up hope. People also post about direct needs for services, and other members respond with options for treatment programs.
But in recent weeks, the page has seen an increase in a different type of post: Family members asking for help locating a loved one they believe is at Mass. and Cass.
Bradley estimated that the page has seen about 25 posts from people searching for a family member, sharing a photo with the hope that they will be able to connect through the community that has been built by the Mass. Ave Project. At least eight of those posts have resulted in families connecting with their “missing” loved one.
“That wasn’t something that we were planning on, but it seems to be helpful and it seems to be helpful to these loved ones,” Bradley said. “Because, imagine being a mother sitting at home knowing your son or your daughter is down there and driving by — because you know what these parents do, right? They drive down once a day, maybe twice a day, and drive around and see if they can find their child. Because it’s not hidden. You’re out in the open.”
In May, Sue McGonnigal turned to the page for help finding her son, Sean.
The 32-year-old, who has struggled with addiction since he began using heroin in his teens, had been doing well for a little while. After battling sepsis last June, he spent time at a treatment program in Boston before moving into a sober home in the city.
Throughout the years, despite her son’s struggles, McGonnigal said she could rely on hearing from him regularly. He would always call her every few days.
But this spring, she became worried when she didn’t hear from him for a week. She called the sober home where he was staying, only to learn her son had checked out.
The Hingham resident was considering what to do, looking around Mass. and Cass on her own trying to find him, when her daughter-in-law found the Mass. Ave Project and suggested McGonnigal submit a picture of Sean for help.
She did. Soon, she heard from a member of the group who had seen and talked to Sean.
“These people became my lifeline, they became everything,” McGonnigal said. “If it wasn’t for them, Sean never would have known I was looking for him.”
He eventually agreed to see her with one of the members of the Mass. Ave Project.
“She sat with him while we came, and oh my God, I didn’t want to leave him there,” McGonnigal said. “I didn’t want to leave without him in my car. But he wasn’t coming with me — he didn’t want to come with me.”
Since that meeting, Sean has agreed to go back to a treatment program through help from the Mass. Ave Project and is there now.
It’s not just a Facebook page, McGonnigal said. The members put in the legwork and action to provide support to those at Mass. and Cass and others asking for help in the group.
While she has never met Bradley or Downey in person, she said they talk frequently and people in the group check up on her regularly. The group has provided the kind of support she has needed, from people who understand what she and her son are going through as he battles substance addiction.
“I got to tell you — James and Justin — I couldn’t have gotten through this without them,” she said.
Now, McGonnigal and her husband go down to Mass. and Cass once a week to hand out water, Dunkin’ gift cards, and whatever else they can. Her experience with her son over the past month, and what she has learned about Mass. and Cass through the Mass. Ave Project, has profoundly changed her outlook, she said.
She was disillusioned before. But now she too wants to help.
“I never really looked,” McGonnigal said of driving around Mass. and Cass. “You don’t look. You don’t want to see. You don’t. And I didn’t. I got to be honest with you — it wasn’t until my son was missing that I saw and my eyes were opened. And I can never forget the tent, never forget behind the buildings and the kids just sitting there. I walked by them, shooting up. Boston police — just sitting there.”
For Jayne Fiske, knowing the group is working to help people in the area has brought some comfort. Her 34-year-old son, Matt, who has been using opioids for about 20 years, is living there.
He’s been in and out of detox programs for about four years, homeless for the last six, she said.
“There will be times that I won’t hear from him, at one point it was almost a year that I hadn’t heard from him,” Fiske said. “And other times, he will call unexpectedly just to let us know that he is alive.”
Matt was hospitalized with a septic infection in his arm in the spring. While he was in the hospital, she was able to get regular updates on how he was doing from her home in Taunton.
But as soon as he left, she lost contact with him.
Normally, she would have waited to hear from him — or for him to call her daughter, who is also in recovery and is the member of the family he remains in touch with the most.
But when she saw a few people she’s connected with on Facebook interacting with the Mass. Ave Project, she changed her mind. She joined the group and reached out, sharing a photo of Matt and asking for help finding him.
A woman who volunteers in the area on Monday nights handing out food saw Matt two weeks in a row and reached out to Fiske.
Finally, she got a call from him.
“He sounded horrible, I’m not going to lie,” Fiske said. “He sounded really bad. I think the only reason he called is because he thought something bad had happened. I don’t think he called because he felt bad that I was looking for him; I think he was expecting me to say somebody had passed away or something like that.”
She was able to explain to him that she just wanted to hear his voice, she just wanted to make sure he was OK.
She asked him to call her more often, but she’s not sure that’s going to happen.
Still, she said she’s thankful she found the group. She doesn’t think she would have heard from her son for months if she hadn’t asked for help. Due to recent knee surgeries, she isn’t able to go out looking for him on her own.
“I have seen so many people looking and praying that their child or their daughter or their sister, their brother, are OK,” Fiske said. “I’ve also seen so many examples of people willing to volunteer their time, their money, their efforts to helping the homeless people. I can’t help Matt myself, but through those avenues, I’m able to at least give to a community that is trying to help him.”
She worries about Matt every day, and suffers from anxiety and depressive moods when she doesn’t hear from him.
Knowing there are people who are willing to help him, not knowing his background or his family, provides some consolation and relief, she said.
“He’s overdosed so many times and the thought of losing him just crushes me,” Fiske said. “But unfortunately I live with the reality that at any point, any day, I could get a phone call that somebody is telling me he’s dead. And I don’t wish that upon anybody at all.”
Bradley and Downey said centering the dignity of the people living on the streets in the area of Mass. and Cass is “first and foremost” in their mission. They execute that goal not just through their donation drives and efforts to find beds for people ready for treatment, but also in what content they allow to be posted in the group. Pictures of people handing out supplies are not permitted, and photos of the individuals struggling in the area are not allowed either.
In addition to organizing within the group, both men field constant messages from family members searching for, or trying to help, their loved ones.
“Jimmy’s phone never stops, my phone nevers stops — all day long,” Downey said. “And I don’t work in the recovery field; Jimmy works in the recovery field. I have a regular job — I’m in a union and I’m on a jobsite and fielding calls and messages all day from family members.”
The page has made clear to him that there is a need for a way for families to connect and navigate the experience of having a loved one living at Mass. and Cass. It spurred him to start a monthly meeting in South Boston for families.
His hope is that by providing a space for the families to connect face-to-face, the project can start bringing in other local leaders as well.
There needs to be some type of a confrontation and response for the area, he argued.
“Their kids might not be a voting block so it’s easy for them to get written off, right? But these families are a voting block,” Downey said. “I also want to connect these people on the fact that they have shared pain, and they need to connect in that shared pain with each other. Some of these people have lost children who have died down there. And they’re just alone in their grief. And they have no outlet for their grief.”
Bradley and Downey are in the process of setting up the Mass. Ave Project as a 501c3. Their hope is that once they can accept financial donations, they’ll be able to grow their impact and partnerships to help more people.
It has been eye-opening to be part of the work, Downey said.
“It has been really life-changing in the fact that it gives me, and I know it gives Jimmy too, a glimpse into a community and a world that I would like to belong to — of people that are good people and not everybody is a f****** self-centered, self-driven, selfish f*** of a person, which seems to be the way the world runs right now,” he said. “But this community has grown into a place that I like to be in.”
As it is, both remain unconvinced that anything they are doing will solve the issues in the area of Mass. and Cass or create huge change.
There is no “magic plan” that will change anything, and even with Boston mayoral candidates promising plans and action for the area, it is clear that nothing will be different in the near future, they said.
“It’s such a vast problem,” Downey said. “You’ve got a lot of people with extensive trauma and mental illnesses and homelessness, haven’t worked and criminal records — this isn’t an easy demographic to work with. So we’re not under the misgiving that we’re going to completely clean up the Melnea Cass, Mass. Ave. area. That’s not what we’re doing. We’re literally just trying to be people who don’t turn a blind eye to suffering.”
Both men know they are living proof that people can get well after years of struggle with addiction and live a “rewarding, good life.”
That’s why both men are adamant that what they are doing right now with the Mass. Ave Project is “just the right thing to do.”
Reuniting just one family is all they really hoped for, but they are optimistic that the support garnered by the page in just one year promises more impact in the future.
“This is a big problem,” Bradley said. “And we don’t think that what we’re doing is going to fix anything. I don’t think that starting a Facebook page is going to change anything. I just think maybe there’s a little thing we can do to make one person’s day a tiny bit better. And if we can do that, that’s all that really matters.”
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