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Most of the candidates have posted plans detailing how they would address the epidemic and its impacts around Mass. and Cass, the stretch of streets in the South End and Roxbury that has emerged as the epicenter of the overlapping crises of substance use, mental health, and homelessness in Boston.
In recent years, more people navigating these issues have arrived around Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, seeking help from the providers clustered throughout the neighborhood. Residents of the area have been calling on city officials to address the worsening conditions on the streets — individuals overdosing on sidewalks and in alleys, human waste and refuse left on private and public property, improperly discarded needles in parks and on playgrounds. They argue the conditions are unsafe and inhumane both for the people who are struggling with addiction and homelessness and for permanent residents in the area.
The situation at Mass. and Cass, known disparagingly for years as “Methadone Mile,” was only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as service providers across the state and region shut down or altered operations due to the spreading virus. The number of people in the area — along with the impacts to the adjacent neighborhoods — increased as individuals came to Boston, where services largely remained open during the pandemic.
The calls to address the worsening crisis have grown louder in the last year as more groups of advocates and residents have organized around the issue. The demand has made “Mass. and Cass” a topic that candidates in the 2021 mayoral race are frequently asked to address on the campaign trail.
In discussions about how to address the crisis, rebuilding the Long Island bridge and reestablishing recovery services on the Boston Harbor island looms.
It is an action that community members bring up when discussing what they want to see the city do. Residents of the area point to the demolition of the bridge and shuttering of services on the island in 2014 as the when the situation around Mass. and Cass started to worsen, as the population that normally would have been served on Long Island instead began seeking services elsewhere in the city.
At the time, then-Mayor Marty Walsh pledged to rebuild the bridge and develop a new campus on the island. But the effort has been stalled by a series of legal challenges from the City of Quincy, which has long opposed rebuilding the bridge.
In May, Quincy filed a lawsuit against the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and Boston’s Department of Public Works, according to the Patriot Ledger. The move followed a March decision by the Department of Environmental Protection that found Quincy had no legal standing to oppose rebuilding the bridge, which crosses water controlled by the city.
Despite the hurdles the project has faced, most of the mayoral candidates say rebuilding the bridge and a recovery campus on Long Island are part of their plans to address the concurrent crises of substance use, mental health, and homelessness in the city.
Boston City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Annissa Essaibi George and the city’s former economic development chief, John Barros, all detail how the island fits into their roadmaps for tackling Mass. and Cass on their campaign websites. Acting Mayor Kim Janey told Boston.com rebuilding a campus on Long Island remains a priority for her administration.
But Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu has diverged from the group, arguing that Long Island will not provide an immediate solution and suggesting that city resources instead need to be used more urgently to address the situation being experienced on the ground.
“We have been hearing about rebuilding the bridge and talking about this for six years now,” Wu told Boston.com. “And the opioid crisis has worsened and worsened and more than tripled in size. I am focused on the urgent solutions that I can deliver in the four-year mayoral term that I am running for, and the bridge simply isn’t a short-term solution to meet the urgency of what we’re seeing.”
The city councilor pointed out that the city has been setting aside resources for building the bridge, which could be deployed more immediately for services and “transformational actions within city jurisdiction.”
“We know this is urgent, and we can’t keep kicking the actions down the road,” she said.
In her platform, Wu commits instead to an accelerated review of city buildings and facilities to identify spaces where supportive housing could be built. Doing so, she said, would “tackle the root causes” of the crisis.
At the same time, she wants to plan for a recovery campus with partners across the region and state.
“We very much need supportive housing for people who are willing to seek treatment and to be able to get off the streets,” Wu said. “There are ways for the City of Boston to lean into this and prioritize the stability and treatment of our residents through directly using city resources.”
That doesn’t mean Long Island would be completely disregarded under Wu’s leadership.
The city councilor said she thinks there are ways to activate ferry service to use the island, but that her administration would first embark on developing a “clear plan and analysis” for the island.
“We’ve never seen a full plan for what Long Island should be used for,” she said. “When I’ve asked questions about this in the past, the answer was that recovery programs would be relocated to the island but not the emergency shelter beds that had existed there prior to the bridge being shut down. … There was never a proactive plan for how those buildings and programs on the other side of the bridge would be funded and how that would fit into our regional continuum of care.”
In the meantime, Wu said her primary focus is on the actions that can be taken immediately.
“We have been sitting back and turning a blind eye to the harms and the humanitarian crisis that is at the epicenter of Mass. and Cass and throughout the city,” she said. “So this is certainly a regional and national issue, but Boston needs to lean in and take responsibility and take action.”
The four other candidates told Boston.com in interviews that rebuilding the bridge and a campus on Long Island represents long-term efforts to combat the opioid crisis.
“Anyone that thinks that it’s something that will help us in the immediate future is inaccurate,” Essaibi George said. “We have a lot of work to do, but while we’re doing this work to try and help people today — especially those who are dealing with substance use disorder and homelessness and experiencing mental health illness — we at the same time need to also be working to reestablish the work that happened on Long Island.”
Barros agreed, saying that building the bridge and campus is not a trade-off for an immediate response to what’s needed around Mass. and Cass today.
“It is not an either/or, both need to occur,” he said. “We need to immediately address the issues on the streets, while at the same time look for a permanent solution on the island.”
Janey said her administration is examining the capital investments needed to rebuild on the island and “looking at a number of options.”
Among the questions being investigated are how long it could take to build the bridge because of the ongoing court fight and other possible ways of making the island self-sustaining in terms of its infrastructure, medical support, and public safety, she said.
The acting mayor stressed that under her administration, Long Island is part of a larger strategy since rebuilding the bridge and campus will take years.
In the meantime, the city can’t wait to take action and connect people to housing and treatment, she said.
“We don’t have a couple of years,” Janey said. “We’ve got to serve people every single day, and that is the work that my team is out there doing every single day.”
Campbell called reactivating Long Island a “critical piece” to solving the issues of substance use and homelessness in Boston and said city officials must continue to push the project forward.
She agreed rebuilding the bridge is a long-term goal, but said under her leadership she would push for using ferry service to jumpstart use of the island.
“I did tremendous research on this issue,” she said. “Connecting with ferry companies, connecting with folks who are actually doing things on the island itself, and it looks like a short-term solution is ferry service.”
Campbell said she is pushing Janey’s administration to look at the possibility, and the acting mayor told Boston.com she is looking at other ways of accessing the island, including a ferry system.
But other candidates suggested more planning and development needs to occur before ferries can be utilized.
Essaibi George said while she believes a ferry service would be important for the island long-term, time first has to be taken to develop a plan for what programs will be on the campus.
“You cannot put people who are experiencing detox and withdrawal and significant and serious illness on an island with simply ferry service,” she said.
Barros agreed, adding that individuals couldn’t be on the island without the “proper” emergency services.
“There’s still a lot of infrastructure that would need to be built,” he said. “We can make sure that we’re using that time to build out a permanent bridge.”
View the plans candidates have released for tackling the opioid crisis and/or Mass. and Cass below:
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