25 Investigates: Mayor's fence moves addiction problem across the street

By: Eric Rasmussen , Erin Smith

Updated:

BOSTON - Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s controversial move to fight the city’s addiction crisis with a new fence, has largely moved the problem to the other side of the street, Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen uncovered.

25 Investigates spent two months on the streets of Boston and found people injecting heroin and smoking crack in broad daylight on the sidewalks and patches of grass near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.

WARNING: The video above contains some images viewers may find disturbing

This area of the city near Boston Medical Center is home to a cluster of homeless shelters and methadone clinics.

The push to build a fence

Walsh’s administration pushed to spend thousands to build a fence in July that blocks off a narrow patch of grass where the homeless and those dealing with addiction used to gather.

The city spent $4,500 to build the fence along a portion of Melnea Cass Boulevard, while a local business picked up the remainder of the tab.

But weeks later, 25 Investigates found people sleeping and using drugs on the other side of the street and some sitting on the sidewalk in front of the new fence.

“We don't want to just move the problem. We want to solve it,” said Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, which represents commerce in the area.

Sullivan and Mayor Walsh hope the fence will funnel more people into a new tent nearby, which is meant to serve as a daytime drop-in center.

The tent, a six-month pilot program run by the Boston Public Health Commission, cost $350,000 to open and operate, according to city officials.

But Sullivan acknowledges the fence – and a temporary tent – are not enough to get those dealing with addiction off the street for good.

“Until we get to the root of all of that and find a place for them to actually recover and enough beds for them to recover, we’re not going to solve it,” said Sullivan.

Nowhere else to go

Many of those on the streets in this area told 25 Investigates they have nowhere else to go after the city shut down Long Island, its largest recovery site, several years ago.
           
Troy Hickson said he spent time on Long Island in Boston Harbor, which provided recovery and shelter beds to hundreds before inspectors condemned the only bridge to the island in 2014 and the city forced everyone to leave.

“We're constantly being pushed,” said Hickson. “Now the streets (are) flooded again. You had a way of not having this on the street, but you took that away.”

Walsh said he’s still hasn’t decided what to do with Long Island.

That’s the same thing he said a year ago after 25 Investigates first uncovered Boston taxpayers are footing the bill for millions to keep the lights and heat on in the empty buildings on Long Island – even though there are no plans to re-open any programs there.

Walsh told 25 Investigates he intends to continue spending about a million dollars annually to maintain the abandoned buildings on the island.

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Walsh also confirmed the city this year finally replaced all the beds it lost on Long Island, but the mayor has not brought in any additional detox or recovery beds to the city.

Meanwhile, opioid overdose deaths in Boston increased 132 percent from 87 in 2013 to 202 last year, according to the state health statistics. That’s higher than the 107 percent increase seen across the entire state during the same time period.

The shortage of detox beds

When asked why he hasn’t been able to bring more recovery facilities to Boston, Walsh said, “It's money. I mean, it comes down to money. Those detox beds – a lot of them – are funded by the state.”

But Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, who is running to unseat the mayor, said that’s no excuse.

“Good public policy actually plans for a crisis,” said Jackson. “What this showed is that Mayor Walsh and his administration turned his back on some of the most vulnerable people in the City of Boston and it's still not fixed yet.”

Jackson has made re-opening Long Island a campaign promise.

Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen asked Mayor Walsh if he was satisfied with the state of recovery in Boston.

“I'm not satisfied with the amount of addiction in this city,” said Walsh.

“Are you satisfied with what you and your office is doing to address this?” asked Rasmussen.

Walsh answered, “I don't know if I would say satisfied. I think we’ve done a lot. The programs that are here today weren’t here four years ago.”

When asked if building the fence was a good use of tax dollars, Walsh responded, “Is it a good use of taxpayer money sending crews out there every single day to clean the streets?”

Fencing off a ‘mud pit’

25 Investigates cameras did record cleanup crews removing needles and other trash from the area. But those on the streets said they’re being swept out too.

“We’re not allowed to stand anywhere else,” said Leo Parente. “That fence isn’t going to do anything, but make taxpayers think they’re spending money on something that’s going to help the – what? They're going to fence off a mud pit?”

Walsh is defending the new fence as one more way to fight the addiction crisis.

But even Walsh has said fences don’t fix problems.

Earlier this year, he criticized President Trump’s plan to solve immigration with a wall on the border, saying there was no need to build a wall and what was really needed was good, strong public policy.

When ask whether he’s now contradicting his earlier message, Walsh said, “Two completely different issues. I mean, we’re talking about a fence keeping people out of the country and we’re talking about a fence that gets people into recovery.”

“Is that what the fence is going to do?,” asked Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen.

“Hopefully,” said Walsh.

Walsh also told 25 Investigates he wants to see a private recovery facility open in Boston, but so far, that hasn’t happened.

You can watch Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen’s full interview with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh below:

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