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With influx of addicts, needles proliferate in Boston parks

Statewide heroin problem has local impact

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
With influx of addicts, needles proliferate in Boston parks
Community activist Carlos Henriquez regularly cleans discarded hypodermic needles from Clifford Park in Lower Roxbury.

Domingos DaRosa remembers the summer afternoons before Clifford Park was overrun by junkies.

“There were softball games,” he told the Banner. “You had people sitting under the trees. People would come out from the swimming pool and hang out. Now people barely use it.”

DaRosa, who coaches and manages the Roxbury Bengals Pop Warner football team in the park, regularly sweeps the playing field for discarded needles before he allows children to practice there. He makes weekly calls to the city’s 311 hotline to report the proliferation of needles and heroin users, but he said it’s an uphill battle getting city services to clean the park.

The city of Boston operates a Mobile Sharps Team responsible for removing needles from public spaces. Last year the team recovered more than 20,000 needles across the city. In the city’s fiscal year 2018 budget, the administration of Mayor Martin Walsh has proposed a funding increase for the Mobile Sharps Team that spokeswoman Laura Oggeri says will double the team’s capacity.

But for DaRosa, help often doesn’t come fast enough. Sometimes, he said, it takes days for the city to respond to a request.

“I’ve lost a lot of participants due to the needles,” he said. “The needles are in the grass. They’re on the bleachers. We tell the kids, if they see one, don’t pick it up. Just tell an adult. It’s just sad.”

With three baseball diamonds and basketball and tennis courts, Clifford Park is a nearly-quarter-mile-long expanse of natural turf that in its better days was a magnet for sports and outdoors enthusiasts. Sitting at the edge of the Newmarket Business District and the eastern terminus of the so-called Methadone Mile, the park is close to drug treatment facilities and shelters and the heroin-addicted population that has converted much of the area into an open-air shooting gallery.

“Since they closed the Long Island homeless shelter three years ago, Lower Roxbury has borne the brunt of the epidemic,” noted former state Representative and longtime community activist Carlos Henriquez. “I think we’re overburdened.”

Like DaRosa, Henriquez works with teens in the park. He, too, has pleaded with city officials for regular cleanups of Clifford Park. In one corner, next to the park’s concrete bleachers, he points out a collection of debris left behind by drug users, including human waste. As he points to an area commonly used for shooting up, a man jogs toward him, his ruddy face covered in sweat. The man retrieves a black backpack, pivots and heads back to a temporary encampment of users.

Spreading across neighborhoods

While the Methadone Mile is ground zero in the opioid crisis, many addicts have found their way into corners of Roxbury and Dorchester that had been largely untouched by heroin for decades.

“It’s spilling deeper into the neighborhoods,” Henriquez said.

Unlike in past years when heroin was seen as a mainly black “inner city” problem, the current epidemic has seen a large influx into Boston of whites from cities and towns across Massachusetts. A proliferation of so-called sober homes — unregulated group care facilities that often function as rooming houses — has exacerbated vagrancy in Roxbury and the use of public parks for drug use.

“We’re always finding needles in Cedar Square Park,” said Cedar Street resident Rodney Singleton, whose home is less than a block from a string of sober homes on Washington Street.

Singleton interrupted his interview to make a 911 call to report drug dealing in the park.

Like many public spaces in proximity to sober homes, shelters and other places that house addicts, the parks in Singleton’s neighborhood have been given over to users.

“Most people don’t use the park,” Singleton said. “You have this neighborhood resource that doesn’t get used for fear of needles. It’s unfortunate.”

The spread of needles has generated its own Twitter and Facebook handle: #heroininthepark.

In the Gertrude Howes Playground on Roxbury’s Moreland Street, neighborhood residents found four dozen discarded needles recently. One of them assembled needles to spell out the mayor’s name, “Marty,” in an apparent attempt to alert the city that more services are needed.

In Dorchester, residents recorded a video of an unconscious couple in a sedan on a residential street. In the video, posted on YouTube with more than 13,000 views, the woman comes to, and, prompted by the man recording the video, removes a hypodermic needle from her lap, but is unable to rouse her companion, even after administering two doses of the anti-overdose drug Narcan.

A double standard?

The animus toward open use of heroin in an around the Methadone Mile is not confined to black and Latino neighborhoods in Roxbury and Dorchester. In a recent City Council hearing on a proposed so-called “safe injection facility” that proponents have suggested could be sited in the Newmarket area, councilors from across the city panned the idea, many questioning the disproportionate siting of treatment facilities in Boston.

“The state of Massachusetts has failed the city of Boston in permitting methadone clinic after methadone clinic in the same area,” said District 7 Councilor Tito Jackson, whose Roxbury-based district includes much of the Methadone Mile.

DaRosa, who sometimes talks to the users in Clifford Street park, said most are not from Boston.

“Nine out of ten who I spoke to aren’t from here,” he said. “They’ll say they’re from Plymouth, Attleboro, Manchester-By-The-Sea. They’ll ask you for money so they can get back home, but if you give them money, you know they won’t go.”

The contrast in attitudes between the days when heroin was not seen as a white problem and today are too glaring to ignore. On Carlos Henriquez’s Facebook page, one posting contrasts the war on drugs to the current rush to provide services.

“As usual, we are called to treat them like we should have been treated… America….” one respondent posted.

In the ’70s, blacks were junkies. Today, those in the throes of addiction are users. Instead of substance abuse, their affliction is referred to as ‘substance misuse.’

Like many, DaRosa questions what would happen if black users from Boston ended up in surrounding suburbs and cities camping out in parks, nodding off in crosswalks and begging for spare change. He answers his own question.

“They’d be locked up for possession, disorderly conduct or public intoxication,” he said.

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