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Shattuck proposal sparks community backlash

Will Franklin Park be the next Mass & Cass?

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Shattuck proposal sparks community backlash
Architect’s rendering of the proposed building complex at the site of the Shattuck Hospital. COURTESY PHOTO

In what has become a daily ritual, Rory Coffey threads his way through the wooded trails between the Shattuck Hospital site and the Williams Street entrance to Franklin Park, looking for the hypodermic needles that litter the encampments in the area.

Calls to Boston’s 311 line to report discarded needles, open drug use, overdoses and encampments skyrocketed last year after the city removed tents and improvised shelters from the Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard area and erected temporary housing structures on the Shattuck grounds.

Now, with a consortium of nonprofit developers and service agencies pushing a proposal for 405 units of supportive housing for formerly homeless people, 326 beds for people being treated for substance abuse and 120 emergency shelter beds, Coffey and others who live in the vicinity of the park fear that with the drug use, litter and public disorder, Franklin Park will replace the Mass and Cass area as the locus of the state’s drug addiction crisis.

“I think this park is going to be destroyed,” said Coffey, a member of the Stony Brook Neighborhood Association in Jamaica Plain. “I think it will be bad for the community and bad for the people who are trying to recover.”

The state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance last week gave provisional designation to the consortium, headed by Boston Medical Center, for the redevelopment of the Shattuck Hospital site. The nonprofits, which include the Pine Street Inn, Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation and The Community Builders, plan to accommodate expanded outpatient treatment services on the site.

“Our ambition is that we can create a much better form of care and treatment for people who have mental health conditions and addiction and who are probably experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity,” said Rob Koenig, executive director of strategic programs at Boston Medical Center.

Koenig, who spoke with the Banner via Zoom, would not say whether BMC would continue to offer suboxone and other supportive services in the Mass and Cass area, but noted that the city will no longer be offering housing at the Roundhouse Hotel there.

Koenig noted that the BMC team’s proposal— the sole response to the request for proposals for the site — includes medication-assisted treatment for as many as 400 people, in addition to other services.

Roxbury residents, who complain of an existing overconcentration of drug treatment and recovery services in the neighborhood, say the transfer of people and services into the park would place an undue burden on the neighborhood.

“I believe in the research that shows housing does support treatment of substance abuse,” said City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, who lives a quarter-mile from the park. “I just wonder why there aren’t plans for this in other neighborhoods.”

Last year, when the city removed encampments from the Mass and Cass area, Mayor Michelle Wu pledged that the city would identify low-threshold housing units for people struggling with addiction in neighborhoods throughout the city. A year-and-a-half later, the city has yet to identify a single supportive housing site outside of the historic boundaries of the neighborhood.

“I think it’s racist,” said Louis Elisa, president of the Garrison Trotter Neighborhood Association. “I can’t think of any other way to put it. They just moving the situation out of the South End and putting it in Roxbury.”

Elisa notes that Roxbury has had drug treatment sites since the Third Nail and First Academy opened in the late 1960s. But while those programs catered to people from within the community centered in Roxbury, the services currently centered at Mass and Cass cater to people from across Massachusetts and other New England states.

“This is a greater number than the community can accommodate,” he said.

Elisa said the 405 housing units, 326 treatment beds and 120 emergency shelter beds could accommodate as many as 1,000 people in addition to those being served by outpatient programs. That concentration would likely draw in drug dealers, as many of those served by BMC services are not in recovery.

“You can’t cluster people who are trying to re-enter society like that,” he said. “It’s not smart thinking.”

Seeds of a crisis?

State Rep. Christopher Worrell, who represents part of Dorchester, said he’s done a walk-through of the park, viewing the encampments and litter in the woods. He worries the plans to increase the population at the Shattuck more than tenfold will overburden the surrounding neighborhoods.

“Nearly a decade ago, a well-intentioned but misinformed public policy decision sowed the seeds for the crisis that exists today at Mass and Cass,” he said. “It is imperative that this same mistake is not made again for neighbors in Dorchester, Roxbury and Jamaica Plain.”

So far, there are 28 temporary shelters and 30 additional beds being used on the Shattuck site, in addition to outpatient services. Even with those numbers, abutters say the impact on the park is noticeable. Last year, there were tents on the playing fields and in the woods around the Shattuck. In the encampments and on the stairs leading from Forest Hills Avenue to Circuit Drive, the ground is littered with discarded needles, saline packs, glass pipes and other paraphernalia users obtain from harm reduction packs distributed at the Shattuck.

“We get a lot of complaints about needles, people living in the woods,” Worrell said.

The city’s Health and Human Services department seems ill-equipped to keep up with the litter and public nuisances that come with the population currently in the park.

Pine Street Inn Executive Director Lyndia Downie said her nonprofit will ensure that the park and surrounding neighborhood are kept clean and safe.

“We are committed to the campus being a safe and welcoming environment and to being a being a place that is part of and fits into Franklin Park,” she said.

Coffey said he has been in frequent contact with the Pine Street Inn about the encampments, litter, needles, human waste and drug use in the park, with little success.

“The problem is, they all deny anything’s happening in the park,” he said.

Worrell says he’s pushing for city and state officials to listen to abutters and better engage the communities around the Shattuck site.

“This is a once-in-a-century opportunity to determine the future of the Shattuck and Franklin Park, and it needs to be done right,” he said.