City Councilors Erin Murphy and Frank Baker, both of whom have had close relatives deal with drug problems, say one solution to the resurgence of drug problems at Mass and Cass could be to force people into locked treatment facilities.
As was par for the course at yesterday's contentious council meeting, the proposal sparked outrage among other councilors. Still, Council President Ed Flynn assigned the entire issue of Mass and Cass - and the possible use of involuntary commitment orders brought by close relatives of Mass and Cass denizens - to a council committee for a hearing.
Introducing the request for a hearing on the "humanitarian crisis" at Mass and Cass., Murphy (at large) said that despite efforts of the Wu administration and the Boston Public Health Commission, Mass and Cass has returned to its role as a disease-spreading open-air drug market with rampant drug sales, prostitution, rapes and never ending piles of trash, human waste and needles that re-appear as soon as city crews remove them.
"There are rats there," she said. "We have monkeypox, we have Covid, we have pregnant women falling into the street, we have people who are in need of help."
Murphy, who says she regularly drives through the area, said a couple of weekends ago, she stopped to help a woman just lying there. "I had to get out of the car and I had to Narcan a woman who was almost dead on the ground," she said, adding that once firefighters and EMTs arrived and the woman revived, she simply walked away, rebuffing efforts by her and first responders to get treatment. She was younger than my daughter," she said. "It's just heartbreaking."
Murphy, who says she knows the pain of addiction firsthand - her son was in treatment on Long Island the night it was suddenly shut in 2014 - says more needs to be done to protect area residents, business owners and workers, such as the "older Asian women" who have to wend their way through the area to and from their jobs at a Newmarket Square noodle factory.
She pointed to people who go to Mass and Cass in a desperate search to find their loved ones and try to get them out. And that, she said is where "Section 35," the legal shorthand for involuntary commitment, could come in, she said. Perhaps the city could work with families to convince them to go into court and try to have a judge order their loved ones into treatment - and to stay there until they are finished - and that would help reduce the number of substance abusers in the area.
She said she's not saying "we can arrest our way out of this," but said that forcing somebody into treatment can be another option the city needs to try.
"Many times they don't know better," she said of people using drugs. "Sometimes you need someone to step into your life and guide you into a better place."
She concluded, ""We need to set aside our feelings to know that if we save one, if we save ten if we save however many, that we have to do better for the neighbors, for the business owners for us, for the city."
Baker (Dorchester), whose brother Ricky died of a heroin overdose 30 years ago, said the city is now wasting $20 million to $30 million a year putting Mass-and-Cass denizens up at the former Roundhouse Hotel - only to release them back onto the streets of Mass and Cass.
"Nothing changes, nothing changes," he said, and the addicts, back in the middle of a drug den, "don't have a prayer."
Instead, he said the state Department of Public Health should set up a a locked treatment facility at the Nashua Street jail, where families could have their addict relatives committed for serious treatment, as part of an effort that includes more treatment and intervention programs. Last fall, Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins proposed set up part of the South Bay House of Corrections for use for involuntarily committed people with substance abuse issues, but Mayor Wu rejected the idea in favor of expanding housing and other programs at Mass and Cass and in other parts of the city.
"If we don't start doing things different, all our parks are going to be taken over, all our streets are going be taken over," Baker said of addicts. "They're in the parks, they're in the playgrounds, they're using our parks for their toilets."
Although both councilors mentioned "Section 35" several times during their discussion, neither detailed exactly what it is. City Councilor Kendra Lara (Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, Mission Hill) asked them to clarify.
"Could I ask Councilor Lara why she's asking for that clarification?" Murphy asked, then added Lara could find out by coming to the hearing on the proposal. At the request of Council President Ed Flynn, she then gave a brief answer.
Councilors Ruthzee Louijeune (at large), Ricardo Arroyo (Hyde Park, Roslindale, Mattapan) and Julia Mejia (at large) voiced strong objection to any expansion of involuntary commitment; Arroyo said he was opposed to the use of involuntary commitment in Boston altogether.
Louijeune, herself a lawyer, acknowledged the technique is allowed under state law, but called it "an extreme reaction" that involves depriving somebody of their civil liberties when they haven't been convicted of a crime, so something that should be used only sparingly, not expanded.
"Just because something is legal does not make it just," she said.
Arroyo, also a lawyer, said that in his time as a public defender, he had several clients overdose after being involuntarily committed and that some of his clients who thought they would be put in medical treatment programs were instead sent to jails.
"Section 35s can operate as a death sentence," he said, referring to it as "forced involuntary detoxification." He said he did agree with Baker that the city needs more mental-health programs and an increase in the number of beds in treatment facilities.
City Councilor Julia Mejia (at large), said that, like Baker, she has lost somebody to addiction and added her niece is currently on the streets dealing with addiction.
"Who am I to say I have any right to force her into any sort of environment she's not ready to go into?" she asked. "There is no justice in the way we're moving in this space if we are imposing our own beliefs on others."
City Council discussion on Section 35 and Mass and Cass: