Last Tuesday night, the Boston Police Department was caught confiscating wheelchairs from homeless people.
The wheelchairs were tossed into a garbage truck and crushed, leaving their disabled owners with virtually no means of mobility. It was the fifth night of “Operation Clean Sweep” — a series of raids that the BPD conducted against the South End’s at-risk community of homeless and people suffering from substance use disorders. The stretch of Massachusetts Avenue where the operation took place is often referred to as “Methadone Mile” due to the concentration of methadone clinics where people seek treatment for addiction.
Operation Clean Sweep appears to have been sparked by a recent incident in which a police officer en route to the Suffolk County House of Corrections became engaged in a brawl and was beaten by people who may or may not have been homeless. (It’s still unclear how the fight began.)
But what should have been an effort to deliver help to the city’s most vulnerable residents has played out like a campaign of collective punishment. According to eyewitnesses who documented Operation Clean Sweep, the police arrested several homeless people; some were taken away for drug possession and others were booked for disorderly conduct. Anyone who managed to avoid incarceration was told to leave the area. Many were reportedly stripped of their possessions.
Such as those wheelchairs — which were photographed being squashed by a trash compactor. That image has now gone viral locally and national publications have begun paying attention. And they should. Because Boston’s actions against the homeless reflect a cruelty that’s becoming more common across America and much of the western world.
In several ways, the human crisis at the heart of Operation Clean Sweep can be traced to Mayor Marty Walsh’s 2014 decision to shut down the Long Island bridge, which effectively closed the city’s hub of shelter and substance use disorder rehab for people with nowhere else to go. Since then, Walsh has tried adding additional shelters and beds to the Boston area, funding new programs to match homeless individuals with available housing options, and even appointing the city’s first special adviser for homelessness. But as Massachusetts’ homeless population balloons, shelters around Boston are struggling to keep up with the demand for housing.
The National Alliance To End Homelessness now estimates that on any given night in Boston, more than 6,000 people are sleeping in shelters or on the streets. And according to the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, which has treated thousands of homeless patients in the South End, overdoses — most of them from opioids — are the leading cause of death for members of Boston’s homeless population. Boston has been identified as one of America’s worst cities for the homeless, partly because the escalating cost of housing here has become prohibitive.
This should have inspired an urgent effort to expand services and housing for the city’s most at-risk residents. But instead, the Walsh administration has chosen an easier yet more destructive path: tormenting the city’s most vulnerable people who remain unhoused.
Walsh has responded to condemnation of Operation Clean Sweep, arguing that Boston must find the right balance between ensuring "public safety for everyone and the compassion needed for those suffering with addiction." But Walsh hasn't acknowledged the cruel things done to Boston's most vulnerable residents by police officers during the operation.
Boston is not immune to the convenience and political expediency of treating human beings as subhuman.
You don’t have to squint to see the distressing parallels between Operation Clean Sweep and well-documented human rights abuses that are happening elsewhere. In America and in Europe, politicians have gained support by treating immigrants inhumanely: caging them, starving them and exporting them to countries where their lives are in danger. Donald Trump’s policy of separating immigrant children from their families is the United States' contribution to this new wave of cruelty.
The victims in this case are people whose situations remind us of our failure, as a city, to address homelessness, addiction and inequality. Making these people go away — by whatever means necessary — potentially offers comfort to Boston residents who prefer not to think about these problems. But that only makes our problems worse. As Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins noted on Thursday, “We cannot arrest our way out of a health and resource crisis.”
Boston has a multitude of resources to offer the homeless and all those suffering from addiction. We’ve got some of the world’s most prestigious hospitals and universities, and developers are changing our skyline. Imagine if some of that energy were harnessed to transform the way we deal with homelessness and addiction.
We could modernize our approach to rehab services by opening supervised Safe Injection Facilities (SIFs) — which Gov. Charlie Baker and others oppose — even though they have proven effective in treating addiction in Europe, Canada and Australia. We could take a page out of Denver’s book and invest in building no-strings-attached homes for the homeless with a long-term Housing First policy.
Boston activists and community leaders have been pushing for such measures for years. Some have managed to grab the attention of politicians, while others — such as Cassie Hurd, of the Material Aid and Advocacy Program — have made a difference by spotlighting how the city of Boston has marginalized and mistreated the very people whom we should be helping. On the fifth night of Operation Clean Sweep, Hurd interviewed a man identified as Jarrod, whose wheelchair was reportedly taken away by the police. He had been hit by a car just a month prior to the police raids. The wheelchair that was confiscated had allowed him to sit and move in relative comfort.
Jarrod’s story is now becoming the story of Boston. It’s a story about what we’ve become as a city and where we might be heading if we don’t consider the alternatives to cruelty against the disadvantaged. The name “Operation Clean Sweep” — which likens human beings with intrinsic dignity to detritus that needs to be expunged — hints at where that cruelty could lead us, to something even uglier and more despicable.