Community leaders call on the city and state for help in containing issues at 'Mass and Cass'
If it's not raining or snowing, you'll probably see Roxbury resident Marla Smith walking around Clifford Park looking for used syringes. And on Saturday morning, she was doing just that.
"Here you go, right there, next to the barrel," she says, as she spots one along Proctor Street. "Not in it. I mean, I'd prefer you put it in the sharps bin, but you were next to the barrel. You couldn't even put it in the barrel."
She picks up the needle with a plastic trash grabber, and puts it in a jar, next to two needles she found behind her house the other day. This one, though, is her third find today so far at the park. Eventually, she'll deposit them in a sharps bin nearby meant for used syringes.
Clifford Park is a few streets over from the area known as "Mass. and Cass." Last winter, the city broke down encampments around the intersection and got many people clean and into stable housing. But over the months, what was removed has been returning, and residents say the challenges there are continuing to spill out into the surrounding neighborhoods.
"I'm not opposed to harm reduction, actually. I think it's helpful, but it's not contained up at 'Mass. and Cass' and it spreads out here," said Smith. "And so what helps one person stay safe creates a danger for, you know, a 9-year-old kid who's maybe not looking for a needle — because he shouldn't have to be — in a park."
Smith is referring to a 9-year-old currently undergoing treatment for any bloodborne illnesses after he fell during football practice and accidentally pricked himself with a used needle at Clifford Park this week. The incident brought anger about the area to the surface again — so much so, that Boston Mayor Michelle Wu was forced to end and relocate a press conference she called to talk about "Mass. and Cass" early after protestors interrupted it.
"And so what helps one person stay safe creates a danger for, you know, a 9-year-old kid who's maybe not looking for a needle — because he shouldn't have to be — in a park."Marla Smith
In a statement to WBUR, the mayor's office wrote: "The City is working to ensure that Clifford Park is a safe and pleasant space for all to enjoy. The City understands the urgency of addressing the crisis in this area through equity-focused, public health-led policies that address the needs of people experiencing homelessness, substance use disorders, and behavioral health issues. Each person within this population has unique needs and requires resources from a continuum of services and the City is constantly working to connect them with the appropriate resources."
The city visits and cleans the park daily, and starting at the end of August, it stepped up those efforts to multiple visits a day. Still, Marla Smith, who has come out to pick up needles 3-to-5 times a week for the last three years, says there's never been a time where she's left empty-handed. She calls what's happening at "Mass. and Cass" a "human tragedy" and deeply empathizes with those living there, and needing help. But she also wants her neighborhood to be safe.
"My kids are grown, and they played in this park and it was safe," said Smith. "I mean, as safe as any park ever is. But they didn't have to worry about needles. They had to worry about occasionally broken glass or, you know, back in the old days when playgrounds were largely made of cement and whatnot, you know, scraping a knee or a hot slide. But that was about it. They didn't have to worry about finding needles, and now kids do."
On Saturday, the Boston Bengals Pop Warner football team were out practicing in Clifford Park — the same team whose 9-year-old player was pricked by a needle earlier this week. The Bengals practice at the park regularly, and Smith says before each practice adults will walk the field in a grid pattern, looking for used syringes.
Domingos DaRosa — who ran for an at-large position for Boston City Council in 2021 — coaches the team. He and Smith are good friends. She says his team is the reason she started cleaning up the park on her own. DaRosa called on the city to give more support to his kids, by cleaning up the park — and the area.
"These kids come out here every day," said DaRosa. "They're concerned about their safety, but they just want to be kids. And for no one to show them the support they need is troubling. So in a year when they turn 15, 16 and they become a part of that lifestyle that everyone wants to keep them away from now, you know, these are kids that we can't save. They're savable now, not later."
Both DaRosa and Smith are calling for more help from the state in dealing with the situation at "Mass. and Cass," and the surrounding neighborhoods. To them, that means more treatment centers in every county in the state, so the burden for services doesn't fall entirely on Roxbury's shoulders. Both also want more support from the city, and the mayor's office. Wu has also called for more support from the state, specifically in creating 1,000 more low threshold housing units throughout Massachusetts.