Boston Council revisits safe injection sites amid tensions over South End sweep
A week after tensions over open drug use and disorderly conduct boiled over in a South End neighborhood, city councilors revisited the potential for safe injections sites in Boston, even as many municipal and state officials remain skeptical of the idea.
Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, chair of the council’s committee on homelessness, mental health, and recovery, said she plans to tour an injection site in Toronto in two weeks while researching the type of recovery services that city offers. Essaibi-George added, however, that a similar trip to Vancouver last year left her with concerns that the city was offering few recovery services in favor of a place to safely inject heroin.
She said the Vancouver operation had no true effort to collect information about who was using the center, and whether they were seeking services. She said there is no requirement to identify yourself at the center.
“It’s very discouraging to hear they’re not collecting accurate data,” Essaibi-George said.
Her concerns were echoed by other councilors who toured injection facilities in Vancouver and said they would oppose one in Boston.
“It’s Mass and Cass on steroids,” Councilor Frank Baker, referring to the South End intersection and neighborhood that has become the city’s Ground Zero in the battle against the opioid epidemic.
Tensions over open drug use and illegal activity came to a head just over a week ago, after an off-duty correction officer was beaten during a confrontation near a community engagement center where homeless people and drug addicts congregate.
Police responded with Operation Clean Sweep, leading to the arrest of 16 people who authorities say deal drugs and prey on others seeking help in the area. Another sweep days later focused on collecting trash and syringes, though advocates for people who seek help in the area argued that police had thrown away wheelchairs that were medically needed.
On Tuesday, Essaibi-George’s committee held its first brainstorming session on ways the city can respond since tensions flared in the neighborhood last week, and councilors recognized the divide between residents, drug users, and those seeking recovery in the South End.
“This is an issue that also impacts residents in residential areas and also business owners,” said Councilor Kim Janey, who said some of the issues affecting the South End have also made their way into her district, including Dudley Square.
Members of a coalition that support supervised injection facilities, SIFMA Now, silently protested councilors during Tuesday’s meeting, waving signs that read, “Factually inaccurate,” and “Save lives now.” They also passed out informational materials saying that supervised injection facilities can reduce health and public safety issues associated with drug use.
There are more than 100 such facilities in more than five dozen cities around the world, and several cities in the United States have considered implementing them.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh has previously opposed injection facilities, though he has been increasingly open to the discussion in recent months. Governor Charlie Baker has opposed the sites, saying they are illegal under federal law.
Several councilors also said they were opposed to the idea, based on their tour of the centers in Vancouver, noting the area surrounding the facilities look far worse than the blatant drug use seen in the South End.
“It was a disaster,” said Councilor Timothy McCarthy. “The Vancouver model is not something I could ever get behind.”