Scrolling through the Facebook page of the Mass Ave. Project it’s hard not to feel something like emotional whiplash. It’s a cascade of both heartbreak and hopefulness.
“Hey guys I'm looking for my daughters father...he has been on the ave for a while, if you see him please have him call me...I want to help him please!!!” reads one typical post.
Others go on:
“HEADING DOWN TO MASS AVE FIRST THING IN THE MORNING WITH SEVEN DEAR RECOVERY FRIENDS FOR THE BIG SEARCH AGAIN FOR MY DAUGHTER (she's been down there for 5 years) CAUGHT IN THE GRIPS OF ADDICTION. THIS TIME IS AN INTERVENTION. Prayers please that we find her and she's ready! TOGETHER WE CAN! Any help is greatly appreciated”
“Hey everyone, I’m trying to find/help my kids father. I know a lot of you know him and he is in a bad way. DM me if you know where I can find him. He has no phone or ID at the moment”
“My son's father is missing and he is more than likely in the Mass Ave area...Myself and his family are very worried. He's been gone since Friday and we got wind he was narcaned 2 times and have no other info...****UPDATE**** [HE] HAS BEEN LOCATED!! THANK YOU, ALL!”
The area they’re referring to is Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, often derisively referred to as “Methadone Mile,” which in Boston has been synonymous with the addiction and homelessness crisis for years.
Messages like those, people desperate to find their loved ones, or even proof that they’re still alive, are hard to read, but they speak to the severity of the ongoing addiction epidemic, something that’s only gotten worse over the course of the past year and half under Covid. In fact overdose deaths around the country rose sharply last year, jumping 29% to around 93,000 according to the Center for Disease Control.
In Massachusetts overdose deaths have stayed roughly the same, floating around 2,200 a year for the past few years.
It’s believed the isolation and stress of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown periods exacerbated the problem. Not to mention the emergence of fentanyl.
“What’s really driving the surge in overdoses is this increasingly poisoned drug supply,” Shannon Monnat, a professor who studies overdose data at Syracuse University told the Associated Press. “Nearly all of this increase is fentanyl contamination in some way. Heroin is contaminated. Cocaine is contaminated. Methamphetamine is contaminated.”
60% of the overdose deaths from the last year involved fentanyl according to the CDC.
Reading the Mass Ave. Project personalizes data like that that can seem abstract and easy for a lot of people to ignore. But amidst those very real, very human and individualized pleas, the page simultaneously serves as something of a beacon of light and a bulwark of support for family members of addicts, people in recovery, and those still on the street looking for any sort of help they can get. Scroll further and you’ll see direct mutual aid in action, announcements of sober anniversaries with all the attendant well wishes you’d expect, shares of affirmational poems and texts, social events, and people stepping up to locate beds and detox facilities for those in immediate need.
The page, now over four thousand strong, (the website is here if you’d like to donate) was started about a year and a half ago by two friends, James Bradley and Justin Downey.
An old Boston music scene pal of mine, Darin Thompson, himself a recovering addict, told me what a boon the community has been for him. (He also asked me to share a link to his song “Massachusetts Avenue” — always be promoting! — about his experience on the street.)
“I’ve seen first hand the miracle it has done,” he said. “I spent two years in the broken recovery system. Changes need to happen now. Justin is the real deal. He’s in the thick of it helping weekly. He knows what he’s talking about.”
I spoke to Downey about the work they’ve been doing, his own recovery, the city’s failure, and his practice of Buddhism. A former heroin addict and a self-described violent convict who was in and out of jail but has now been clean for four years, Downey said the initial impetus was trying to help his sister, who is herself still out on the street. Since then it’s ballooned into something he never imagined.
What is the Mass Ave Project?
Where are you from?
I grew up in the South Shore, but I lived in or around Boston for about twenty five years.
So you’ve seen the current state of Mass Ave., correct? It’s always been a hotspot for homelessness and drugs ever since we were kids. In the last four or five years it’s become increasingly worse as far as the homelessness and crime. Basically these people are intentionally corralled by the cops into the area of Melnea Cass Blvd. and Mass Ave. They’re left down there in an open air drug market. They’re losing their minds to drug psychosis and dying left and right. No kinds of resources. Nobody’s trying to fucking help them from the city. So about a year and a half ago me and my friend Jimmy — we’re both in recovery and both have a long reach in the recovery community, everybody kind of knows us. Just as a human being that has a fucking heart, I couldn’t look away from this kind of suffering. So I said why don’t we try to get some donations? We put it up on Facebook and the response we got was so overwhelming. We went and did our first donation drive and saw how fucking needy the people were down there. The response we got from regular people and the recovery community really blew us away. We said fuck this. If the city’s not gonna do nothing, the elected officials aren’t gonna do nothing besides roll out this bullshit Covid plan and scare the fuck out of everyone and isolate everyone and not take care of anyone during their darkest moments, we’ll start doing it. So we started running supplies, medical supplies. It started out with five of us doing backpacks and some clothes. Now a year and a half later the Facebook page has over four thousand people on it all linked in to running supplies down there, sending donations, sober houses that are willing to give people scholarships and free beds. We’re in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3). Yeah man, the sky is kind of the limit to be honest with you.
I’ve been looking at the group and it seems like a really engaged and supportive community. So you put out calls for donations and people chime in and say I’ll take this day? How often are you out there?
I personally get down there about once a week. In the beginning I was there all the time, but that was before I got all the followers together. I don’t need to be down there as much now. I still like to go down once a week or two weeks because I built a lot of relationships with a lot of the people down there, and I came to love a lot of these people. And my little sister happens to be one of the people down there. She was my primary purpose for going down there, then it just snowballed. It’s been a pretty beautiful endeavor to be a part of, never mind to be the guy who started it. I say that humbly. It’s something I wasn’t fucking expecting.
It’s great that so many people seem to give a shit, but do you think it’s a testament to how bad things are now with opioids that so many people have to give a shit? Reading through the page it seems like there are so many posts like has anyone seen my mother, my friend, last I heard they were down there. It’s evidence that this is touching almost everyone right now.
I know. Everybody knows somebody. Everybody has people out there. People have lost people. I think the fact is that people are also really disenchanted that there is no response from our public officials, man. You know what I mean? It’s the fucking saddest state of affairs. There’s no chairs down there. No trash barrels. No comfort. People are just fucking standing on the fucking hard concrete all day long just shooting meth, shooting heroin and overdosing. Nobody is doing shit to help them. It’s fucking sad, man. Me and my friend Jimmy couldn’t turn a blind eye.
You are in recovery yourself right?
I’ve got four years clean. I was a heroin addict for fifteen years. I’ve been in and out of the clinics in Boston. I’ve been to six different prisons in the state. I did two state bids. Three county bids. And Jimmy too. So myself and him we know pain on a real fucking raw level. He’s got six years clean. He’s now a sober house owner and an addiction treatment center owner. I’m a meditation teacher and a yoga teacher. I’ve been pretty instrumental in bringing Buddhist-based recovery to the Boston scene. So because of those two connections we knew the two of us had an ability to bring together a lot of people. And we’re both guys who operate in good moral order with people. We walk our talk and people know that about us. We’re not being conceited saying that. I know that I treat people properly and that I’m not your typical fucking twelve step recovery scumbag that’s sitting in a hall trying to prey upon vulnerable women or taking advantage of people’s families as they’re trying to get them treatment. Because that happens. As you know.
It’s fucked. So with the city, the services just aren’t there, or are lacking? The thing with Marty, he was always talking about being in recovery, which was great, but did he actually follow through with anything?
Marty sold this fucking city out, dude. He gentrified everything. He caused an enormous crisis in the homelessness population by gentrifying every neighborhood, pushing people out. He’s one of the main causes of this happening. So, no, zero response. He likes to say, you know, I’m a guy in recovery, which he is, but that makes it even worse really.
What’s the situation on Mass and Cass? The police are like, fuck it, this is going to go on anyway so we might as well wrangle everyone into one area? Is it just like throwing up their hands?
Partly that...Obviously during Covid the racial issues became huge, with Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police. So people are kind of getting what they asked for now. They don’t want to arrest people for selling drugs... So they’re told to stand back and let everything go to shit. There are police cruisers down there parked getting overtime just making sure that murders don’t happen. But people are allowed to openly sell crack, meth, and heroin, right in front of police cruisers.
You don’t think throwing more people in jail over drugs would be a good solution right? Doesn’t that fuck everyone up even worse?
I don’t think throwing drug addicts in jail is a solution. I think if you’re a fucking gang member, whether you’re white, black, or hispanic, and you’re out polluting the neighborhood and carrying guns and willing to shoot people to protect drug terf, then yeah, I think you should go to prison, don’t you?
If you’re shooting people that’s different, but the war on drugs tends to grab up so many addicts in its net. Criminalizing addiction. It just hasn’t worked.
I agree with that aspect. But the people who predatorily sell drugs, especially to a homeless population, and knowingly fucking kill these people absolutely deserve to go to prison.
[At this point we discussed disturbing accusations of abuse against a member of the recovery community in Massachusetts, the specifics of which I’m not prepared to relay at the moment without more reporting. If you happen to know anything please get in touch. I also referred the story along to a couple of my friendly colleagues who work at bigger Boston publications.]
...Luckily I ended up getting arrested before I ever ran into him…
Is that type of shit common in sober houses?
Sadly, yeah. Especially when you have men that run women’s houses. In my opinion, I don’t think any man should solely operate a women’s sober house. Shit like this happens. Those houses only operate as good as the person who owns them nurture their inner world. If you don’t nurture your inner world and aren’t actively working on your issues or traumas or sexual proclivities, or your service… If you’re basically just doing what a large majority of people who own these houses do, just using it to make money, you’re easily corruptible in other areas. If you’re not doing it for the proper work of the universe, which is kindness and service back to humanity, and if you don’t have an inner connection with God, using meditation to clear out all your blockages, you’re basically just somebody who is walking around as a human pain body. It doesn’t matter if you're sober or not. You’re somebody who is in pain, so you therefore act your pain out on other people. You know what I mean? If you’re not nurturing yourself on these issues they become who you are. It’s all too common in a recovery type setting because what you're dealing with is people, whether they get clean or not, who have a natural lack of contentment inside themselves. So just because they get sober doesn’t mean they’re not prey to depression, and horrific anxiety, gambling, sex, all the comforts that go along with people that are in recovery. If you’re not working on these issues then they fucking own you, dude. A large majority of people who own these houses don't work on these issues. They just stay clean.
When did Buddhism come into the picture for you? It seems like quite a turn from fucking people up and robbing banks to becoming a Buddhist.
I was serving a four year sentence. This was after I’d already served a prior three and half year sentence, and a prior two year sentence. I got sick of it, man. You know? I said to myself why do I keep doing this? Why do I keep doing this? What’s going on inside of me? I started on a spiritual path. Buddhism was the water that nurtured my spiritual roots. It’s the one that made the most sense to me. It’s where I found peace. Where I found myself capable of accepting myself for myself in all my humanness. All my strengths and weaknesses. I learned to nurture these things in silence through meditation and yoga and basically getting in touch with an aspect of oneness, universal consciousness, and god that resides in me. If that resides in me I can’t deny that it resides in every living breathing organism on the face of the earth. Animals, people, even plants, right? So, it helped me get in tune with that higher aspect of self. I started really delving into it deeply. Not to sound like a crazy person, but here I was, a lifelong heroin addict and criminal, violent, in and out of prison, and I started experiencing mystical experiences through really sinking deep into silence and meditation and service back to humanity. I kind of started seeing god in everything I was looking at. I started experiencing levity in the way I operated in the world. Lightness and kindness. And that I was a pretty nice person. I didn’t really know this aspect of myself. It was beautiful. I could feel myself sink into my center in meditation…. I’ve gone as far as chanting with Buddhist monks, doing depth centering prayer with Trappist monks. Sitting on the side of mountains drinking ayahuasca with shamans. I’ve done a lot.
Sounds like you’ve had quite a journey! I’m glad you’re in a better place now. I’m going to look more into that other thing, but in the meantime is there somewhere you want to direct people who might want to donate?
The website has a donate button. 100% of the proceeds go either to supplies or we hold it in the account until we hear from someone who wants help, so we can place them in detox, get their body physically detoxed. We can put them in a follow up thirty day program to start the stabilization process. Then we can pay for the first two or three months of this person’s treatment, so they don’t have to worry about finding a job or rent or this or that.
There’s a lot in here but for a sampling of some of the addiction-related pieces from Hell World check out some of these below.