A Scene from “Operation Clean Sweep” in the South End: Crushed Wheelchairs

Witnesses say police are collecting and destroying belongings on "Methadone Mile."

operation clean sweep wheelchair trash

Photo via Twitter/Dinah Applewhite

As “Operation Clean Sweep” continues in Boston’s South End this week, witnesses to a crackdown in the city’s so-called “Methadone Mile” say they saw a jarring sight: wheelchairs tossed into trash trucks and crushed.

Photos shared online Tuesday night during a police operation in the area appear to show several wheelchairs among a mass of items in the back of a Department of Public Works trash compactor.

“You could hear the metal crushing noise. It was really loud. They just tossed it in and crushed it,” says Cassie Hurd, a Boston homeless advocate who at the time had been observing the area with a group called SIFMA NOW, which advocates for safe injection facilities in the state.

Hurd says about 15 BPD and state police cruisers, along with a DPW trash truck, rolled up to Mass. Ave. after dark and began telling the people congregating there to leave. Any unattended items were confiscated, she says, including at least three wheelchairs.

“We spent a significant amount of time with someone who lost his wheelchair. He is not able to be mobile without it, and not having a home, nowhere to sit, nowhere to go, and was having pain. He couldn’t really balance or walk,” Hurd says. “He had left his wheelchair for a minute and his partner tried everything to keep the wheelchair. She pleaded with police and was sobbing and crying. They took it and threw it in the back of the truck and it was devastating to watch. There was nothing anyone could do to prevent them from throwing it out.”

The man, who she identified as Jarrod, told her he had been injured in a hit-and-run car crash about a week earlier and had been prescribed the wheelchair by a doctor. His backpack had also been taken and trashed in the sweep, she says he told her.

BPD spokesman Sgt. John Boyle says the DPW had been cleaning up in the area, but says he cannot confirm the origin of the photo showing wheelchairs in the trash truck. He said the police action was at least the third since last Friday, when 16 people were arrested on drug or active warrant charges and scores more were told to leave the area. There were no reported arrests during Tuesday night’s sweep. BPD is also offering to help connect anyone separated from a wheelchair with resources that can provide a replacement. “There’s plenty of services down there and if people aren’t getting any they can feel free to reach out to us,” Boyle says.

City councilor Michelle Wu weighed in on Twitter, saying, in part, “This image represents a cruelty that government should try to stop, not carry out.”

After this story was published, Mayor Marty Walsh’s office sent us this statement:

Helping people in recovery has been one of Mayor Walsh’s priorities since day one. In recovery for more than 20 years, there is hardly an issue that is more personal to the Mayor himself, which is why he has invested an incredible amount of resources in battling the opioid epidemic and the devastating impact it has on individuals and families across our city, state and country. He is currently focused on building a recovery campus on Long Island to serve our region’s need, suing pharmaceutical companies for the damage caused to families, and significantly increasing funding and  resources regarding public safety and quality of life concerns, as well as access to recovery services and housing for those in need. The Mayor continues to prioritize how to help those suffering from addiction in every corner of our city, and he welcomes a conversation with the Sheriff and anyone else who wants to join him in this effort moving forward.

Advocates for substance abuse treatment bristle at its disturbing nickname, but the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, where several homeless shelters and drug treatment facilities are located, has long been recognized as a troubled site that absorbs large groups of people with nowhere else to go, including addicts and people experiencing homelessness. A crackdown has been underway since a Suffolk County corrections officer was beaten and robbed while driving through the area. The incident triggered a police response, dubbed Operation Clean Sweep, in which officers have cleared the area of people, litter, and discarded needles.

If the idea is to get people to stay away from the area, Hurd says, it seems the message is being sent. She says the size of the crowd, which can number in the hundreds, has been dwindling. “I think people are just really scattering and trying to find other places they can survive without being surveilled and criminalized,” she says. “It’s pushing them away from service providers where they receive healthcare and support, so it’s really concerning.”

This story has been updated.