Pubdate: Mon, 27 Dec 1999
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.
Contact:  P.O. Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107-2378
Author: Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff


Head down, his words spilling out, a South Boston 18-year-old tells a
story of the 1990s. He last saw his father eight years ago, his mother
died of an overdose after contracting HIV from a dirty needle, and he
once tried to hang himself in a housing development hallway.

But this teen considers himself lucky. For 14 months, he has been free
of the numbing drug that enslaved his mother. He is no longer using

The same, apparently, cannot be said for hundreds of his

More than two years after a string of teenage suicides shook South
Boston and prompted a broad, earnest influx of community and city
resources, the related problem of heroin use among the neighborhood's
youth has not abated.

Arrests for heroin are running stable in South Boston and across the
city, where they continue to account for a record 23 percent of all
drug arrests, police say. The city's Emergency Medical Services is
projecting no reduction in its average weekly number of overdose calls
for fiscal 2000.

However, many people on the front lines of South Boston's drug war say
the statistics are misleading, and that the heroin problem has become
startlingly worse in the last year.

''This is the most devastating thing that has faced South Boston in
the last 20 years,'' said Jack Leary, assistant probation chief of
South Boston District Court.

Since 1997, Leary says, the number of placements made to residential
halfway houses by the court has skyrocketed, from 290 in 1998 to an
estimated 480 this year. And rates for hepatitis B, often linked to
intravenous drug use, have risen in South Boston as they plummet citywide.

At least six fatal overdoses have claimed the lives of South Boston
residents since July, Leary says. Three of those occurred in November,
one of them outside the kitchen window of City Councilor Peggy
Davis-Mullen, who cited increased drug use as one influence on her
recent decision to move to West Roxbury.

More young people are using the drug than ever in South Boston, Leary
and others say, a craving that is fueled by lowered cost and increased
purity that often make a bag, or single hit, of heroin cheaper than a
six-pack of beer.

Leary estimates that as many as 350 young people, mostly between 17
and 23 years old, are using heroin in the neighborhood. Five years
ago, Leary says, he could count only a handful.

''It's the worst we've ever seen,'' concurred Leary's supervisor,
chief probation officer Robert Manion.

Police, however, paint a different picture of the South Boston heroin
problem, one that not only concerns them but also appears to have
stabilized. Lieutenant John Gallagher, head of the Boston Police
Department's drug control unit, says heroin use in South Boston does
not appear to have increased significantly since 1997.

Sergeant Don Wightman, who supervises antidrug activity in South
Boston, agrees. ''I see it first-hand. And I don't sit in the
office,'' Wightman said.

Wightman adds that police have intensified their efforts to alert
parents about children they observe in the company of known heroin
users, and that treatment is being offered to some youths as an
alternative to arrest.

This might account for the stable numbers in arrests, police say, but
South Boston youths have another explanation. More and more drug
activity has gone underground and off the street corners, they say -
hidden in apartments, housing development hallways and out-of-the-way
places that police do not patrol.

Another indication that the problem is outrunning the data comes from
the Boston Public Health Commission, whose officials are not seeing an
increase in heroin-related treatment administered to South Boston
residents by the city's Emergency Medical Services.

According to the commission's executive director, John M. Auerbach,
this statistic might not be a reliable measure of the scope of the

Overdose victims might not be recorded by the 911 system, Auerbach
said, because friends, relatives or the users themselves are wary of
any contact with city agencies. Users also might sleep off the
overdose or, in the worst case, they die before an accurate diagnosis
is made.

''I don't want to say that the community's impression is not an
accurate one,'' Auerbach said.

Although underreporting has always been a concern, officials say that
heroin addicts in South Boston have become more sophisticated, and
that the current number of overdoses might not reflect the larger
number of addicts. Users now are accustomed to purity levels that
average 60 percent in Boston, compared with 40 percent nationally,
police say.

Manion, Leary and outreach workers such as Leo Rull and Paul Rodgerson
speak of near-daily calls from young, sick, strung-out users whom they
rush to emergency rooms and detox centers.

Leary, one of the neighborhood's most active combatants against drugs,
says he has lost count of South Boston overdoses in the last two
years. He recalls frantic rides given to addicts in need of medical
help, youths who thrash around in the throes of withdrawal.

He cites the 13 detox placements he made for a single user in 62 days,
an alarming rate of relapse that he says is not uncommon.

Davis-Mullen challenged the city two years ago to devote more
resources to neighborhood youths during the suicide crisis that
claimed six teenage lives. More services - recreational, educational,
behavioral - exist now than before the suicides, but more clearly
needs to be done, Davis-Mullen says.

''I just find it so ironic that there's more interest in the
Betterment Trust'' to distribute development-related money throughout
South Boston ''than there is in kids literally dropping dead on our
doorsteps,'' Davis-Mullen said.

The city's response to the suicides has given the neighborhood a
built-in network of options, some of which did not exist before that
crisis. Kattie Portis, the drug policy adviser to Mayor Thomas M.
Menino, says she believes that, despite these efforts, South Boston
heroin use remains a stubborn problem because many youths continue to
suffer a form of post-traumatic stress caused by the suicides.

''That was a horrific thing that happened,'' Portis said. ''We're just
going to continue to work. I'm not giving up by any means.''

Public meetings have been held in South Boston, and Menino responded
to the November overdoses by announcing a plan to attack the problem.
The initiative includes:

Opening a detoxification and treatment facility on Long Island for 12-
to 18-year-old youths, both male and female. The facility, scheduled
to begin service next month, will be the first detox center for
adolescents in the state.

Sharing data between the Public Health Commission and Police
Department to better track overdoses and where they occur.

Adding two case workers, for a total of eight, to help at-risk youths

Other help is offered by Catholic Charities, which opened Home for
Awhile last year in the former St. Monica's rectory near the Old
Colony project. There, 12 beds are provided for a transition period
for 14- to 18-year-old boys who are referred by detox centers and the
court system.

Another adolescent home has opened recently on Old Colony Avenue, a
much-needed complement to two established halfway houses for adults in
other parts of South Boston - the Gavin House on West Fifth Street,
and the Answer House on G Street.

Help cannot come too soon for hundreds of South Boston's children -
some as young as 12 - who have turned to heroin's numbing effcts for
escape. Chris, 19, has done several tours in prison and can track a
seven-year history with drugs - first with alcohol and marijuana, then
LSD, pills and cocaine, and finally heroin.

Now, he has kicked his $200-a-day habit, but the urge returns
relentlessly. ''I'm just taking it a day at a time, getting on my
knees every day,'' Chris said.

''There's nothing out there for me if I go back, nothing but a grave
with my name on it.''
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