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North End residents address homeless problem in Christopher Columbus Park

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  July 12, 2012 05:18 PM

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Columbus Park sandbox.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for

Children play inside the tot lot at Christopher Columbus Park. In April, the sand was removed by the city and replaced by the Friends of Christopher Columbus Park after it appeared that homeless people had urinated in it.

North End residents have kept a close eye on Christopher Columbus Park since late April, when a neighborhood father arose early one Friday morning to find three homeless people sleeping in the park’s tot lot.

More troubling were puddles that appeared to be urine, and a razor blade and blood inside the play structure. The Boston Parks and Recreation Department power-washed the structure and removed the sand that appeared to contain urine, and the Friends of Christopher Columbus Park bought 12 tons of new sand to replace it.

But just over three weeks later a neighborhood mother took her two sons to the park to find a nearly identical scene. And again two weeks after that.

After meeting with the Friends group, Antonia Pollak, commissioner of parks and recreation, had two broken lights in the tot lot repaired, and two new ones installed in early June. Boston Police increased patrols of the park and more than 20 other sites in the North End, downtown, and Chinatown where homeless people sometimes gather.

“They took it very seriously,” said Joanne Hayes-Rines, president of the Friends group, at its monthly meeting this week.

Joan, a senior citizen who asked that her last name not be published, visits the park each morning to clean up litter. She said she had seen people who appeared to be homeless around the park’s Rose Kennedy Rose Garden once, though not inside the garden’s fence.

She has also found some blankets left near the rose garden, but she hasn’t found anyone inside the tot lot. She credited the new floodlights with keeping them away

“I haven’t seen a soul,” said the woman, a waterfront resident since 1973. “There’s nobody in there in the tunnels and that area.”

Robyn Reed, co-chairwoman of the organization’s horticulture committee, said there is still a problem with beer bottles and glass pipes used for smoking narcotics being discarded in the rose garden.

“We take out at least a case [of beer bottles] on Sunday mornings,” said Reed.

Another woman said it isn’t unusual to find human excrement near the garden, that she had seen a Parks Department employee clean some up as recently as July 5.

A man said the extra illumination in the tot lot had forced the homeless to shift to different spots such as the rose garden, but it hadn’t addressed the underlying issues, which are twofold. He said the issue of homeless people using the park is distinct from the problem of drug use in the park — which isn’t necessarily connected to the homeless.

Sandra Harcourt, the group’s fundraising chairwoman, said it was helpful to have young families paying more attention to the park and being prepared to report problems.

“As a neighborhood, we need to a better job in letting the city know our needs,” she said.

Harcourt has owned a home on Fulton Street since 2004 and said she recognizes three or four homeless people who have been around the North End for at least that long. She believes they move around from one park to another when they are forced to leave.

During the park’s Independence Day and Tall Ships celebration on June 30, Harcourt said, a police officer had to ask a homeless man to move from a bench near the face-painting table, where he was making some parents uneasy.

Hayes-Rines, the president of the group, told a reporter she had personally found people sleeping inside the tot lot twice.

On the second occasion, she said, she was showing a neighbor where she had earlier seen people under the playground equipment when suddenly two heads popped up from inside.

“What are you doing here?” she cried out. “Get out of here. This is for kids.”

The people left.

The group encourages those seeing inappropriate behavior in the park to first call 911 (617-343-4911 on a cellular phone) to alert police, and the Mayor’s 24-Hour Hotline at 617-635-4500, then to email the group at so they can track incidents.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at
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Columbus Park rose garden.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for

The Rose Kennedy Rose Garden at Christopher Columbus Park, where volunteers regularly remove beer bottles and drug paraphernalia.

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