The City of Boston began posting notices around Mass. and Cass on Thursday to notify those who live on the street that the city will start removing tents used as homeless encampments on Nov. 1.
While the Inspectional Services Department notices went up, across town at Boston City Hall the city’s top cop warned that there would be an increased police presence in the area, which has become the center of the state’s opioid epidemic.
“Anyone who has any interest of coming into the area to do any type of criminality, I want to caution this, in a sense, that it’s been perceived that it’s been an area of permissiveness more recently,” Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox said at a press conference. “We’re going to have a heavy police presence throughout the area. And you know, with an increased police presence, I can promise you there’ll probably be an increased enforcement presence in the area.”
The Boston City Council on Wednesday approved an ordinance that would allow police to remove tents and tarps throughout the city, with a specific focus on the intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue.
Mayor Michelle Wu proposed the directive in August, saying that the tents shelter illegal activity such as drug dealing and human trafficking, as public health concerns and violence grew in the area this summer.
The measure was approved 9-3, with Councilors Ricardo Arroyo, Frank Baker and Kendra Lara voting against it and Councilor Julia Mejia voting present.
The council made some amendments to the ordinance, eliminating a $25 fine for those who refuse to comply and requiring that the city offer transportation to shelters.
Wu said the new plan to address the area focuses on removing tents because a small number of the hundreds of people who gather around Mass. and Cass every day are actually using the makeshift structures as housing.
“We are seeing hundreds more people drawn to this area every day,” she said. “And based on continued outreach and continued conversations. We know that the majority of people on Atkinson Street on any given day do not live there and have housing. Some are seeking services, but many are there to buy and sell drugs. And many are taking advantage of our residents who are struggling with mental health, homelessness and substance use. As a result, we’ve seen an increase in violent incidents and trafficking, all of which are concealed and made more challenging to address by structures like tents and tarps.”
People struggling with addiction and experiencing homelessness began congregating at Mass. and Cass, which lies at the intersection of the South End and Roxbury neighborhoods, in the last decade partially because of addiction and housing services in the area.
There have been a handful of police sweeps to try to address the “tent city”, starting under former Mayor Marty Walsh and again in January 2022 under Wu.
Wu has stressed that this new strategy is not “trying to replicate” the “so-called ‘law enforcement sweeps’ in the past” that she said were not successful.
Over the past few months, city outreach teams and service providers have developed relationships with people living in the area to connect them with shelter or treatment options, she said. Based on individuals’ needs, those who are living on the street at Mass. and Cass will be provided transportation to low-threshold shelters, general shelters, treatment programs, or will be reunified with their families, the mayor’s office says.
Storage will be provided for people’s personal belongings and city staff will maintain a real-time inventory of available sleeping space.
Wu said the city has nearly 200 units of low-threshold housing — spaces that provide counseling and case management services for people with histories of substance use disorder or who are chronically homeless.
To date, she said, more than 170 people have transitioned through low threshold housing and are living on their own. More than 130 people are housed at such sites, where they receive medical treatment and job counseling as well as case management services.
As part of the city’s new approach, the Boston Public Health Commission will open 30 temporary transitional beds at their campus on Massachusetts Ave. These beds will be given to individuals who currently live in the Atkinson Street encampment and are actively engaged in services with the commission’s case management teams. The beds will only be available until individuals can be placed in an open low threshold spot or move on to permanent housing themselves.
Additionally, the city partnered with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program to open a temporary site for clinical services on Albany St., according to the mayor’s office.
“Our teams will only take action to remove a tent when individuals are offered shelter, transportation to shelter and the opportunity to store personal belongings,” Wu said. “We are building out our infrastructure citywide to be able to reach residents in need, not just in one part of the city near Mass. and Cass, throughout all of our neighborhoods, and the staffing will reflect that from our public health, public safety and outreach teams.”
She continued, “As we speak, written notices in 11 different languages are being distributed to people living in the Mass. and Cass area just to make sure that everyone understands fully what is happening and has clarity on the timelines and can make the best preparations.”
(Copyright (c) 2023 State House News Service.