When homeless people in Boston set up campsites to shelter themselves, how is the city supposed to respond? Eight months after the mayor’s office released its first draft protocol on dealing with encampments, the policy has yet to be finalized, setting the city up for potential legal risks and leaving unsheltered homeless people on edge about when and how they might be forced to move.
The draft plan was released in October as part of a broader mission to tackle drug abuse and homelessness in the Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue corridor long plagued by violence and crime.
Boston is among several of Massachusetts’ largest cities receiving federal money to fight homelessness that so far lack any formal definition of what constitutes an encampment. Only one of those — New Bedford — has a written policy for assessing an encampment before conducting a sweep, in which officials order homeless individuals to move and dispose of their belongings, often throwing them away.
Dealing with homeless people who set up camp outside took on urgency in March when federal officials issued a warning to cities to pause clearing out homeless encampments to stem the further spread of COVID-19. While 95 percent of homeless people in Massachusetts are sheltered, 829 people were living outside on the night of the annual homeless count in 2019, HUD data shows.
But without a clear encampment definition, rules about how and when a cleanout will be done, and what services are available to displaced occupants, cities are at risk of litigation and homeless people vulnerable to further trauma.
Costly class-action lawsuits in encampment sweep cases have forced some locales, including Denver and Alameda County, Calif., to pay damages and adopt clear guidelines for carrying out cleanouts, including procedures to allow the homeless to retrieve confiscated personal items. In December, the Supreme Court ruled that homeless people can’t be punished for sleeping outside on public property if they have no adequate alternatives.
The Boston protocol would create a team to focus exclusively on 311 complaints about homeless camps, create a consistent plan for clearing encampments, develop a procedure for assessing public safety, health, and fire risks within the sites, and remove debris or hazardous items within 48 hours.
Marty Martinez, chief of Boston’s Health and Human Services Department, acknowledged an encampment protocol is needed even though Boston is not facing the challenge of large-scale encampments erected in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Finalizing the protocol has been put on hold because the city had to divert public health resources to managing the COVID-19 crisis.
“We felt we would be further along,” Martinez said.
Meanwhile, when the city learns about homeless people camping outside, a coordinated homeless response team assesses their needs and direct them to services, he said.
Removing homeless people who have set up tents or campsites under bridges or near public parks or squares is a regular challenge in Boston, according to internal Boston Police records, interviews with residents, and city data.
“We are trying the best we can. Every time we see a homeless camp, we clean it right away,” wrote one city worker last July after a clear-out in the Back Bay.
Last month the city removed a homeless camp on Ball Street in Roxbury. In April, the city removed a homeless person who set up camp outside of Jim Rice Park. Power was shut off at one South Boston site last year where homeless people set up camp.
From 2007 to 2016, the number of encampments in the United States grew from 19 to 274, according to a National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty media analysis. People with few desirable alternatives are pitching tents under bridges in Seattle and Miami, on the side of California freeways, in New York parks, and along streams in Oregon, Arkansas, and here in Massachusetts.
That count could explode as the coronavirus pandemic pushes unemployment to record levels. Billions of dollars in federal aid have been poured into short-term fixes this spring, such as moving the most vulnerable homeless people into hotels and motels.
But without more government aid, Boston could start to see a rise in the number and size of homeless camps, said Eric Tars, legal director for the National Center for Homelessness & Poverty.
Boston University students collaborated with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland and partnered with six universities from Oregon to Florida to examine how communities nationwide are responding to the rising number of homeless encampments — and a deepening intolerance for them.
Reporters examined more than a dozen cities and found most dealt with encampments before the pandemic by sending in garbage trucks and police with move-along orders.
Boston Police came under fierce criticism last summer for such an operation along “Methadone Mile,” the stretch of city blocks near Mass Ave., Melnea Cass Boulevard, and Southampton Street where shelters and recovery services for addicts are located.
Police arrested dozens of addicts, drug dealers, and homeless people during “Operation Clean Sweep.” They dumped individuals’ belongings in dump trucks, and police said they confiscated abandoned items, including wheelchairs covered in urine, needles, blood, and feces.
“Garbage trucks are invaluable to us, strong deterrent for them to set up camps,” wrote Captain John Danilecki in an Aug. 6, 2019, email to his superiors.
Activists and advocates for the homeless slammed the police tactics, particularly the decision to crush several wheelchairs.
“I couldn’t have predicted that kind of cruelty,” said Boston physician Dinah Applewhite in an interview. Applewhite, whose photo of the crushed wheelchairs went viral, said: “I was shocked to see wheelchairs being crushed when someone was crying ‘please don’t do that.' ”
But David Stone, president of the South End’s Blackstone/Franklin Square Neighborhood Association, said since then more proactive policing has improved life for residents who previously witnessed people sleeping overnight, bathing in the square’s public fountain, or shooting up drugs.
“If [police] see them using drugs or sleeping overnight or what not, they’re going to direct them to move along,” Stone said. “Treatment and services are vital but policing is part of the solution too.”
While some Massachusetts cities provide advance notice to occupants before a “sweep,” few, if any, inventory personal property taken or have a process to allow the homeless to retrieve items — even as encampments are a growing concern.
“It is fair to say, given the opioid issue, it is increasingly problematic,” said Lowell’s director of development, Eric Slagle. Lowell does not have a legal definition for an encampment, he said.
“It’s sort of ‘we know it when we see it,’ ” Slagle said.
Other cities that lacked legal definitions for encampments or written policies and procedures for conducting cleanouts include Cambridge, Lynn, Springfield, and Worcester.
Worcester, Cambridge, and New Bedford do give advance notice to occupants if they are going to conduct a sweep and will store some items taken for a period.
Globe correspondents Miriam Fauzia, Mikayla Heiss, Anran Xie, Ran Zhang, Sydney Hager, and Emily LeClerc contributed to this report, part of Boston University’s collaborative series on homelessness led by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland.