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Shirley Leung

Suffolk Sheriff Tompkins proposes to convert empty detention center into temporary housing for people living in tents by Mass. and Cass

People and tents lining Atkinson Street were visible from the Suffolk County House of Correction.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

What is more humane, allowing the squalor and rampant drug use at Boston’s Mass. and Cass street encampment to continue, or relocating some people living there into a former detention center where they can receive drug treatment and mental health counseling whether they want to or not?

To Suffolk Sheriff Steve Tompkins, the answer is obvious. He spent the summer watching tents pop up outside the South Bay House of Correction on the corner of Bradston and Atkinson streets. Tompkins says several empty floors in an adjacent building ― once used to hold ICE detainees ― could be converted into a treatment center with dorm-style accommodations featuring common areas with sofas and other comforts. Under his plan, up to 100 people could stay there for as long as 90 days.


“We would create an environment so you don’t feel like you’re in a prison,” said Tompkins.

But make no mistake, he is talking about housing and treating people against their will. Tompkins is leaving it up to Boston police to decide who should be picked up, and to Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins on who should be prosecuted. But whoever gets to go to this treatment center has to come through the criminal justice system.

Given the humanitarian crisis unfolding just outside his complex, Tompkins believes leaders need to get creative. His idea is modeled after a program Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi launched in 2018 that is acclaimed by some for helping more than 2,200 men struggling with addiction. (There are critics, too.) Run separately from the county jail, the Stonybrook Stabilization & Treatment Center provides about 150 beds for people who have been civilly committed for drug or alcohol abuse. Doors aren’t locked, corrections officers don’t work there, and people in treatment are referred to as clients.


“People who are not hard and fast criminals should not be held in a facility,” acknowledged Tompkins, but “these are the conversations that have to be had.”

Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins poses for a portrait in the infirmary at Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston, MA on Sept. 24, 2021.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Tompkins, who continues to refine the proposal with city and state officials, said he is seeking funding from the state to set up the treatment center. He has pitched the idea to the state’s health secretary, Marylou Sudders, and according to the sheriff, Sudders “wasn’t adverse” to it. Sudders declined to comment, but it’s clear the Baker administration is engaged on the crisis and having discussions with Boston officials on how best to collaborate.

No one said it would be easy to untangle the mess spilling over from Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, where homelessness and the opioid crisis have led to nearly 200 tents sprouting up in an industrial neighborhood that is under siege. People openly inject themselves with drugs, human feces and trash stain the streets, and break-ins at nearby businesses have become disturbingly common.

But every proposed solution seems mired in controversy, be it NIMBYism or politics, and sometimes a bit of both. The latest salvo came from Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo after Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey recently inked a deal with a Revere hotel to use 30 rooms to create transitional housing for some of the people living in the tents. Boston estimates that at least 60 percent of its homeless people come from outside of city limits.

Another common-sense way to take the pressure off Mass. and Cass is to restore the recovery services that were offered on Long Island until 2014, when the bridge to the island was deemed unsafe. The cost of a new bridge would be enormous, building it would take many years, and the City of Quincy ― through which vehicles would have to travel to access the span ― has sued to keep it from happening.


So instead of having that debate, let’s start ferrying people to Long Island.

Quincy supports the idea and has offered to help pay for it. So has Suffolk construction chief executive John Fish, whose Roxbury headquarters sits in Newmarket Square near the encampment. Fish told me he and philanthropist Jack Connors met with Janey over the summer and offered to raise $2 million to bring ferry service to Long Island. The idea is not without precedent: For years, Connors has been running Camp Harbor View, a free camp for Boston students on Long Island. After the bridge was demolished, campers came by boat.

And if Boston needs assistance in getting health care services reactivated on Long Island, Fish said, he’s willing to use his sway as chair of the board of Brigham and Women’s to corral other hospital systems into helping.

“We need to put our swords down politically,” he said. “With the resources we have, why can’t we muscle this to the ground sooner rather than later?”

A tent city on the scale of Mass. and Cass is new to Boston, but encampments have been a fixture on the West Coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Seattle. These cities all have soaring housing costs in common. Boston had managed to stave off a burgeoning tent community, but then the pandemic struck, hurting the most economically vulnerable and limiting access to drug treatment.


Closing the encampment is a subject few elected officials are willing to broach publicly, out of fear they would be seen as insensitive. But it’s a conversation they must start to have with the community, says Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, health secretary under Governor Deval Patrick, as they arrange for alternative shelter in the short term, and construct a longer-term strategy to put people on a path to jobs and permanent housing.

Waiting to act, she warned, could result in unintended consequences as political pressure builds for a confrontational intervention. A 2019 police-led sweep of Mass. and Cass, following an assault on a Suffolk jail officer, drew fire for allegedly violating people’s rights.

“We don’t want what has happened in other cities, where the city just comes in and bulldozes the encampment and takes all the tents and the people’s belongings,” said Bigby. “What they need to say is, ‘We are closing this. We are going to take you and your things to X site, and that is a temporary solution.’ ”

Visit the encampment’s epicenter along Atkinson, Topeka, and Southampton streets, and you sense tragedy could strike at any moment. It’s easy to imagine a delivery truck accidentally plowing into a tent or running over a pedestrian. Then think about what could happen during the winter if people ― some of them under the influence of various substances ― use propane to keep warm in a tent.


Michele Wakin, a sociology professor and coordinator of the Center for Urban Poverty at Bridgewater State University, has spent time studying the encampments in California. She believes the problems in Boston and elsewhere could get worse before they get better, now that people have lost extra unemployment benefits and the eviction moratorium has been lifted in most communities.

“Tent cities are not a life for anyone. It’s not safe, it’s not sanitary,” she said. “It’s not a human solution to housing.”

Wakin said government has largely failed at breaking the cycle of poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse because there are too many strings attached to the help people need. We’re much more sympathetic toward people who are keen on getting clean and sober than those who shun treatment.

“We, as a society, have to get over trying to fix them first,” she said. “This is a basic human rights issue. We have to take morality out of the issue.”

We also have to take the politics out of potential solutions. Prisoner advocates have sued to stop jail-based, involuntary treatment programs such as the one Hampden County’s Cocchi operates. They argue that health care providers should be delivering such services.

Cocchi said he has the track record to prove that law enforcement can play a role in helping people recover from addiction: Clients in his Stonybrook treatment center stay an average of about 55 days.

“People are starting to see the sheriff’s office as much more than incarceration,” said Cocchi. “The bricks and mortars do not dictate the quality of the programs.”

He began the innovative program because he had space and felt compelled to do something after hearing from so many parents who lost children to drug overdoses. They would tell him, “I wish I could have had him in jail. He would still be alive.”

Rollins, in a statement responding to questions about enforcement and Tompkins’s proposal, made clear her office is focused on the situation in Newmarket and has an assistant district attorney dedicated to monitoring and prosecuting serious crimes there. At the same time, her office continues to let the public health system deal with low-level offenders driven by substance abuse, mental illness, poverty, and homelessness. Her reasoning is they need treatment and services, not jail. She plans for her office to ask that those with warrants be held, to focus on prosecuting violent and destructive individuals who have been preying on the vulnerable population in the area.

“No single initiative will fully address the multiple, interconnected public health and public safety concerns facing Newmarket Square,” Rollins said. “My office, however, is committed to using data-driven, evidence-based, and collaborative approaches to reducing and preventing serious and violent crimes in that area. We need a level of urgency from all of our partners and we need solutions, not excuses.”

Let’s all go into this with eyes wide open, knowing that there will not be one answer to a multifaceted problem. We will need “all of the above” — a hotel in Revere, ferries to Long Island, conversion of a detention center — and much more. We need to resolve to work together and end our “politics of no.”

We are a region awash in wealth and ideas, yet sometimes none of it flows down to the street level. How great can a city be if it allows something this awful to continue?

Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.