Some civil rights advocates and public health experts are calling the Suffolk sheriff’s proposal to use one of his buildings as a treatment center to alleviate the suffering in Boston’s Mass. and Cass area deeply misguided and unjust.
Sheriff Steve Tompkins has proposed turning several empty floors in a building in the sheriff’s South Bay campus into a center that would treat people for substance use problems. The building was once used to hold federal immigration detainees. Under his plan, up to 100 people could stay there for as long as 90 days, with the idea being the space would ease the crises of opioid use and homelessness found in and around the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, commonly referred to as Mass. and Cass.
While some local business people have applauded Tompkins’s proposal, the plan also has its fair share of skeptics who say there are better ways to invest in housing and treatment solutions.
Alexandra Collins, a public health researcher at Brown University, said the initiative would have “horrific” consequences, noting that people who are involuntarily admitted to drug use treatment are two times more likely to die from an overdose than people who seek treatment willingly.
“What we have being proposed is the criminalization of homelessness and the criminalization of drug use,” Collins said of Tompkins’s plan.
Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, said in an e-mail that “detention settings are poorly-suited for substance use treatment.”
“For people who are already incarcerated, of course we should be providing them with the highest level of care possible,” said Beletsky. “But paying taxpayer funds to repurpose jail-like [facilities] into ‘treatment’ is not supported by science or civil rights concerns.”
Jim Stewart, steering committee member of SIFMA Now!, a group that advocates for safe consumption sites in the state, had similar thoughts, saying “there is no research, anywhere, that supports this approach.”
“Sometimes these kinds of proposals are actually efforts to ‘capture’ resources designated for other purposes,” Stewart said in a statement.
Boston’s Acting Mayor Kim Janey, too, said using a detention facility for individuals with substance use disorder “raises some questions and concerns.”
“As we continue to explore all options, it is urgent for the state to act on the $30 million pledged two months ago for a regional approach to the opioid crisis, including decentralized services and low-threshold housing across seven cities,” she said in a statement.
The sheriff’s office wants to work with the people who, in Tompkins’s words, are already engaged in the legal system “in some way,” although his office stressed the plan is in its early stages.
“There are other components that may come into play as the plan evolves, but we’re working with the district attorney’s office and the courts who will be making determinations about the people who [are] picked up on which warrants under this potential plan,” a Tompkins spokesman said in a Monday e-mail.
But during a WBUR appearance on Monday, Tompkins emphasized the main — and initial —focus of his proposal would be those people who have outstanding warrants.
Later, in a phone interview with the Globe, Tompkins said he was not trying to criminalize anyone, saying his office has the ability to help people struggling with addiction and mental health problems and connect them with necessary services.
“It comes down to basic humanity, and neighbors helping neighbors,” he said.
The building where he would house people under the treatment proposal is a “stand-alone facility” and the people there would not co-mingle with the population jailed on criminal charges that are held at the South Bay campus, he said.
“Would you rather have people dying on the street?” he asked.
The plan has its supporters, particularly among business owners in the Mass. and Cass area who have long complained about the problems there.
Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, said her group supports the sheriff’s effort to create space for those who need help and those who should not be on the streets.
“Let’s use every tool in the tool box, and some tools that are outside of the tool box,” Sullivan said recently.
Ted Winston, owner of the Winston Flowers chain, said in a Monday e-mail, “From a public health and safety standpoint, swift action needs to be taken in the Newmarket area before a real tragedy happens in this area.” He noted that rebuilding a bridge to Long Island, where the city has envisioned a recovery campus that would hypothetically offer relief to Mass. and Cass, is still years away.
Steve Fox, chairman of the South End Forum, an umbrella organization for neighborhood organizations in that part of the city, said he appreciated “the fact that the sheriff is stepping up and offering concrete, tactical solutions.”
Fox thought the optics of the homeless and those suffering from addiction being incarcerated had to be weighed against the current grim realities of Mass. and Cass.
“The question for most people is: Which is worse?” he asked.
The complexities of Mass. and Cass have become a political issue in the ongoing mayor’s race. On Monday, City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George said she was open to exploring such a solution, while adding that any such operation should not be overseen by the sheriff’s office.
“This is a public health crisis and should be overseen by health care professionals,” she said in a statement.
Her mayoral opponent and council colleague, Michelle Wu, does not think Tompkins’s proposal “is the ultimate solution,” but did say in a statement the city “must take immediate action to address the root causes of this crisis not through criminalization, but through public health and housing.”
Bonita Tenneriello, an attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services, was among the plan’s critics. She said it was “really shocking that we’re talking about using a jail to do this.”
“A correction agency is not a place to treat a disease,” she said. “Addiction is a disease like any other.”
Shirley Leung of Globe staff contributed to this report.