Predictably, a proposal to provide shelter and drug treatment for people living in tents in Boston in a Suffolk County jail has drawn opposition from several corners, including Representative Ayanna Pressley and the American Civil Liberties Union.
They say it’s best to leave drug treatment to the health care professionals. They say law enforcement should stay out of it. Yet here’s the thing: Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who is proposing to convert an empty detention center to house homeless drug users, has spent months waiting for the public health system to take care of these people, only to witness an open-air drug market and tent city emerge on his front door.
Perhaps at any other time in this city, the naysayers would win the day, except too many people know this is no time for ideology. Boston is one of the wealthiest cities in the country with billionaires minted every day, yet a humanitarian crisis continues to erupt in and around Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. Those in the thick of it know untangling the mess will require an uncommon amount of collaboration, and solutions we have yet to invent.
One thing we can’t do is to engage in something Boston is all too good at: the politics of no.
“What Sheriff Tompkins is putting out there, he is offering an option to help this population and all options need to be on the table,” Attorney General Maura Healey tells me. “There is no playbook for this. It is not an easy situation. Just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean you don’t act.”
In a Globe op-ed last week, Carol Rose, who is the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, raised concerns about criminalizing homelessness and substance abuse, and cautioned against a law enforcement approach to solving the crisis at Mass. and Cass.
“We will never be able to arrest our way out of the overdose epidemic or the tragedy of rampant homelessness,” Rose wrote.
Fresh in her mind was Operation Clean Sweep in 2019, when Boston police rounded up people around Mass. and Cass in a raid that resulted in 34 arrests. The ACLU accused the city of Boston of violating people’s civil rights during the sweep.
This time, Healey said no one is talking about another sweep or rounding people up, but law enforcement has to be part of the solution.
“This has to be a public health, multidisciplinary strategy, and we need everybody working together, including the police and the courts,” said Healey.
It’s too early for Healey and others to endorse Tompkins’s proposal, which he continues to explore, but he believes he could get it up and running by the end of October. Last week about three dozen local officials, including Acting Mayor Kim Janey, Acting Boston police Commissioner Greg Long, Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey, and Boston Municipal Court Chief Justice Roberto Ronquillo Jr. visited the Suffolk County House of Correction to see what kind of role the facility could play in alleviating homelessness and opioid use.
The sheriff has proposed housing up to 100 people in a detention center that used to hold ICE detainees. Rather than replicate a prison environment, Tompkins wants to set up the space like a college dorm and have people move around freely between their individual rooms and common areas. The concept is modeled after a program launched by Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi in 2018, turning extra space into a center for people who have been ordered by a judge to seek drug treatment.
Tompkins is proposing that people living on the streets who have an outstanding warrant be picked up and placed into involuntary treatment on the South Bay campus of the Suffolk County House of Correction.
“Would I prefer to have health care agencies pick up the mantle and do this? Absolutely,” Tompkins told me. “Since that is not happening and since we have the wherewithal to do it, we will do it. We will pick up the ball and run down the field.”
The Hampden County program has won praise, but other jail-based programs have been challenged in court, and a state advisory commission has recommended the practice be stopped. Meanwhile, over the summer Suffolk County House of Correction had three inmates die, two of them shortly after being taken into custody. Tompkins said these people were very sick when they arrived; the deaths are under investigation by Boston police and the Suffolk district attorney’s office.
Tompkins is seeking state funding to staff up and provide drug treatment, mental health counseling, and other health care services. He would seek an outside vendor to deliver these services and bring in nurses, psychiatrists, and other personnel. Tompkins sees his proposal as one part of a broader plan to get people off the street before winter sets in.
“By far, we’ve had more calls from people who want to help than people who say ‘you can’t do this,’ said Tompkins.
Carey, in a statement, said it is premature to comment on any specific proposal to address Mass. and Cass, but acknowledged the “situation is deeply concerning.”
“We’ve had conversations with various stakeholders on ways we can help support them in finding solutions,” she said in a statement. “The role of the courts is to address these cases as they come before us and to apply the law to the circumstances of each individual who comes before the court.”
As attorney general, Healey is all too familiar with the devastating impact of the opioid epidemic. She led the charge among her peers around the country to sue Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family for their role in pushing highly addictive drugs such as OxyContin to pump up profits. She helped broker a settlement in July that will require Purdue to cease operations or be sold by 2024, and the Sackler family to pay more than $4 billion to fight the opioid epidemic.
Through their years of work on opioids, Healey and her office have gotten to know the public health, business, and neighborhood leaders dealing with the Mass. and Cass crisis. She has walked those streets countless times but began receiving calls to check out deteriorating conditions in nearby Newmarket Square, where Roxbury, Dorchester, and the South End meet.
Healey went in July, stopping by the Golden Nozzle car wash on Southampton Street, and was transfixed by what she saw enough to go back many times since. The tents, the defecation, the human trafficking. She hasn’t been able to get the images out of her mind. To do nothing seemed unconscionable.
“This is something I have never seen before,” she said. “I saw the mass of humanity lining the streets . . . we can’t allow people to live this way.”
For those of you wondering if a regional plan will ever materialize, Healey assures me there is one in the works. She said Governor Charlie Baker, who also has been a leader in fighting the opioid epidemic, is engaged with her office, as well as working closely with city and state public health agencies, social service nonprofits, and the Suffolk district attorney’s office, among others.
Healey is optimistic about the plan, especially since federal relief money could be made available to solve the crisis.
“I don’t think funding is the problem here,” she said. “It’s a humanitarian crisis that requires people coming together.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.