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On Mass. and Cass, all options should be on the table

That includes my proposal to turn a house of correction into a recovery site.

Tents and makeshift shelters line Topeka Street in the area known as Mass. and Cass in Boston on Sept. 8.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

By now, many know of the enormous human tragedy unfolding in Newmarket Square at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Avenue — “Mass. and Cass.”

This year, five killings have taken place within this small geographic location, with countless unreported sexual assaults and acts of violence. Sex trafficking is occurring at an alarming rate. An open-air drug den operates in plain view as crowds of people line sidewalks, injecting needles into their bodies before sharing them and dropping them in the street among countless others previously discarded.

A tent city stretches down Atkinson Street, out to Mass. Ave., up Topeka and Cummings streets and beyond, housing people living in abject squalor and constant mortal danger as they struggle deep within the throes of addiction, mental illness, and homelessness.


To help address this overwhelming humanitarian crisis, I’ve offered space within a stand-alone, unconnected building on the House of Correction South Bay campus for treatment. Working alongside law enforcement, the Suffolk County district attorney, courts, and the Legislature, we would treat people who the aforementioned authorities determine to possess actionable warrants or who present a danger to themselves or others, providing services we are qualified to administer, including detoxification, addiction counseling and treatment, mental health service; trauma-related mitigation programming; and general health and dental care.

We’d use a dormitory-style format, eschewing the aesthetics of institutionalization, projecting warmth and healing, and emphasizing recovery, revitalization, and renewal with many creature comforts unavailable on the streets. Mental health clinicians and addiction recovery counselors would help residents to begin the process of regaining control and stability in their lives, and preparing continuation of their recovery.

While I’ve received both supportive calls as well as criticism, with some even calling the proposal “inhumane” and “horrific,” I would challenge anyone to come and walk Mass. Ave., and Atkinson and Topeka streets, and try not to use those very same words, or worse, to describe what they see on these streets and inside the tents.


Is my proposal the perfect or ideal solution to the pain and desperation that radiates from these forsaken people in this forgotten place?

Neither I nor anyone in the field of recovery would suggest it is. The most effective long-term treatment for addiction comes from voluntary treatment from professionals in safe, clean, community-based facilities.

Unfortunately, addiction is complex, and choosing recovery is far from a simple process for those enduring this nightmarish existence. Addiction and mental illness often preclude many from seeking help while in crisis. Even when attempting to take advantage of such services, many face the daunting reality of an onerous system with low availability of services, and even less of a collective will among many who occupy positions that can help rectify these deficits.

This crisis marks a catastrophic failure to act by society as a whole.

The unexpected closure of Long Island Shelter in 2014 came with a disastrous lack of planning for what to do for those seeking recovery. Seven years later, people continue to struggle, fighting for their lives alongside those actively using, as drug dealers descend on them, night and day, with no consequence for the misery they bring with their brazen predation. Despite estimates that 70 percent of the afflicted population on Mass. and Cass comes from outside of Boston, action to provide services elsewhere has been scant.


In spite of predictable platitudes that “we can’t arrest our way out of addiction,” few viable strategies from any sector have been offered to prevent the inevitability forcing law enforcement to intervene.

Plans to convert hotels in Boston and Revere into transitional housing and shelter for people in recovery were met with scathing rebukes by elected officials and community activists alike, and attempts to rebuild the bridge to Long Island have been met with fierce opposition by residents and elected officials in Quincy.

While I continue to engage with all interested parties in the hopes of encouraging immediate and long-term action to address this grave situation, I am compelled by what I see to act, and act now.

As the pain and suffering escalate with each passing day, I’m reminded of an often-quoted expression by Voltaire that warns, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

No, my proposal is not perfect. But continuing to do nothing, standing by, repeatedly failing to act, is not only morally unacceptable, it’s no longer an option.

Meanwhile, more tents have begun dotting the landscape within the borders of the South Bay Mall.

Steven W. Tompkins is sheriff of Suffolk County, which includes oversight of the South Bay House of Correction in Newmarket Square.