Boston officials on Tuesday suggested they are preparing to remove the sprawling encampment of tents that has sprung up near Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, the heart of the city’s addiction and homelessness crisis.
As part of a concerted effort to get people there shelter and help, Boston officials on Tuesday declared the situation at Mass. and Cass a public health crisis, while in a separate order, Acting Mayor Kim Janey said, “Tents and temporary shelters will no longer be allowed on the public ways in the City of Boston.”
However, officials emphasized they are not planning to take a heavy-handed approach, saying they will not force anyone to move without being provided with an adequate alternative shelter. Instead, officials say they will first try to get those people currently involved in the court system into treatment programs, and petition the courts for involuntary hospitalizations or civil commitments only as a last resort.
“We cannot let our most vulnerable residents continue to suffer in these encampments,” Janey said during a City Hall news conference.
The acting mayor said the city will establish a new command structure to bolster street interventions, in partnership with state authorities. The city is also creating a new protocol that prohibits Boston employees from removing a homeless person from their encampment on public property unless there is shelter available for the individual, according to officials.
If all the steps in the protocol are exhausted, and someone still refuses to remove their encampment, their refusal could be considered disorderly conduct, which is a criminal misdemeanor, meaning they could be subject to arrest.
There are about 170 open beds available on a daily basis at city-run shelters, according to officials. City authorities estimate there to be about 150 tents currently in the Mass. and Cass area.
Janey’s plans were met Tuesday with a mix of skepticism and applause.
Jim Stewart, a founding steering committee member for SIFMA Now!, a group that advocates for sites for safe consumption of drugs in the state, said the executive order “tried to create the appearance of effective public action, but it’s illusory.”
“Despite lip service about ‘dignity and respect,’ this will subject vulnerable women and men to additional deprivation and degradation,” said Stewart, who is the director of the First Church Shelter in Cambridge. “They will be directed to services that either don’t exist or are grossly underresourced.”
Meanwhile, Sue Sullivan, the executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, which is located near Mass. and Cass, said she is more hopeful “than I have been in several years that we are taking the necessary steps forward to create meaningful change in what truly is a public health emergency.”
In recent months, a mini tent city has sprung up in the area near Boston Medical Center, close to where the South End, Roxbury, and Dorchester meet. While Mass. and Cass has long had a homeless population and been a hub of social services, the number of tents has grown throughout the year.
The area is currently an open-air narcotics market, where multiple overdoses are a daily reality, and reports of street violence and sexual exploitation are commonplace. At least two tent fires have been reported in recent weeks at Mass. and Cass, and there have been at least six homicides within a half-mile radius of the intersection this year.
Now, Janey’s executive order states, city agencies will prioritize “enforcement of existing laws and the exercise of existing powers to prevent the placement and maintenance of these encampments in the city.”
Speaking during her afternoon briefing at City Hall, Janey said, “There is an urgency, this is a public health crisis,” while also cautioning that conditions won’t get drastically better overnight. While declining to give a specific timeline for implementation of the executive order, Janey said city outreach to those living at Mass. and Cass is ongoing.
“Folks are looking for a magic moment where, poof, everything is gone,” she said. “That is not how addiction works. It requires ongoing outreach to individuals. It requires work between the city, the state, and other partners to make sure that there are alternatives.”
She continued: “We will lead with a public health lens, making sure that we are treating people with respect and dignity, in terms of giving people alternatives to living on the street.”
The situation at Mass. and Cass has confounded city leaders for years. Many point to the 2014 closure of the Long Island Bridge, a span that long connected the mainland to homeless and addiction programming on the island, as exacerbating the problems of opioid addiction and homelessness in the city.
City politicians often talk about rebuilding the bridge and creating a recovery campus on the island, but that idea faces stiff legal opposition from neighboring Quincy, and moreover would take years and significant financial investment. More recently, Suffolk Sheriff Steve Tompkins has floated converting a detention center into temporary housing with addiction services. But a Janey spokeswoman said Tuesday the city’s new plan does not include that proposal.
Janey has pushed a pilot program where people would be transported from Mass. and Cass to a hotel in Revere, where they would receive “wraparound services” that would help them find stability, recovery, and treatment. That program was met with substantial pushback from Revere’s mayor.
Under Janey’s predecessor, Martin J. Walsh, Boston police in 2019 launched “Operation Clean Sweep,” a crackdown that included 34 arrests in the Mass. and Cass area, following an attack on a corrections officer who was heading to work. That move drew protests and civil rights concerns from some activists.
Rivkah Lapidus, a Somerville counselor who does harm reduction work, thought Janey’s new plan to do away with Mass. and Cass tents was a retread of prior efforts and punitive in approach, and would not get at the root of Boston’s opioid crisis.
“What this new statement sounds like it’s doing is exactly what Walsh did, which is clear people out, sweep them under the rug,” she said.
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said her organization “will be watching to ensure that people’s civil rights are not violated in any execution and enforcement of this plan.”
Julie Burns, chief executive of RIZE Massachusetts, a nonprofit working to end the opioid epidemic in the state, welcomed the city’s announcement while adding, “All ideas should be on the table, but they must not overlook a critical element: the human beings who need help.”
“A bed, without the appropriate services, is simply a bed, and that will not support people on the pathway to recovery,” she said in a statement.
Steve Fox, chairman of the South End Forum, which is a collection of neighborhood groups, said neighborhood stakeholders have been asking for such a declaration for a long time, ever since the tents started to proliferate in the area.
“This is really welcome,” he said.
But there are remaining questions and concerns. Fox said folks are worried that smaller tent encampments will crop up in open spaces and playgrounds in Newmarket, the South End, South Boston, and Lower Roxbury.
“Do we have a plan to handle potential migration?” he asked.
Janey’s tenure as acting mayor will end in less than a month, when one of two mayoral candidates — Michelle Wu or Annissa Essaibi George — will take the reins at City Hall. And, in statements before their televised debate Tuesday evening, both candidates were in agreement on one thing: Mass. and Cass needs immediate action.
Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.