These are the words we needed to hear from City Hall: “Living in a tent is no longer an option.”
Not on Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, not anywhere.
Finally, we got them.
For months, Boston officials have acted as if it’s humane to let people who have nowhere to go live in street encampments. On Tuesday, they acknowledged that this informal policy created a public health and safety crisis, from infectious disease outbreaks to sexual assaults and other violence to an infestation of rodents.
“To be clear, tents are not appropriate for housing,” Acting Mayor Kim Janey said during a press briefing. “We cannot let our most vulnerable residents continue to suffer in these encampments.”
The city has declared a public health emergency, and Janey signed an executive order with a detailed plan to address the humanitarian crisis unfolding around Mass. and Cass. The situation, fueled by an opioid epidemic and homelessness, has led to several hundred people living in squalor. If it was unclear before, it is no longer: the city has declared that tents and temporary shelters won’t be allowed in public areas.
The order establishes a partnership with the state Office of Health and Human Services to create a central command structure that will strengthen street interventions and better align resources for those in need of shelter and addiction treatment.
The goal — as Marty Martinez, the city’s chief of health and human services, put it — is to work with the state to “ensure resources are available so we can make sure that living in a tent is not an option.”
Crucially, the order made clear there are consequences if people choose to stay when they are told to leave. While Janey does not want to criminalize homelessness, she warned that people who do not vacate their tents could be charged with disorderly conduct. Boston police could also pick up people for involuntary treatment if they pose a harm to themselves or others because of mental illness or substance use disorder.
“We also understand that some individuals may refuse help that they’ve been offered,” she said. “In this instance, enforcement will be used, but only as a last resort. And even then, we are working with the district attorney’s office and the courts to ensure that enforcement itself is the pathway to services, treatment, and shelter. These steps are meant to mitigate the hazardous conditions that encampments pose to vulnerable individuals who need treatment and shelter.”
Even as a “lame duck” leader, Janey is exhibiting the kind of political courage we’ve been waiting for — and she’s articulating what is required to solve a calamity as intractable and complicated as breaking the cycle of addiction and homelessness. With only a few weeks left in her short tenure as mayor, Janey could easily have left this mess for the next administration.
She didn’t. And for that, Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu should be thanking their fellow sister-in-service. This allows the next mayor to use some of her political capital on other issues that are just as pressing.
It will likely be weeks before all of the 150 or so tents in the Mass. and Cass area are taken down. In trying to strike a balance between public health and safety, Janey has pledged that no city employee will require an unsheltered person to remove a tent from public property unless alternative shelter is provided. The executive order also lays out a protocol to treat the unsheltered with dignity, such as by giving people appropriate notice to move and providing them with a place to temporarily store their belongings.
“We want to give people the care they need and the support they need. That’s going to take time,” Martinez said. “The tents didn’t turn up overnight. Getting the support people they need is not going to be resolved overnight.”
The emergency at Mass. and Cass is far from over, but the Janey administration took a critical leap forward Tuesday. City and state officials now have to figure out how big the gap is between resources and needs, such as how many people require treatment and how many desire transitional housing.
But the success of Janey’s plan can’t depend on Boston alone. At least 60 percent of the people living in Mass. and Cass come from other communities. It’s time for other mayors — starting with Brian Arrigo in Revere and Tom Koch in Quincy — to step up and be part of solving the region’s opioid and homeless scourge.
During the pandemic, we all came together in extraordinary ways to save lives. Government became the art of the possible. This shouldn’t be any different.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.