The City of Boston took initial steps Monday to disperse people living in tents, tarps, and cardboard shelters at the troubled intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, nearly a week after declaring the area a public health crisis.
The ramshackle refuges where the homeless, the addicted, and the lost have been living remain intact for now. But amid a cold morning drizzle, city workers went tent to tent on one stretch of Southampton Street off of Theodore Glynn Way, handing out notices saying it was time to leave and providing yellow plastic bins for dwellers to pack up their belongings.
Authorities, wearing yellow jackets labeled “Homeless Services Boston Public Health Commission,” also offered rehab or shelter services.
The action followed Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s declaration Tuesday that the temporary shelters would no longer be allowed at the ever-growing tent city near Boston Medical Center, close to where the South End, Roxbury, and Dorchester meet. Janey, whose tenure ends in less than a month, issued an executive order saying city agencies will prioritize “enforcement of existing laws and the exercise of existing powers to prevent the placement and maintenance of these encampments.”
In a statement Monday, the city said it would “continue regular clean-ups and post notices where tents must be removed.” It said no one would be asked to move their tent without first being offered alternative shelter.
City officials last week said that for people who already are involved in the court system, an effort would be made to place them into treatment programs. And as a last resort, they would petition the courts for involuntary hospitalizations or civil commitments.
The Southampton Street block targeted for cleanup Monday abutted a food distribution company scheduled to get new lighting, city officials said. The tents and lean-tos were in the way of that work. When power recently went out at Costas Provisions, utility crews had a tough time accessing a power station because of the tents, said Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association.
Now the company is installing new lighting and needs to move a half-dozen or so tents that are up against the building, Sullivan said Monday. “This is more of an emergency,” rather than a sweep, she said.
Mohammed, 43, who has been living on the streets for five months, packed clothes and blankets into the bins provided by city workers. For the last three weeks he’s been sleeping in a dome tent next to the food distribution company.
”Everybody has to leave tomorrow,” said Mohammed, who declined to give his full name. He planned to break down his tent and head to a shelter where city workers told him he could stay after 7 p.m. Monday. The workers told Mohammed they would put his belongings in storage. After several bins were filled, the workers stacked them into a white van and drove away.
Mohammed wasn’t particularly happy about relocating to a shelter. The last time he stayed at one he got caught smoking a cigarette in the bathroom and got in trouble, he said.
”I don’t like the street, but the street is better than shelter,” Mohammed said. “At shelter they will give you a hard time for no reason.”
Up the way, on Southampton Street, a man paused on the side of the street, pulled a baggie from his pocket, and freely and visibly snorted a powder up his nose. Around the corner, a bright-blue band tying off the arm of a drug user above the elbow stood out in stark contrast to the slate-gray sky, grime, and debris.
Barbara Trevisan, a spokeswoman for Pine Street Inn, said the organization, which provides housing, shelter, street outreach, and job training to the homeless, supports the city’s efforts “by offering beds if available.”
“Once those are filled, we will provide mats in our lobbies and chairs in our dining room,” she said.
“The tents are not a viable option, and we think that Mayor Janey’s plan is a start,” Trevisan said in an e-mail. “Clearly there is no, one, simple solution to this complex and challenging situation. Solving this will require a multi-pronged collaborative approach by multiple parties, with an acute focus on harm reduction and public safety.”
Some advocates continued to object to the city’s plan.
“Instead of removing tents and forcing people to disperse, which separates unhoused people from medical providers and harm-reduction services to manage illness and receive treatment, public health experts and housing advocates say the city should meet basic needs — such as trash receptacles and trash removal, bathrooms and sanitation, and access to clean water and showers through mobile units — for people living in encampments until people have access to housing,” the ACLU of Massachusetts said in a statement.
“It’s horrible,” said Andrea James, the founder of Families for Justice as Healing, in a phone interview. “It’s not an effective response.”
Cassie Hurd, who as executive director of the Material Aid and Advocacy Program does extensive work on Mass. and Cass, thought the city was giving false choices to the homeless and those struggling with addiction. Some shelters don’t meet people’s specific needs, while others have barred specific individuals, she said.
“They’re making do with the limited resources they have,” she said of the people living on the streets.
The city should instead expand harm-reduction efforts, including supervised consumption sites and voluntary treatment on demand. Hurd believes the city, by seeking to remove the tent encampments, was criminalizing addiction.
City Councilor Frank Baker had a different take. He favored Suffolk Sheriff Steve Tompkins’ idea of converting a former detention center into temporary housing with addiction services, a proposal that has drawn significant pushback from advocates who call the proposal ill-advised and inhumane. A Janey spokeswoman said last week that the city’s new plan for Mass. and Cass does not include Tompkins’s proposal.
“I’d like to see Sheriff Tompkins’s idea, but on steroids,” said Baker, who broached using the Nashua Street Jail to house people from Mass. and Cass, in addition to the former immigration detention facility at the sheriff’s South Bay campus that Tompkins has proposed.
Baker thought officials should start deploying involuntary hospitalizations and civil commitments to get people off the streets, adding, “We have to start identifying spots to bring people.” The reality, he suggested, is that many people want to be living on the streets of Mass. and Cass.
“It’s a party down there,” he said of the area.
Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.