Hindered by delays, technical difficulties, and multiple false starts, a new court for people arrested in the vicinity of a sprawling homeless encampment in Boston began hearing cases Monday, involving three men detained that morning just steps from the makeshift proceeding.
Only one would spend Monday night in a treatment center — a key goal of the city’s effort to deal with the squalid tent city at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. The other two would spend the night detoxing in jail.
The court, held at the South Bay House of Correction, was launched as authorities pressed ahead with the plan to clear the encampment. City workers cleared an estimated 15 to 20 tents on Monday as part of an operation that is expected to continue over several weeks.
All three men were brought in on warrants ranging from drug possession, to larceny, to breaking and entering. They were led one by one in handcuffs, and marched from police vehicles in the street past protesters who held signs and chanted “Healthcare, housing, stop the sweeps.”
The men would spend the next five to six hours getting booked and processed before they went before Judge Paul Treseler.
The city has said that the special court was needed because many of the people living in the encampments are medically compromised and it would be difficult to transport them to other courts. But after the day wrapped, Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, criticized the process.
”Nothing happened here that couldn’t have happened at any of the nearby courthouses,” Benedetti said. “In fact, it is likely that these people would have had access to treatment faster . . . This is supposed to be a stabilization court, but if things persist as they did today, this will be a facility of destabilization.”
Two blocks away, city workers cleared out a block of Southampton Street, separating tents from sleeping bags and blankets that reeked of urine, stacking wooden palettes, negotiating with distraught campers, and collecting syringes out of the grime.
Holding a sign outside the new court that said “Harm Reduction NOT Handcuffs,” Jim Stewart saw the cleanup and the court as a social service charade.
“It’s an illusory move on the part of the city,” Stewart said. “They’re brushing them out of the way . . . creating the illusion of help, while actually causing more harm.”
Ashley Tarbet De Stefano, a representative of the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network, agreed.
“The city is trying to use their so-called public health concerns to arrest and detain folks,” De Stefano said. “It’s all code for discrimination.’'
De Stefano said that instead authorities should address the root causes of the problem — affordable housing, universal health care, real mentalhealth support.
Called the Community Response Session, the court is part of Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s executive order to remove tents from city streets. With the judge presiding virtually and a prosecutor and a public defender on site, the hearings were conducted out of a tiny room at the South Bay campus.
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins paid a visit to the court before it began. She agreed that holding court in a jail facility was not “ideal.”
“I don’t believe this is ideal, but this was the only thing that was put on the table,” Rollins said. “We have reached a point where we have to do something.”
City officials had emphasized that the new court would aim to pair people with treatment and services, and make arrests as a last resort.
But that did not appear to be how Monday’s session went.
First up was Phillip Curtis Houston, 41, of Boston. He was wanted on four warrants out of Roxbury for drug distribution and possession. Although public defenders had located a treatment bed for him, the judge ordered that he be returned to Roxbury to answer his warrants there.
Assistant public defender Josh Raisler Cohn asked the judge to reconsider. “To help people clear warrants and get into treatment, that is our understanding of the entire purpose of this session,” Raisler Cohn said.
The judge denied the motion. “He can get those services in Roxbury,” he said.
Patrick Michael Kennefick, 37, of West Roxbury, was brought in on a larceny warrant. Raisler Cohn explained that painkiller treatment for a back injury while doing manual labor had introduced Kennefick to addiction.
Kennefick had left a treatment center in March 2020 out of fears about COVID-19 after several residents were hospitalized, he said.
The judge ordered Kennefick into a treatment center in Quincy. “If he absconds, we want to know sooner rather than later,” Treseler said.
The final defendant, Maxwell Kolodka, 33, of Gardner, was brought in on four warrants for breaking and entering, operating under the influence, and drug possession out of Newton, Roxbury, and Fitchburg. He had been in and out of four treatment programs in the last year, Raisler Cohn told the judge, and wanted another chance.
Despite granting several recesses to allow public defenders to locate a treatment bed for Kolodka, the judge in the end ordered that he would spend the night in jail, see a doctor there, and be returned to Fitchburg to answer to his warrant.
Raisler Cohn pleaded with the judge to reconsider, saying his client “needs medically assisted detox right now.”
The judge wasn’t having it. “He’s going to go answer in Fitchburg.”