Nearly two weeks after the city began clearing out a squalid homeless encampment known as Mass. and Cass, the ongoing operation has had some success: dozens of people have been steered into alternative housing and treatment, and tents have been cleared from one stretch of street.
But one component of the broader initiative, to use the power of courts to steer people with outstanding warrants into treatment, has a mixed record. A special court convened earlier in the week has so far sent more people to jail than into treatment, fueling fears that it would cause more harm than good to vulnerable people.
On Friday, Boston officials said they have helped 66 people find alternative housing; of those 13 people chose transitional or permanent housing, 21 chose shelters, and 32 residential treatment. And, as of Monday, 16 tents on a stretch of Southampton Street were removed. An estimated 300 people lived in the encampment at one time, according to a recent city survey.
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, whose office was involved in the initiative, said that she is pleased at how some parts of the cleanup are going.
“I’m happy that driving in the area now and walking the streets, I’m seeing a really strong response from the city, the Boston Public Health Commission, and lots of other service providers,” Rollins said.
But the prosecutor expressed disappointment at how the court proceedings have so far ended up sending more people to jail, saying it has not gone as “discussed or predicted or hoped.”
“It’s frustrating when you put in effort and time and thought and hours of your brain power, of your staff’s brain power, getting people to finally agree to things, to only have the opposite of what was discussed happen,” Rollins said.
The numbers of people brought into the court so far are small. Of the nine people in the court’s first three days, only two went to treatment, according to court officials. Four others were jailed and sent to jurisdictions that had outstanding warrants on them. They included a 33-year-old Gardner man sent to a Worcester jail experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak — over the objections of the prosecutor as well his public defender.
Two others, including a woman arrested on her way into a methadone clinic, were released on their own recognizance. And a 31-year-old Boston woman ended up with a new warrant for her arrest after she was a no-show at the shelter she was ordered to go to.
Leo Beletsky, professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, sees a disconnect between “how the court was sold to policymakers and the public and what is actually happening.”
“It’s a way of cosmetically improving the situation while also churning very vulnerable people through a very harmful system,” Beletsky said. The sessions seemed to be “catching vulnerable people on technicalities and then using that as a hook to pipe them into the system, kind of like a vacuum for people who are quote, unquote, undesirable or unseemly.”
Held in a snug room at the South Bay House of Correction, the court is part of an initiative announced last month by Acting Mayor Kim Janey to clear city streets at the epicenter of Boston’s opioid crisis, near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. Janey’s office deferred questions on the court to the Massachusetts Trial Court.
In a statement, the Trial Court would say only the court session “is prepared to hear the cases that are brought before it.”
The city operation, meanwhile, faced its first legal challenge when the ACLU of Massachusetts on Friday sued to halt the removals at Mass. and Cass. The lawsuit asks that those people who were removed be allowed to return and seeks damages for three plaintiffs whose property was destroyed.
Janey, who leaves office Nov. 16, declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said the city is taking “a public health approach.”
“We are working hard to match the individual needs of the people who are living on the streets, living in tents, with the appropriate treatment and shelter options available.”
Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins, who proposed holding the court at the jail, said he hears the criticisms. But he defended the court and the tent-clearing operation, saying the situation at Mass. and Cass had become too dire to let it continue.
“This is winter in Boston. It’s cold out and it’s going to get colder,” Tompkins said. “We cannot have folks living on the streets, but we also can’t allow an open-air drug market with people fornicating and defecating on the streets of Boston; we cannot allow this to become normalized and that’s where it was headed.”
While the first day of court was marred by long delays and technical difficulties, the kinks are being worked out, Tompkins said. His office is prepared to continue the court “for weeks or months or however long it takes.”
“As with any new initiative, we had a few flies in the ointment in the beginning,” he said. “But I think the first week went pretty well, to say the God’s honest truth.”
Indeed, Tompkins wants the court to ramp up from hearing three cases a day to five or eight.
Boston police made three arrests each morning, bringing people to the court presided over by Judge Paul Treseler, a former head of the state Parole Board. The nine were picked up on outstanding warrants, ranging from trespassing to living off the earnings of a prostitute. Many of the charges were for drug possession, court records show.
The five men and four women were primarily in their 30s; the youngest was 24, the oldest, 51. They had more than 30 warrants among them, according to booking information.
In one case, despite pleas from both the public defender and the prosecutor to send a 33-year-old Gardner man to a treatment facility for medically assisted detox, Treseler on Monday ordered him to remain in jail to answer to a warrant — for operating under the influence — out of Fitchburg District Court.
In a statement, his attorney, public defender Joshua Raisler Cohn, said the man was sent to the Worcester County House of Correction, which he said is experiencing a COVID outbreak.
“He needed medical care, which is the stated purpose of this court,” Raisler Cohn said. “Instead, he was subjected to a painful and dangerous detox and withdrawal, first while being transported to another county, and then in jail.”
Beletsky, the Northeastern professor whose expertise is in the public health impact of laws and their enforcement, said that detox outside of a medical setting can be life threatening.
“People need active medical support if they’re detoxing and a lot of times jails and prisons do not provide adequate levels of health care services,” he said.
Danna Mauch, chief executive of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, said the new court was headed in “the wrong direction.”
“That is not getting people closer to treatment, it’s getting people closer to jail,” she said. “We need to make an investment in engaging people in access to treatment in the civil care system, not in the correctional or forensic system.”
Chris Dearborn, a law professor at Suffolk University and director of the Suffolk Defenders Program, said the process of arresting people at the encampment and escorting them to court held in a jail seemed more like “selective enforcement” that would lead to “relapse, recidivism, and not recovery.”
“The message to these individuals is their disease has been criminalized. Now, whether that’s the truth or not, whether that’s a reality or not, that’s the perception,” Dearborn said. “And perception becomes reality.”
An earlier version of this article misidentified Judge Paul Treseler.