Signaling a top priority for her administration, Mayor-elect Michelle Wu on Wednesday named a Cabinet-level senior adviser to lead the city’s response to the addiction and homelessness crises at the area known as “Mass. and Cass,” announcing the choice as part of her first slate of appointees.
Dr. Monica Bharel, former commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, will spearhead the city’s efforts to ensure housing and treatment options for hundreds of people who have taken up residence near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, the epicenter of the city’s humanitarian crisis, where Boston officials have recently begun to clear tents and belongings and direct people arrested in the vicinity into a special court.
“Every single day that goes by, we are closer to winter, when the temperatures will mean that already life-and-death situations will become even more dire,” Wu said Wednesday at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, which is near the encampments. “We will ensure that we are on the same page, moving quickly on that plan, both for immediate needs and the urgency as the weather grows cold, but also a long-term plan, so that the city will have an approach that will take us far beyond the next six months.”
Wu, who will be sworn in as mayor on Tuesday, also announced that she will reappoint Sheila A. Dillon as the chief of housing and director of the Department of Neighborhood Development, and elevate Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, who will remain executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission but see the post boosted into a Cabinet-level role. All three women will be involved in the administration’s work at Mass. and Cass, Wu said, with Dillon and Ojikutu also taking a broader view on their respective policy areas.
The appointments come as the city faces harsh criticism — and a lawsuit — over its efforts in the area, which have seen people removed and in some cases, when individuals had outstanding arrest warrants, jailed. The ACLU of Massachusetts sued Boston earlier this month, arguing that city officials are unlawfully removing people from the encampment without identifying adequate housing options for them. Advocates say too many of those who lived in the area are simply being cycled through a criminal justice system that won’t meet their needs.
While making clear the area would be a priority for her administration, Wu gave few details about precisely what steps she intends to take and when. Asked Wednesday how her plan would differ from the approach under Acting Mayor Kim Janey, Wu demurred, pointing to the new appointments and to ongoing collaboration with state leaders.
“We’re going to take an approach that is centered on public health and housing first, and we will be announcing the plan for that to come,” she said.
During the campaign, Wu pledged to perform an audit during her first 100 days as mayor to identify city-owned parcels of land or facilities on which to quickly build supportive housing to alleviate the crisis that is concentrating people in the area. She also proposed a “hub and spoke” model that would place recovery services and supportive housing throughout Boston.
State Representative Jon Santiago, a physician who treats encampment residents and a Boston Democrat whose district includes the area, praised Wu for moving quickly to select leaders on the issue and applauded her picks.
Placing Bharel and Ojikutu in Cabinet-level posts “sends a message to the community that this is serious, that they understand the multifaceted approach that’s required, and that there’s some urgency that’s required as well,” said Santiago, who staged a relatively brief campaign for mayor, bowing out in July.
Bharel previously served as chief medical officer at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program and helped lead the state’s COVID-19 response for more than a year as head of the department of public health.
All three appointees said Wednesday that they look forward to getting started.
“I care deeply, I care deeply about the people who are at the center of this crisis, and I have spoken to Mayor-elect Wu about her commitment,” Bharel said. “She is committed to working on this with a public health lens and focused on the people who need our help.”
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said she was “glad” Wu was already working on a plan for the area.
“Public health crises require public health solutions, and we are hopeful that the new administration will establish and implement policies that protect the health, safety, and civil rights of people residing at Mass. and Cass,” Rose said.
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