On her first full day as Boston’s chief executive, Mayor Michelle Wu said Wednesday that the city will be “pausing the removals” of people living in tents at the heart of the opioid crisis, an area known as Mass. and Cass.
The announcement represents a shift on one of the most difficult challenges Wu inherits as mayor. It came on the same day a judge denied a request by the ACLU of Massachusetts to immediately halt the cleanup of the sprawling homeless encampment near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
The ACLU, which filed a lawsuit against the city earlier this month, had argued in Superior Court that the removals are unconstitutional and violated property rights of those being displaced. On Wednesday, the judge ruled only on the ACLU’s request for a temporary restraining order while the lawsuit continues in the courts. Even so, it appears the ruling may be moot, at least for now.
Wu, who spoke hours before the ruling, indicated the city would “not necessarily” start the tent clearing again even if the judge ruled against the ACLU.
“We are in court today and going to be pausing removals pending the outcome of that legal process,” Wu said at a City Hall briefing, where she also delivered remarks in Mandarin and Spanish.
In a statement issued after the judge’s ruling, the Wu administration did not say whether it would resume the tent clearings.
Earlier, Wu said her administration wants to “ensure that we’re bringing a public health and housing first lens” to the Mass. and Cass crisis. With the temperatures dropping, it’s becoming a life-or-death situation for those living on the streets, she said.
“We need to move quickly to find short-term solutions for stable, low threshold housing,” Wu said.
City officials have emphasized they would not take a heavy-handed approach to the removals, saying they will not force anyone to move without being provided with an adequate alternative shelter. Officials have said dozens of people have been steered into alternative housing and treatment since the tent removals began.
But the plan has prompted pushback from advocates who say the actions are ill-advised and inhumane. The ACLU, for instance, objects to the city dislocating people who live in the encampment “without first identifying viable alternative housing options for them,” and argues that the city’s actions have often destroyed people’s property in the process.
Homeless shelters, the ACLU has said in court documents, aren’t viable options for many people living at the encampment, due to their medical and family needs.
During the court hearing Wednesday, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Janet L. Sanders declined to issue a temporary restraining order that would have ceased the clearing of the ramshackle shelters.
“These encampments have become a public health and public safety threat,” Sanders said in court.
The parties in the case plan to meet Friday to discuss discovery and logistics, with another hearing scheduled for Nov. 29.
In its suit, the ACLU asks that tent dwellers who were removed be allowed to return and it also seeks damages for three plaintiffs whose property was destroyed in the Mass. and Cass area.
The mini-tent city has popped up in recent months in an area that is home to a cluster of social services, including homeless shelters, Boston Medical Center, and at least two methadone clinics.
Earlier this year, authorities estimated that about 300 people were living in the encampments at one point. Multiple overdoses became a daily reality and reports of street violence and theft were commonplace. What to do with the complex problems of the humanitarian crisis has become one of the city’s most pressing political questions.
Last month, Boston officials said they would remove the sprawling encampment, with then-acting mayor Kim Janey declaring the temporary shelters would no longer be tolerated on public ways. The city has removed dozens of tents in recent weeks.
While makeshift dwellings have been cleared from both Southampton and Atkinson streets, on Wednesday there were still more than 30 tents on the latter road. New rows of encampments — totaling about 15 tents — have also sprung up in the nearby industrial expanse of Newmarket Square.
Those living on the streets of Mass. and Cass welcomed the news that the city is suspending the removal of their shelters.
A woman identifying herself as Bea said she has lived on the streets for five years and is currently being treated with methadone. She has been on a waiting list for a treatment center for two months, she said. Bea said the city pausing the clearing of the encampments was a positive development, saying some homeless people had nowhere to go, as some people are barred from shelters.
“They should be finding more places for treatment,” she said. “They should make housing more readily available for us.”
A man who gave his name as L.J. said he got kicked out of a treatment program last month. That night, the 33-year-old said, he overdosed on fentanyl. He has cuts on his face and a badly infected wound on his hand, where he said someone bit him weeks ago. He said there needs to be housing and job training to stabilize the lives of those living on the streets.
L.J. met the news of the city’s shift with a shrug.
“For right now, what else are you going to do? You don’t want us to end up in the Back Bay or the South End, some yuppie neighborhood. So they throw us down here by the jail.”
Dillon Herrin suggested the city provide more trash receptacles and bathrooms in the area. He said he has been living around Mass. and Cass for months, and labeled the removal of tents in the area “rude” and predicted the tents would just pop up elsewhere.
“A lot of people have their whole lives in their tents,” he said. “They don’t have much.”
During her mayoral campaign, Wu pledged to perform an audit within her first 100 days as mayor to identify city-owned parcels of land or facilities on which to quickly build supportive housing.
Wu also discussed the crisis at Mass. and Cass during a meeting Wednesday with Governor Charlie Baker. Their discussion included the state’s plan to build a “temporary cottage community” on the grounds of the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital campus in Jamaica Plain to house several dozen people from the tent encampment.
“I asked [Mayor Wu] if she was OK with what we were planning to do, and she said she was,” Baker told reporters after the meeting. “And then we talked about some of the other alternatives that we’ve been working on together with the city. Our goal at the end of the day is to support the city when it comes to coming up with solutions for that.”
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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