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Mayor Wu drafts immediate plan to move people from Mass. and Cass to new housing

Matthew Fruzzetti ate a bowl of cereal outside his makeshift hut at New Market Square near the in the area known as known as Mass. and Cass on Dec. 3. He said he has been working with a case worker from the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program, and would be willing to move into suitable housing. He recognized that he and others should be in their own homes. "I'm homeless and a drug addict, but other people have it a lot worse down here," he said. Mayor Michelle Wu has drafted plans to begin moving people living in the tent encampments in the area known as Mass. and Cass, the heart of the city’s opioid crisis, to transitional housing sites across the city.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Mayor Michelle Wu has drafted plans to move people living in the tent encampments in the area known as Mass. and Cass, the heart of the region’s opioid crisis, to transitional housing sites across the city, with a goal of clearing the area by mid to late December, according to community advocates briefed on the outline.

Coming just weeks after Wu announced the city was pausing tent removals, the plan aims to move those in the encampments to as many as 200 transitional housing units in various neighborhoods, according to the advocates. It could include using the former Roundhouse hotel nearby, a controversial proposal that community leaders previously fought off..

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Wu’s office would not say whether city officials would forcibly break down the encampments of those who resist leaving, in spite of a recent court ruling that gave the city protection under public health regulations to clear tents from the area.

But her goal, Wu told advocates, is to have enough so-called low-threshold beds available by mid to late December, in time for the coldest weather, so that people living on the streets will have an immediate, suitable offer for shelter.

Low-threshold housing is considered the first stage of transitional housing, offering homeless individuals suffering from mental illness and those actively using illegal substances immediate, personal case management and support as they work toward long-term stability. These units could take many forms, from bedrooms in a small apartment building to a more institutional setting, in a hospital or a hotel, with the common denominator that they all offer individualized treatment services in a private setting.

Individuals living on the streets generally prefer the privacy of such housing over the open setting of a homeless shelter. Under Wu’s plan, according to several people who were briefed, Boston Medical Center would oversee at least some of the services.

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In response to Globe questions about the encampments, a Wu spokesperson said only that the mayor will take a “public health approach” to resolving the longstanding problems in the area near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. The spokesperson would not identify any specific sites the administration is eyeing for such housing, saying the plan remains under development.

Speaking to reporters Friday, Wu confirmed she has drafted plans, and said that the tent encampments present “a matter of basic health and life safety.” She said she hopes to have the people there relocated by mid-December.

“There are serious health concerns in terms of the encampment and so we want to make sure everyone can get into a warm home with wraparound services,” the mayor said.

The “vast, vast majority” of individuals at the encampment have told health care workers that they would be willing to voluntarily leave their tents to move to suitable, low-threshold housing, Wu added.

“So the primary barrier right now isn’t that people don’t want to go, it’s that there’s nowhere suitable for them to go,” the mayor said. “That’s what we’re trying to solve, and we’re getting very close to having that all fleshed out.”

Down near Mass. and Cass, Matthew Fruzzetti, 34, who has been sleeping in a makeshift, wood-framed hut in a rising encampment in Newmarket Square, said Friday that he has been working with a case worker from the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program, and would be willing to move into suitable housing.

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Fruzzetti, who paused with a bowl of cereal outside his hut to speak with a Globe photographer, said he has been living on the streets since 2012, when his father died, and is using heroin intravenously. He has grown accustomed to life in the homeless encampment. But Fruzzetti recognized that he, and others, should be in their own homes.

“I’m homeless and a drug addict, but other people have it a lot worse down here,” he said.

Wu’s office said the purpose of the recent meetings with community leaders was to seek feedback on the proposed options. The plan to reconsider the Roundhouse hotel as a site was first reported by the Boston Herald.

But already, the proposal received mixed reviews from community leaders, specifically the use of the vacant Roundhouse, a former Best Western hotel. Neighborhood leaders fought a similar proposal when then-acting mayor Kim Janey proposed it last summer.

While some praised Wu’s work to quickly identify housing sites in neighborhoods across the city to help “decentralize” individuals and services from an epicenter of open-air drug abuse and drug dealing, they argued using a hotel only a few blocks away would do just the opposite: Those in need of care would remain in the thick of the crisis.

“How do you move people from a tent 500 yards to a hotel . . . and their dealers are still right outside the door?” asked Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, which has raised concerns about illicit behavior at the nearby intersection for years.

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City Councilor Frank Baker, whose district covers the intersection, said the city would essentially be creating a “flop house,” where individuals can go after buying drugs on the streets. He called for a more aggressive approach to combating drug dealing and other illicit activity, and for the administration to offer services in multiple locations across the city and the region so that individuals in need of service have options.

“For years, we’ve said, ‘We need to decentralize, we need to decentralize.’ But this isn’t decentralizing,” he said.

The Roundhouse has about 200 units available, though it was not clear how many the city would want to use.

The reconsideration of the Roundhouse underscores the urgency city officials face addressing a crisis that includes open drug use and dealing, prostitution, human trafficking, and rapes. Several fires were reported in the tents recently. At least six people were killed within a half-mile radius of the intersection in the first half of the year.

Janey’s effort to clear out the tents in November, citing the violence and public health concerns that included an outbreak of the bacterial disease leptospirosis, was criticized by medical specialists. They argued it failed to address the root cause of the drug crisis, and would only exacerbate the problem and put those seeking care in danger.

Recovery experts and housing advocates say the creation of more low-threshold housing units, where those actively using drugs would still be welcome, would be the best immediate strategy. Last month, state officials announced a plan to create 30 such beds in a “temporary cottage community” at the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital grounds in Jamaica Plan to be open by mid-December.

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Similar sites under consideration in Wu’s plan would be located around the city, from Brighton to Mission Hill to West Roxbury, according to those who were briefed.

Domingos DaRosa, a community activist who has raised concerns about drug activity in the area, including in nearby Clifford Park, where he helps coach youth football and consistently finds used syringes, praised Wu’s willingness to meet with community leaders.

“It’s a group of residents who are fed up with the status quo as to how the area’s been treated over the last decades,” he said, calling for a more regional approach to the crisis, including more help from state officials. “We were begging for help, and a year later now we’re drowning” in the crisis.

Danny McDonald, Janelle Nanos, and Craig Walker of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.