A key element of Mayor Michelle Wu’s plans to alleviate the humanitarian crisis at Mass. and Cass hit some turbulence this week, with critics saying her proposal to use a defunct hotel near the epicenter of the city’s opioid crisis is ill-advised and would continue to concentrate services in this hard-hit part of town.
The plan would turn the nearby Roundhouse hotel into a temporary housing and addiction treatment center for the homeless. But details revealed during a community Zoom meeting Wednesday night were met with significant pushback and little-to-no support from residents and business owners, according to people who were there.
The Boston Herald first reported the details of the Roundhouse plan.
Under the proposal, Boston Medical Center would oversee the services at Roundhouse, and a presentation shown at Wednesday’s meeting offered new details on the model of services they want to use.
According to slides from that presentation, authorities want to open two clinical programs and a transitional housing program at the Roundhouse, which is located near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
Specifically, BMC wants to open a transitional care center that would provide visit-based services to the homeless living at Mass. and Cass, which would link patients to a methadone clinic and connect them with suitable beds. The goal is to provide medical care, such as treatment for addiction, so that a person could successfully move into housing. The center would be able to treat 30 patients a day, according to the slides.
The plan also calls for the opening of a stabilization care center that would provide a place to monitor and care for patients during the short-term, meaning less than 24 hours, stays. Through the center, patients would be connected with additional addiction treatment and housing services. This center would have dedicated chairs and beds for managing withdrawal and intoxication and would be open 24/7.
Thirdly, the Roundhouse would open so-called low-threshold transitional beds, which would serve as a safe place while patients waited for treatment and permanent housing, both of which can take a long time to secure. There would be 60 beds phased in over time, according to the slide presentation.
Wu attended the meeting, along with key members of her administration, including Dr. Monica Bharel, who is a senior advisor for addiction, mental health, public safety, and homelessness, Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, and Sheila Dillon, the city’s housing chief.
Councilor Frank Baker, who was at the Zoom meeting, said he is frustrated that many questions went unanswered.
Baker objects to the location of the Roundhouse, which is situated in the thick of the region’s largest open-air market for illicit drug sales. “You need healing, if you do get that healing, your first step is out onto Mass. and Cass,” he said.
Baker was also among those who took exception that, as a low-threshold space, patients could use drugs inside the Roundhouse, a former Best Western.
“I’d like to have it, when you brought people in, there’s an understanding you can’t use drugs,” he said during a Thursday phone interview. “Where is the part of this program where you’re not using drugs?”
Councilor Ed Flynn, who will become council president in January, said in a statement Thursday that it “is critical we decentralize services and programs in this area.” The neighborhood, near Boston Medical Center and close to where the South End, Roxbury, and Dorchester meet, has long had a homeless population and been a hub of social services.
“We must work on and implement a comprehensive plan to support residents and businesses alike,” Flynn said.
Meanwhile, Brendan Little, a former policy director for the city’s office of recovery services and a local advocate, said he supports the plan, saying “it meets people where they’re at but also has an eye toward the future.”
“You can’t just move people out of there right away and hope that they get better, you have to get them better in-community,” he said.
A Wu spokeswoman said the administration was working urgently “to provide low-threshold housing for those currently experiencing homelessness and living in tents and encampments” in the Mass. and Cass area.
Wu has charged her team to “identify new low-threshold housing sites across the city with comprehensive wrap-around services, and to identify partnerships statewide that offer safe healthy housing options.”
On Friday, Wu opened a resume submission portal for health care and human services professionals interested in providing services for those at Mass. and Cass. According to the administration, personnel needed for the city’s emergency response to the area include supervisors, guest service roles, recovery advocates and coaches, floor staff, security, and nurses. There is, according to a release from Wu, a particular need for overnight staff.
The city reportedly wants to clear the tents in the Mass. and Cass area later this month, according to multiple community advocates.
A mini-tent city was erected in recent months in the area. During the summer overdoses, street violence, and theft became daily realities.
The approaching winter has added an urgency to the problem of people living in ramshackle shelters and tents on the streets. On Thursday morning, with temperatures cold enough that people could see their breath, Atkinson Street was home to a long line of tents and scores of people, a few of whom were openly injecting drugs into their veins.
It was warmer on Friday morning, but the scenes of human misery remained unchanged. On the streets, the Roundhouse hotel idea was met with mixed reviews. Some shrugged, saying they were happy in their encampment despite the approaching winter. Others wanted to know about the type of services would be offered under the plan and how long people would be allowed to stay. The way that services are rendered could determine whether people utilize the space, some said.
“Any kind of room is better than the street,” said Mohamed Shabana, who became homeless after losing his construction and dishwashing jobs amid the pandemic. “You feel cold now? Try being 24 hours in the street.”
The ways people try to stay warm out here are various. Some have metal barrels for building fires with wood pallets. Others have generators and space heaters. On Friday, an argument broke out near Shabana’s encampment in Newmarket Square after oil started leaking from one generator. Others say they simply stock up on blankets.
A fire broke out before dawn on Friday, setting a tarp and some pallets ablaze, underscoring the precariousness of these arrangements. House later, charred rubble was still strewn across one side of the street. A Boston Fire Department spokesman said there were no injuries.
Some think that many currently living on Mass. and Cass would be happy to hunker down and weather the winter on the streets. Others think the encampments will thin with inclement weather.
Michel Myles, who has been living on Mass. and Cass for a couple months, thought that as temperatures dropped people would break into cars and otherwise “do what they have to do to fight the elements.”
Regarding the Roundhouse proposal, Myles said it would ultimately come down to whether an individual wants to use such services.
“If people want help, they’ll get help. Nothing’s going to stop them,” he said. “If people want to get high, they’ll get high. Nothing’s going to stop them.”