Boston intends to clear out the Mass. and Cass tent encampment by Jan. 12, and Mayor Michelle Wu said the city has identified more than 150 new housing units that will offer medical services, drug counseling, and mental health programming to help people make the transition from living on the streets.
“There will not be any tents returning to that area,” Wu said Wednesday.
Beginning Thursday, she said, the city will deploy outreach teams around the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard to offer tent dwellers housing at one of at least three sites: a 41-bed housing program at the EnVision Hotel in Mission Hill; a 30-unit temporary cottage community and two other sites at the Shattuck Hospital campus in Jamaica Plain; and the 60-unit vacant Roundhouse Hotel near Mass. and Cass, which has been fiercely opposed by nearby residents and businesses.
The Wu administration said it will also increase on-site medical services at the city-owned homeless shelters, 112 Southampton and Woods Mullen, and relax acceptance barriers to admit those in the throes of drug addiction so they can be monitored by health care providers.
Such so-called low-threshold housing, which will also be offered at the EnVision, Shattuck, and Roundhouse sites, is considered the first stage of transitional housing, offering homeless individuals and those suffering from mental illness and substance abuse disorders immediate, personal case management and support as they work toward long-term stability.
City officials said that a recent survey of 143 people living in encampments within a quarter mile of the intersection showed that 95 percent would be willing to leave for low-threshold housing, if it were available.
The mayor said that the low-threshold housing offers are a temporary but necessary response to the crisis and that the city will embark on an aggressive push to get people to move into the transitional housing by mid-January. Officials said they remain concerned over the open drug dealing, prostitution, and sex trafficking that has proliferated in recent months.
Officials would not say what they would do with people who refuse to leave the area, other than to note they will work closely with public health and public safety officials. Once the area is cleared, crews from the Department of Public Works will work to restore the street and sidewalks.
Wu said the Jan. 12 deadline is when the city believes it can have the 150 or so housing units in place.
“With these actions, our goal is to bring residents out of the cold and into supportive housing, to change the status quo in this area and citywide,” Wu said in a statement. “Our team is taking every possible action to alleviate the humanitarian crisis at Mass. Ave. and Melnea Cass Boulevard and keep this area clear of encampments moving forward.”
The area, where many support services and drug treatment programs are located, has become the epicenter of the region’s opioid epidemic over the last decade despite repeated attempts to remove tent encampments. In October, then-acting mayor Kim Janey’s administration began removing tents, citing public safety and public health concerns. After Wu was elected in November, she paused the effort amid legal challenges by civil rights groups.
On Wednesday, Wu said the pause gave the city time to conduct the survey and to lay out a more complete response plan.
On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which initially challenged the tent removals in the courts, welcomed the “proposed public health-oriented approach,” with “viable housing options.” The ACLU said it will continue to monitor “actions on the ground.”
“A public health and equity lens, paired with respect for due process, offers a lasting path to public safety,” Carol Rose, head of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement.
Wu’s plan largely centers on the Roundhouse, which would provide transitional housing for 60 individuals with 24-hour case management and support services. She has also told community leaders in that part of the city that Boston Medical Center will operate two clinical programs: a transitional care center that would link patients to treatment and a stabilization center that would monitor and care for patients managing intoxication and withdrawal.
However, because the Roundhouse is only a stone’s throw from the intersection, the hotel plan has been lambasted by business and neighborhood groups in the Newmarket Square area, who have raised concerns in recent years about conditions in the area, particularly the drug dealing and use.
Critics say the use of the Roundhouse, so close to the intersection, fails to “decentralize” services from the area — and risks perpetuating the drug problems in the neighborhood.
“We have created a gold mine for drug dealers,” said Steve Fox, chairman of the South End Forum, an umbrella organization for nearby neighborhood groups. He accused Wu and other city leaders of failing to hear the concerns of neighborhood residents and business leaders who have called on the city to spread services across Boston.
At a recent community meeting, Fox noted, not one neighborhood resident supported Wu’s plan. He also said city officials have refused to commit to how long they will seek to use the Roundhouse.
“There has been no flexibility in terms of looking at alternatives,” he said. “There’s no acknowledgement that we’ve been living with this for a decade. [Business] leaders feel as though every suggestion we’ve made has fallen on deaf ears.”
But Brendan Little, a former policy director for the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Services in Boston and a member of the state’s Opioid Recovery and Remediation Fund Advisory Council, praised Wu’s plan as a multipronged approach that addresses immediate needs, especially with the onset of colder weather. He noted that many of the proposed housing units are in other neighborhoods, such as Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain.
Little complimented the plan for its goal of providing immediate transitional housing, as well as wraparound health services “that meets people where they are.”
The approach, he said, is “guided by public health and harm reduction, which I think is really revolutionary for the city of Boston.”
Sahar Fatima and Dharna Noor of the Globe staff contributed to this report.