On a recent morning, construction crews in hard hats ran digger trucks through the far corner of the parking lot at the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain, as hospital patients watched from a nearby bus stop and others hustled to the front entrance. The crews had already built new pop-up cabins over the last two weeks. And on this day, they were digging through concrete to connect to water and sewer lines, putting the finishing touches on a new, makeshift cottage community to house people who are homeless.
The pop-up community — which could be fully operational by Monday — is just one piece of what state and city officials hope will be the solution to a sprawling tent encampment at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, what has become the epicenter of the region’s opioid crisis.
Seventeen sleeping cabins, ranging in size from 64 to 100 square feet, are lined up in two rows. At one end is a courtyard. And at the front of the village is a 500-square-foot structure that will serve as a common room, where those living there can gather for meals or counseling. Other services — to help treat addiction or mental illness — will be available at the site. And at the end of the day, those living there can retire to their own personal sleeping space.
“It gives someone their sense of space, and privacy; it’s easier than being on the streets,” said Marylou Sudders, the state’s secretary of health and human services, during a recent tour of the grounds.
As city officials and social workers push people to leave their tent encampments near the Mass. and Cass intersection, they invite them to the new cottage community, marketing it as a temporary but appealing option that could serve as a warmer, safer transition to long-term housing.
City and state officials plan to offer new housing and similar programming at other sites, including two vacant hotels. But the quick-build community that has been erected on the Shattuck grounds over the last two weeks could be replicated in other areas in the city and the region, as officials embrace “low-threshold housing.”
The low-threshold housing is part of a housing-first strategy that aims to move those in the throes of addiction and mental illness directly to warm shelter with easy access to personal counseling and social services. Residents do not need to be sober to get housing.
People who live in the housing units may still be managing a substance abuse disorder, or mental illness. But there, they will have the intimacy of their own shelter, with lockable doors, a preferable option for many who have shunned the open, congregate setting of a traditional homeless shelter. And they will be offered wrap-around services, including drug addiction and mental health counseling, supervision of their prescriptions, as well as instructions on how to move to more permanent housing.
City officials say a recent survey of roughly 140 people who were sleeping in the 77 tents near the intersection showed that more than 95 percent said they would be willing to leave their tents for such housing, if it were available.
The survey, one of the first of its kind to be conducted publicly in Boston, also showed that although most of the people at the encampments around Mass. & Cass reported that they were battling a substance abuse disorder, only 23 percent said they were taking medication for their substance abuse; only half of them had a health care provider, and fewer had a mental health provider. Most respondents said they wanted such care.
The services at the Shattuck are meant to be temporary: Officials expect they could transition 100 people through the Shattuck community over the next six months, with the goal of closing the community soon after.
“This is inviting [them] to a place that is secure housing; it is warm, and it has all these health care services in that setting, so they can get access to everything they need to get to a better place,” said Chris Palmieri, president and CEO of Commonwealth Care Alliance, which specializes in providing care for people with disabilities and mental illness. The alliance will be running the Shattuck community.
“That’s what is so unique,” he said. “It’s that everything is right there.”
“These people living in these encampments obviously have complex needs, and in order to meet those complex needs we need to fully understand them,” said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission. She said the survey showed that most of those at the encampments, or 59 percent, reported living on the streets for less than two years, though 17 percent said they had been there for six years or more.
And the survey shows that low-threshold housing — at the vacant hotels or at the Shattuck community — is “what most individuals want. This is where they want to go,” Ojikutu said.
The cottages themselves are a mix of one- and two-unit aluminum-framed structures ranging in size from 64 to 100 square feet. Each will be equipped with bedding, storage space, and possibly a desk, and will have its own electricity, and air conditioning. Officials plan to cover the stark white walls with colorful art.
And around the area, crews are building a stained-wood fence, providing a visually appealing sense of intimacy for those who will soon call the community home.
“It will be all the way around, so that people have a sense of privacy,” Sudders said during a tour of the site.
Brandon Bills, a spokesman for Pallett, the Washington-based company that is building the cabins at the Shattuck, said that interest in quick-build, temporary housing has grown in recent years, amid the urgency that arose from the COVID-19 pandemic and as policymakers look at new ways to provide wrap-around services for those who have been living on the streets. “They are truly meant to be transitional, to serve as a steppingstone,” he said.
And they have proved successful, he said: One of the first communities the company built — in Tacoma — has housed roughly 450 people over the last five years, with more than 400 transitioning to more permanent housing. Overall the company has built roughly 1,500 units of housing in 39 cities in 10 states.
The plan to move people from the tent encampments to low-threshold housing across the city has raised concerns among neighbors of the proposed housing sites, including those near the Shattuck hospital, who fear that the crime and open-air drug market that have pervaded Mass. and Cass will follow those seeking treatment to their new housing.
During a recent meeting of the Franklin Park Coalition, a group dedicated to the preservation of the park, several residents questioned how officials will police the campus and the abutting properties.
Will residents still battling substance abuse begin using in the park? Selling drugs at the campus? What will officials do to police the area? Will syringes start showing up near their playgrounds?
“The idea is to fix Mass. and Cass, not move it,” one board member said in a rhetorical challenge to state officials.
Sudders said she had toured Mass. and Cass in August, and recognized that the area was at “a tipping point,” with blatant drug use and drug-dealing. “The number of encampments, the number of tents, increased significantly” in recent years, she told residents during the meeting.
Sudders sought to assure residents that the new community at Shattuck will be policed, with one cabin dedicated to security staff. But she emphasized that officials see the community as a key solution to help provide safe, secure housing with services for those who need it most.
“This is one solution . . . one tool,” she said during the recent tour, “but I think it’s an important one to help people get off the streets and into a safe place.”
She added, “We need to have a multitude of options, given the complexity of the need down there.”