Boston is on track to create new, transitional housing for up to 150 people living at the tent encampments near the area known as Mass. and Cass by a Jan. 12 deadline, Mayor Michelle Wu said Tuesday, after taking a morning boat ride to Long Island to explore the possibility of rebuilding a more long-term recovery campus for people in mental health and substance abuse treatment.
The island once housed a recovery campus, until a bridge to there was shut down and later demolished because of structural concerns. The 2014 closure, which forced the city into a yearslong scramble to identify new housing and treatment programs, is seen as a key driver for the worsening homelessness and addiction crisis in the area of Mass. and Cass.
“There is a very powerful potential for recovery and for those who need access to services to continue that legacy on the island,” Wu said, minutes after stepping off of a Boston Fire Department boat with a team of top public health and housing advisers.
“It is full of potential for what the city could be aligning our efforts around, the ongoing crises centered at Mass. and Cass,” she said. Press were not allowed to accompany the Long Island tour.
Wu said Tuesday that any work on the island would be more of a medium- and long-term goal as the city works urgently to move people from the tent encampments at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, what has become the epicenter of the city’s opioid abuse and homelessness epidemic.
The tour was the latest development in Wu’s push to address the public safety and health concerns in the area. She has concentrated the early efforts of her fledgling administration on clearing out the encampments as colder weather arrives.
By Tuesday, the mayor said, the city had moved 49 people from the encampments to new housing units over the last several weeks, and had identified housing plans for 75 percent of the people the city has been in contact with.
The 150 units are based at three sites: A temporary cottage community at the Shattuck Hospital campus in Jamaica Plain; rooms at the vacant EnVision Hotel in Mission Hill; and space at the former Best Western Roundhouse on Massachusetts Avenue. Most of the units are considered so-called low-threshold housing: A housing-first strategy that aims to move those still in the throes of addiction and mental illness directly to a warm shelter with easy access to personal counseling and social services, while they enter the transition to more long-term stability. Residents in such circumstances do not need to be sober to get housing.
By Tuesday, at least five people had already been placed at the temporary cottage community the state set up at the Shattuck, and 10 people could be there by the end of the week, a state official said. The 30-unit community is part of Wu’s plan.
The mayor set the goal of clearing out the encampments for Jan. 12 because that’s when the new housing units could be made available, but she has not said what the city will do if people do not leave.
Wu said that while her team is making “very strong steps forward,” officials do not expect that the crises at Mass. and Cass will disappear overnight, even as they clear out the encampments. “This is not going to be an on and off switch,” she said. She stressed that the tour of the Long Island campus Tuesday was to explore more long-term plans for those in recovery.
“The medium- and long-term part of the work will be to transform our system, of how we think of individuals who are homeless, unsheltered homeless, and individuals who are suffering from addiction,” said Dr. Monica Bharel, one of the mayor’s top public health advisers, who joined the mayor on the tour. Bharel had previously cared for patients on Long Island.
“It’s very helpful to see the space, to see the potential,” she said.
The bridge to Long Island, an 11-minute boat ride from the Boston Police Harbor Patrol docks in South Boston, was shut down in 2014. That’s when then-mayor Martin J. Walsh evacuated the campus amid concerns over the bridge’s structural safety.
In his inaugural address in 2018, Walsh vowed to rebuild the campus and committed $92 million to construct a new bridge over the following three years. Legal challenges from Quincy city officials stalled the project, however: Car and truck traffic would have to run through that city to get to the bridge site, sparking neighborhood opposition to the plan.
In her campaign for mayor last year, Wu said she would consider using ferry service to shuttle patients to and from the island, saying the prospects of rebuilding the bridge failed to address the immediate need to address the crisis at Mass. and Cass. Walsh had scrapped that plan during his administration, saying ferry service would be too unreliable for patients on the island in need of urgent medical care.
After her tour Tuesday, Wu said the goal was to identify the best use of the island, including the 400,000 square feet of building space that already exists. She raised the potential the city could use the island to help those in more advanced stages of treatment, rather than those who need acute care.
Many of the buildings are dilapidated, and have deteriorated in recent years from water damage. But the city has worked to heat and preserve them as well, and the facilities still remain well equipped, she said.
The island still houses a fire station, with a fire truck still parked outside.
Wu, who has not toured the facilities since she first joined the City Council in 2014, said the tour was “eerie” at points: Construction equipment and paperwork and personal belongings remained at the site, a sign of how fast the community was evacuated. But she also called the remnants a symbol of the community that did exist, and the potential that remains.
“There was no better way to do this than to actually see the state of the docks out there and the buildings and just the scope of land that’s available to the city,” she said. “We need to be thinking about every possible way we can connect our residents to services.”