At the homeless encampments at Newmarket Square, city crews have been posting fliers on the tarps and tents lined up along the chain-link fences, proclaiming that “The City of Boston Will Conduct a Cleanup of This Public Space.”
All items must be removed by Jan. 12, this coming Wednesday, the fliers instruct. The cleanup will take place at 8 a.m. that day. All remaining property will be disposed of. And, perhaps most importantly, the fliers indicate, “Help is available.”
Word has begun to spread among those living in the encampments: The tents are coming down, and the city says it has housing. Already, social workers have started to relocate people, including more than a dozen who were set to settle in Friday at the nearby Roundhouse hotel as the winter’s first snowstorm pummeled the region. Another 10 people have been set up at pop-up cabins in Jamaica Plain.
Paris Flores, who says he has been living in the Newmarket encampment for two years, says he longs for the assistance.
“Everyone’s praying that that’s what they’re going to do,” the 35-year-old father of three said one cold recent morning, arising from his tent in Newmarket Square, an active meat- and food-packing district where dozens of unsheltered residents have set up camp as they manage drug addiction, mental illness, or both.
Mayor Michelle Wu’s plan to resume clearing out the dozens of tents still there has triggered hope for those living there, but also doubt and worry. Past attempts by other city leaders to clear out the area have proved futile: The encampments only got larger and sprawled to other pockets of the neighborhood, raising public health and safety concerns over what has become an open air drug market.
A recent city survey showed that more than 140 people had been living at the encampments, all within a quarter mile of what is known as Mass. and Cass, the intersection that has become the epicenter of the region’s opioid and homelessness epidemic.
In November, shortly after taking office, Wu paused a city plan her predecessor launched to take down the encampments. She also acknowledged that the tents have in the past always returned. This time, though, city officials say they are using a “public health approach” and they will have secured enough transitional housing by Wednesday to offer people living in the encampments a safe — albeit temporary — place to stay. This includes so-called low-threshold housing, where those seeking shelter would not be required to be sober.
Officials say the housing units will be offered in tandem with other services, including substance abuse and mental health counseling, medical and prescription drug use supervision, and, in some cases, acute care for those in immediate danger of overdosing. Wu’s housing-first strategy aims to get people in stable, warm housing and introduce them to services as part of a long-term transition to permanent housing.
“It represents a turning point, where we’ve gone person to person, and spoken about their needs,” said Dr. Monica Bharel, Wu’s public health adviser who is overseeing the effort. “The approach we’re taking, the reason it’s public health focused, is we’ve gone to each individual, we’ve surveyed their needs in a way we haven’t ... in the past.”
Already, she said, 60 people have been placed in new housing. So far, they’re still there.
For some, such as Flores, the city help could be the answer to their addictions. The Salisbury native uses heroin and fentanyl. He stays in touch with family but refuses to return home to see his children until he can get sober. He says he’s tried drug treatment programs before but relapsed; it’s difficult to do without the stability of housing, he says. With his own home, perhaps, he speculates, he could be secure enough to get a job.
“I’d have better things to do with my time than drugs,” Flores said. “It’s got to be better than this.”
Still, worry and skepticism remain, particularly among local business owners who have seen the city try and fail before.
Neighbors in the Mass. and Cass area are particularly concerned over the city’s plan to use the former Best Western hotel nearby on Massachusetts Avenue, known as the Roundhouse, for low-threshold housing and as a transitional care center that would link patients to rehabilitation services.
The 92-room hotel recently inked a one-year lease with Boston Medical Center in partnership with the city.
Dr. Miriam Komaromy, medical director of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center, said over the next few weeks as many as 60 residents from the encampments will move into the hotel. There is a nurse on site, as well as housing specialists and private security. BMC is also planning to open a clinic in the basement of the hotel to provide health care and drug treatment services.
Dr. Komaromy said BMC is not allowing drug use in the hotel. “If people are using, we are going to work with them and ask them to stop and engage with treatment,” she said.
Still, she acknowledged staff cannot control what people do in the privacy of their own rooms. “We will be observing behaviors, and we will not tolerate substance use in public spaces,” she added.
Those who work nearby say the use of the hotel fails to address the open-air drug dealing and predatory crimes that pervade the area. They warn such a situation could mean those who are seeking treatment will never get the help they need — they will simply walk outside the hotel doors, back to their old behavior.
“It will be a revolving door,” said Bill Lim, owner of the Sunoco gas station next to the Roundhouse, who has had to lock his doors in recent years to keep people from using drugs inside or perpetrating other crimes.
Sue Sullivan, head of the Newmarket Business Association, said she remains hopeful, noting the concerted effort by local health officials to make housing available and to encourage residents to take advantage.
“I just hope people will go, that’s really the issue,” said Sullivan, whose organization has hired people — some who lived in the encampments — to help clean up the area.
Civil rights and health care advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, have their own concerns with the city’s past efforts to “sweep” the area, what they called a failed law enforcement approach that criminalized drug use without taking into account individuals’ housing and health care needs.
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU in Massachusetts, said that advocates applaud Wu’s effort to provide housing. But she is concerned that not all of the residents have been connected to suitable options in advance of Wednesday’s deadline. She called for officials to postpone the tent breakdown, “so that the public health vision the city seeks to implement can be fulfilled.”
One morning late last week, as news of a coming storm swirled, several people could be seen shuffling from one tent to another, sealing their doorways with tarps for added weather protection. One sign was marked with a sign, “Knock First — Don’t Just Open.” Police cruisers circled the area while social workers interacted with passersby. A man who was apparently under in the influence of drugs stood on a corner screaming and undressing himself.
By Friday afternoon, as the snowstorm abated, public health workers returned to the area, conducting wellness checks on people in the snow-covered tents. They shoveled out the tents’ entrances and brought hot chocolate and soup, while encouraging the people there to seek safer accommodations. Housing will come, they said, but in the meantime seek shelter.
Jason Ortiz, 38, has been in a tent setup with his girlfriend. It has a heater fueled by propane gas, or sometimes hand sanitizer, to keep them warm. He said they would prefer their makeshift shelter over a congregate setting like a shelter, which can be crowded and intrusive. But, after learning that housing arrangements offering more privacy will be made available, Ortiz said he is more willing to relocate.
“I just want to move to my own place, you know?” he said, peeking outside his doorway.
Laura, 44, said she has questions about her future. She said she has been living on the streets since the summer, after she was released from prison; she declined to elaborate, but added, “I’ve never been homeless before.”
Laura, who asked that her last name not be used for privacy reasons, said she encountered a social worker outside her tent recently, who told her about housing. The social worker gave her clean needles, for her active opioid addiction. But the social worker never returned. Laura said she stayed outside her tent, in the rain. Three candles were lit inside, waiting for her, the only way to keep the tent warm.
“Not everybody’s been told where they’re going,” she said.
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617. Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.