Mayor Michelle Wu said Monday that more than 80 people who have been living in the tent encampments in the area known as Mass. and Cass have been moved to transitional housing units, and social workers will fan out across the area over the next two days encouraging others to seek shelter, as the city prepares to clear out the tents beginning Wednesday.
At a City Hall news conference, city officials say they have identified more than 200 new housing units to accommodate people who have been sleeping in the tents, including what is called low-threshold housing: Transitional housing units that do not require occupants to be sober but are meant to be the first step toward more long-term recovery.
As officials move to start removing tents Wednesday, they say they are working off a December survey of roughly 145 people who had been sleeping overnight in the encampments, nearly all of whom said they would be willing to leave their tents for low-threshold housing if it were available. By Monday morning, 83 people identified in the survey had been relocated to transitional housing, and the city said it has spots reserved for the remaining 69 people.
Officials also said that they recognize the transient nature of the community and that housing is being made available for others who may have taken up residence in the encampments since December. Wu said the effort is critical to address the growing concerns over sanitation at the encampments, public safety, and public health, particularly as a deep freeze takes hold over the area Tuesday.
“We are really approaching past the point of urgency,” the mayor said Monday, emphasizing that the tents “are not a safe and healthy place for anyone to be living.”
Recently, she said, city workers have tended to people suffering from frostbite and hypothermia. With no heat, several people have tried to use propane-fueled heaters, sparking fires in the tents. Crews were back at the area Monday urging people to seek warm shelter.
“All individuals staying in the encampments will be offered a safe indoor space to go,” said Dr. Monica Bharel, Wu’s public health adviser who is leading the effort. “We all know conditions are very dangerous at the encampments.”
Monday’s press conference was largely an effort to send a message that the city is moving forward with the plan to start taking down the encampments beginning Wednesday; city officials have already posted flyers on tents alerting residents that all items will be disposed of if they are not removed by 8 a.m. that day.
Public works crews will work quickly to clean up streets and sidewalks, and Wu said police officers will take part in the effort. The mayor said that the city does not intend to “criminalize” those living in the encampments; rather, police officers will monitor public safety issues, including drug trafficking and any violence. She said the effort will last more than a day and that officials expect to continuously monitor the area so that new tents do not arise.
The tent removal marks the first official step of what Wu has called a long-term effort to address the crises in the area near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard , which has become the epicenter of the region’s opioid epidemic. The area is located close to mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, including several methadone clinics. But two large tent encampments at Newmarket Square and Atkinson Street have become destinations on their own, with open-air drug dealing and drug use taking place.
Last week, Wu toured Long Island, a city-owned island off the coast of Boston which until 2014 had housed a campus that offered hundreds of beds to homeless and those in recovery. Wu said the city is exploring the feasibility of rebuilding a recovery campus there as part of a long-term solution to the homelessness crisis; the closure of the campus in 2014 because of safety concerns with the bridge to the island is largely believed to have exacerbated homeless conditions at Mass. and Cass.
But the immediate goal, Wu said, is to clear out the tents and move people to transitional housing, what she called a public health and housing-first approach to addressing the crises.
Since December, city social workers and health workers have been canvassing Mass. and Cass, identifying people who have been living there consistently, some for years, and working to address their housing needs. The low-threshold housing units will include wraparound services, such as mental health and substance abuse counseling, as well as programming that aims to transition people to more permanent housing.
“The need for these services will continue and will be great, even when the tents in this one area are gone,” said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, head of Boston’s Public Health Commission. “This is the first step in a much longer process in addressing these issues.”
Wu added that the city has been “implementing . . . a new approach, a truly individualized approach, based on meeting each individual where they are. This week marks a transition . . . to community building and recovery.”
The city, partnering with the state, has created transitional housing units at the EnVision Hotel in Mission Hill, at a pop-up cabin community in Jamaica Plain, and at the vacant Roundhouse hotel at Massachusetts Avenue, not far from the encampments.
Also, new low-threshold housing units have been created at the city-run 112 Southampton St. shelter, at the Woods-Mullen shelter for women, and at a shelter run by the Pine Street Inn.