Using front loaders and trash trucks, city crews cleared out the sprawling tent encampments by the area known as Mass. and Cass on Wednesday, the most aggressive and concerted effort in recent years to dismantle the unsanitary camps, move people off the streets, and place them into transitional housing.
Tent by tent, social workers moved with precision and caution beginning just after sunrise. First, they checked to see if anyone was inside each tent and, if they were, asked them to leave and offered them housing. Once confirmed vacant, the tents were marked with a giant yellow X. Then, public works crews moved in, scooping up by hand tents and plastic tarps and other leftover items, from sneakers to bicycles. Crews used the front loaders and other heavy-duty construction equipment to dismantle larger, wood-framed structures.
The one-day effort marked the most assertive attempt by Mayor Michelle Wu to confront what has been an intractable ailment of Boston: the homeless encampments by Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, what has become the center of the regional opioid abuse epidemic.
A city survey in early December showed that more than 140 people had stayed in more than 70 tents over several consecutive days, though officials acknowledge the encampment included as many as 90 tents at any given time.
Midway through the day, the triangle at Newmarket Square, a food and meatpacking district, was cleared of the tents, and the street cleaners moved in.
On Atkinson Street, home to dozens more tents and where open-air drug use is more pervasive, the effort was more drawn out. There, in the shadows of a city-run homeless shelter and engagement center for people living on the streets, a garbage truck crawled slowly along the encampment, as city workers tossed in tents, poles, tables, and baskets of clothes. People continued to mill about, some using needles. A few people took hits out of glass pipes.
Just after 6 in the evening, the last dump truck, loaded mostly with old wooden pallets, pulled off Atkinson Street, past yellow police tape used to close off the street earlier in the evening.
Four years ago, then-mayor Martin J. Walsh conducted a similar effort to clear out the area, what he called Operation Clean Sweep, amid a spike in violence and drug use. But the tents returned and the encampments grew. This past fall, acting mayor Kim Janey tried again. But in November, not long after she was elected, Wu paused that work, saying she wanted to devise a more public-health- and housing-led approach to move people from the area, so that they do not return.
By Wednesday, Wu said her administration had identified more than 200 new transitional housing units, enough to accommodate those who have been living at Mass. and Cass while they prepare for more permanent housing. Many of the units are considered low-threshold, meaning they cater to people who have yet to enter substance abuse recovery, but offer a safer setting than on the streets, in the cold.
“Our goal from the beginning here was to take a different approach, one that was really grounded in the root causes of homelessness and the crises that people are living with here,” Wu said Wednesday morning in Newmarket Square as the tents were broken down. “We are seeing a different result already.”
Social workers spent the last week alerting people living in the tents that the encampments would be cleared out beginning Wednesday, and by the morning, many of the tents were empty.
Still, others said they weren’t aware the city planned to dismantle the encampments, or were indifferent to the operation. They appeared surprised and frustrated as they were awoken in their tents by social workers with flashlights.
Joseph Brown has lived on the streets for more than a year, but didn’t know of the city’s plan.
“Clearing them out where?” he asked. “Where they going to put them?”
John Ransom has lived on the streets for years and said he stays warm by “keeping it moving.” Sometimes he’ll hang out at a hospital to warm up. Many people who are homeless do not like the rules that often come with staying in a shelter, he said.
“It’s going to be hard,” he said of the tent removal. “For some, this is all they know.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which had unsuccessfully petitioned the courts to stop the city’s previous efforts to clear out the encampments, said Wednesday that it had legal teams monitoring the operation.
Carol Rose, head of the ACLU Massachusetts, raised concerns that several people were unlawfully being forced from their tents without viable alternative housing options. “If true, very vulnerable residents of Boston will likely be more exposed to the elements tonight, which is not consistent with a public health approach,” she said.
The Material Aid and Advocacy Program, which provides aid for unsheltered people in Boston and Cambridge, called the operation a “reckless and potentially deadly intimidation.”
But others who had been living at the encampments were hopeful because of the city aid. Jason Ortiz, who had been living with his girlfriend in the encampment at Newmarket, secured housing at the EnVision hotel, a housing site in Mission Hill.
Paris Flores, 35, a father of three who previously said he refuses to see his children until he can get sober, said he had been offered housing at a new dorm setup adjacent to the 112 Southampton Street shelter. Flores stayed in his tent Tuesday night, after learning someone tried to steal his belongings.
Wednesday morning, however, he was heading up the street to his new unit, pushing a large black suitcase and a wheelchair loaded with his belongings, optimistic with his new chances: The dorm setting allows him to work on his recovery without the fear of being thrown out into the streets if he fails a drug test. But now, he’s at the front of the line for more permanent housing.
“I get to ease into it,” he said. “But I’m closer than I was before.”
Business leaders in Newmarket Square, who had been pressing the city for action, also applauded the effort Wednesday.
Rich Chan, owner of Lun Fat Produce, stood on the loading docks of his business along with several workers, watching construction trucks take down the tents. Chan said vagrants stole a battery from his truck; someone else broke a mirror. Business has dropped 40 percent in recent years, a loss he attributed to the proliferation of the tents.
“All of the businesses have been going down, no one wants to come here,” he said. Now, he said, “We are happy. Hopefully it stays this way.”
Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, agreed that the crisis has been hard for local businesses. She, too, was hopeful Wednesday that those living on the streets have been offered safer, more stable housing.
“I have watched them offer people all sorts of housing,” she said. “It is time we get these tents off the street. It’s too cold. It’s just dangerous. And we just need to get them out of here.”
Yet business owners and other neighbors aren’t relaxing yet. At a Tuesday night briefing for community members about the tent-clearing plans, several asked the same question: What happens if the encampments return with warmer weather?
“This is just the beginning of our work,” promised Monica Bharel, Wu’s public health adviser and her point on Mass. and Cass.
Travis Andersen of the Globe staff and correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this story.
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617. Danny McDonald can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @Danny__McDonald.