A day after crews dismantled the sprawling homeless encampments at Mass. and Cass, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said more than 150 people who had been living on the streets in the bitter cold had been moved into transitional housing, while cautioning that addressing the root causes of the crisis would be a long-term effort.
“We saw extremely unsanitary conditions worsening health challenges,” Wu said. “The encampments presented a very specific and particular set of dangers for residents and to our city — it was extremely unsafe to live in tents,” she said.
The mayor also confirmed that two bodies were found inside tents in recent weeks, though foul play is not suspected.
Yet the troubled area at the edge of the South End remained a magnet for vagrancy and drug use, as dozens of people, many of them appearing high, milled outside a homeless shelter on Southampton Street throughout the day. As Wu emphasized, “I want to be clear that we did not solve homelessness yesterday.”
The scene on the side streets that had the most recent encampments showed the success of the cleanup effort. What was once a squalid area and a haven for drug use and other illicit activity was empty of tents, tarps and other makeshift living quarters. City workers were picking up piles of trash and sweeping streets, while nearby businesses and public health officials celebrated what for the moment feels like long-awaited progress.
But the continued concentration of people engaging in open-air drug dealing and drug use underscored the concerns of area residents and business owners, who say the situation will quickly deteriorate unless officials address the illicit activity that lures many people to the area.
“The underlying issue we are now confronted with is that Mass. and Cass is an open-air drug market, and nobody is going to leave until this issue is addressed,” said Steve Fox, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than three decades and chairs the South End Forum, an umbrella group for several neighborhood associations.
Neighbors have called for redirecting people to substance abuse services in other parts of the city, saying the concentration here draws drug dealers who prey on those seeking help.
The desperate scene on Southampton Street Thursday unfolded by a homeless shelter the city originally envisioned as a short-term haven for the hundreds stranded in 2014 by the sudden closure of the recovery and homeless shelter campus on the city-owned Long Island.
A separate shelter where people can seek recovery and other social services is nearby. New dorm-style units have been set up at the Southampton shelter as part of Wu’s plan, and several methadone clinics, as well as Boston Medical Center’s substance abuse services, are also close at hand.
Community leaders say the city’s use of the nearby Roundhouse hotel on Massachusetts Avenue as a new transitional housing site for those who had been living in the encampments but are not yet in recovery will only exacerbate the crisis: of the roughly 150 people who were recently offered shelter, 31 went to the Roundhouse.
“All they did was disperse the problem,” said Gerry DiPierro, owner of a nearby construction business who opposes the Roundhouse plan and posted a sign on his building declaring that it “is not the answer.” He sees drug use behind his building, by the nearby gas station, and throughout the neighborhood.
“You’ve got too many drug dealers here, they all know each other . . . you’ve got to get them out of here,” he said. “They’re not going anywhere, they’ve been the same faces over the last 15 years.”
City officials openly acknowledge the challenges as they develop a longer term strategy to address the regional substance abuse and homelessness crises near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. A city survey in early December showed 140 people had been living there, most of whom face substance addiction, mental illness, or both.
Wu said Thursday that city officials are exploring restoring access to the recovery campus on Long Island, and researching what services could be provided there. She also called for a regional approach to solving what she describes as a regional crisis. And while police will patrol the area, Wu said the operation to clean it up remains focused on public health and housing solutions.
Alarm over the conditions intensified over the last week amid a drop in temperatures, leading several people to suffer from frostbite and hypothermia. Police said two bodies were found at the encampments over the past five days, with one prompting the involvement of homicide investigators. Officials said that they do not see signs of foul play, but that the discovery of a body in a tent Monday remains under investigation.
Wu said she recognized that attempts by her predecessors to clear out the tents have failed before; the encampments always returned. But Wednesday’s operation focused on reaching out to the people living on the streets, identifying their needs, and moving them to safer, albeit temporary, housing.
“Not a single person was forcibly removed from the encampments, no arrests were made,” Wu said. “I want to just emphasize how different what happened yesterday has been from what we’ve seen in other cities or in the past. This was truly grounded in public health and housing.”
Sheila Dillon, the city’s chief of housing, said Boston has more than 150 so-called low-threshold units available for immediate housing, though she said the goal is to move people quickly on into more permanent units. People who were set up in recent weeks at the pop-up cabins at the Shattuck Hospital campus in Jamaica Plan have already moved on to more stable housing, freeing up more space for those on the streets.
Wu said she recognized that people who need help remain in the area; officials already stopped some from setting up new tents overnight after they were cleared out Wednesday. But the immediate goal is for outreach workers to continue offering extensive support, place them in housing, and provide help for addiction or mental health issues.
“Yesterday was a turning point for the city of Boston, towards stabilization, towards recovery,” Wu said, adding, “this is not a one-stop dead end here . . . the push and fight to address homelessness and substance abuse and mental health continues, with even more urgency now.”