Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins settles into a royal-blue armchair, one of eight his office bought in preparation to house those living in tents just outside the jail by Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. The chairs look comfortable, but none of the former Mass. and Cass dwellers are likely to ever sit down in one.
Since Thanksgiving, Tompkins has been ready to take in anyone arrested on Mass. and Cass as part of the City of Boston’s efforts to clear the encampments.
As city and state officials scrambled to find transitional housing, Tompkins outfitted an entire floor of his South Bay campus for what he calls dorm-style living with flat-TV screens, armchairs, a gym, and beds, enough to accommodate 100 people. He has plenty of room; the jail has about 620 inmates, far below its capacity of 1,700.
Since Tompkins made his offer, the Mass. and Cass unit ― controversial from conception ― has sat empty.
“We’re still ready to assist if somehow it didn’t work out and the [city] wanted to revisit working with us,” he said last week during a tour of the immaculate sun-lit space he prepared for those living in the tents. “We’re not forcing the issue, though.”
While the unit does not look and feel like a typical jail, incarceration is incarceration. Tompkins’s proposal to have law enforcement pick up people on outstanding warrants may have gained support from some neighborhood leaders, business owners, and politicians, but he never got the blessing of the mayor, not when Kim Janey held the job nor now with Michelle Wu in charge. Both administrations chose to adopt a public-health and housing-led approach by securing temporary housing, including hotel rooms, accompanied by health care services.
Tompkins, who endorsed Wu for mayor before the September preliminary, said he has not had a lengthy conversation with her about Mass. and Cass since she won the mayoral race in November. Tompkins got to know Wu when both worked on Elizabeth Warren’s inaugural run for US Senate in 2012.
“I stick to my knitting,” explained Tompkins on why he hasn’t pushed the issue with Wu.
What matters the most to Tompkins is that people are no longer living on the streets under inhumane conditions during frigid New England winters.
“If, in fact, the city has found shelter for them, I think that’s a good thing,” he said.
That appears to be the case, and public works crews and public health workers last week were out in force to clear the tents left on Atkinson Street and Newmarket Square. Wu had set last Wednesday as a deadline to find housing and clean up the area, which had become overcome with trash, syringes, and feces. At a press conference on Thursday, she said 154 people from Mass. and Cass are in stable housing. “Not a single person was forcibly removed from the encampments; no arrests were made,” she emphasized.
Janey had begun the process of clearing the tents in November, but a lawsuit by the ACLU slowed the process. The nonprofit, representing homeless individuals, accused the city of evicting people without offering them viable housing options.
When Wu took office on Nov. 16, she paused tent removals that day because she wanted to focus on finding housing for people who have yet to enter a substance abuse recovery program. The city has shelter space, but many people who are homeless want more privacy and fewer restrictions than they would get staying in a group setting.
Tompkins has been outspoken about the opioid crisis and crime unfolding outside his jail’s doorstep. The neighborhood has become a magnet for homeless people and drug users since the city shuttered its Long Island recovery campus in 2014 and concentrated putting services for them around Mass. and Cass.
In 2019, an officer at the Suffolk County House of Correction was struck with a metal pipe during an attempted robbery on Atkinson Street as he headed to work. That incident prompted the former mayor, Marty Walsh, to conduct Operation Clean Sweep, which resulted in more than 30 arrests.
“I understand the ACLU and others who say that people have the right to pitch a tent,” said Tompkins. “But I countered with what about the rights of the taxpayers to be able to traverse those streets? What about the rights of the business owners down here that are losing some patronage because people can’t get to their businesses? What about the residents that live in this catchment area who aren’t able to feel as secure as they once did?”
Working and living in Mass. and Cass area grew untenable when tents proliferated in the summer of 2021. Several hundred people began living there, with as many as 200 tents pitched. By the fall, solving Mass. and Cass became a dominant issue in the mayoral race.
For Tompkins, the ultimate test of Wu’s approach to Mass. and Cass will come during the spring. Will warmer weather usher in a return of the tents? For now, the mayor has successfully cleaned up the area, but the work to address the root causes of the region’s homeless and opioid epidemics is only beginning.
“People will try it,” Tompkins said of springtime tent pitching, “but I think the city will be diligent about making sure that it doesn’t turn into a community again.”
The sheriff’s office planned to absorb the cost of operating the Mass. and Cass unit for the first year, and going forward the annual cost would have been an estimated $400,000. Tompkins said he wished his jail could have taken in tent dwellers because they would have gotten stable shelter and medical services much sooner.
And those eight armchairs purchased at about $200 apiece? They won’t go to waste. The space had housed a program called PEACE ― an acronym for Positive Energy Always Creates Elevation ― for a select group of inmates age 18 to 25. The program teaches life skills to help them reintegrate into society after serving their sentences. PEACE, which was relocated to another part of the South Bay campus, will move back into that space.
As for his idea of setting up a special jail as one way to ease the Mass. and Cass crisis, Tompkins believes he made a difference.
“Controversy always gets the ball rolling,” he said. “In this instance I think controversy was a good thing because it got the city and the state to the table.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.