Danny Davis stepped out of his small white cabin, the rain fluttering against its aluminum walls, and closed the door behind him, steadying himself for the transition ahead.
This was the day he was to meet the furniture delivery men at his new apartment by Downtown Crossing, the first place he would permanently call home in two decades. Just months ago, he had been sleeping on the streets in the area known as Mass. and Cass, on blankets stuffed in the crevice of a restaurant’s outer wall.
On this recent morning, he felt a mix of excitement and anxiety. He has been working toward his recovery from heroin addiction and treating other physical and mental health needs since December, when social workers brought him to the pop-up community of cabins behind the Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain, part of the effort to clear out the encampments by Mass. and Cass.
He keeps telling himself, at 34 years old, to not fall back.
“I’m trying to focus on getting my home taken care of, getting into a routine, getting my life together,” he said.
For Davis, the day was one step on the path to recovery and stability. It is a work in progress, for him and the roughly 175 other people who were removed from the encampments, and for those who still return every day to the vicious lure of the open-air drug market at Mass. and Cass.
But Davis counts his successes, too. In May, a few days after his furniture was delivered, he moved in to the apartment. He has since said he is doing well. He continues to work with counselors.
Since January, some two dozen other people who were living in similar transitional units have moved on to more permanent housing as well, including 11 who stayed at the Shattuck community of small white aluminum structures — dubbed “cabins” — that the state quickly erected in December to house people who had been staying in tents. Another person could sign a lease on June 1.
They are real-time check points in a first-of-its-kind partnership between city and state officials to respond to the region’s homelessness and opioid epidemic with a focus on providing housing first, tied to the supportive care needed for people still in the throes of addiction. Officials call it low-threshold housing, because sobriety is not a requirement and substance use is not a barrier: It’s also a more private, preferable alternative to the congregate shelter setting that has failed, for a variety of reasons, to help some people stabilize themselves.
Now, state health officials say they are expanding the effort that began near the Shattuck, working with social service organizations to create hundreds of supportive, permanent housing units across Massachusetts. The state has already approved 12 contracts, totaling $10.8 million, to fund 298 single-room occupancy units. From Springfield to Lawrence, 215 of these units could be up and running by June.
“This is a specific need that has never been met for this type of population,” said Deirdre Calvert, director of the Bureau of Substance Addiction Services at the state Department of Public Health.
Calvert also emphasized the importance of creating housing across the state, saying that the crisis at Mass. and Cass accounts for only 10 percent of the homeless population in Massachusetts.
“That to me signals greatly that we need to focus on regional and statewide efforts,” she said.
For health officials, the mere fact that people like Davis, who was homeless for two decades, are staying in their residences and seeking care is a sign of progress.
The new units will be located in private apartment buildings and renovated hotels. They are meant to be more permanent than the transitional setting of the pop-up cabins. But they will all be equipped with the type of wraparound care that was deployed in the initial response to Mass. and Cass.
Davis said he wouldn’t have done as well as he has if he hadn’t had the support of the new counselors and doctors he’s met in his time at the pop-up cabins. That, and the security of a roof over his head.
“It beats sleeping on cardboard — this place changed my life,” he said softly.
He had been homeless since he was 15, when his mother died. His father cycles in and out of prison, his older brother is still living on the streets, somewhere. And even though Davis has been seeing new caseworkers, and treating his sleep and mental health disorders, he isn’t clean from heroin. But he remains committed to “doing the right thing, staying on track,” as he put it.
“I never thought I’d get off the streets, I thought I would die,” he said. “I’m going to do it on my own. I’m going to end the cycle.”
A few cabins away, Mike, 40, originally from Malden, reflected on the month he has spent so far in the cabin community, and the supports he’s built. Mike, who asked that his last name not be used for privacy reasons, arrived there after a brief stint at the Barbara McInnis House, a short-term medical respite care center where he was treated for an infection after living on the streets. He still uses drugs. But his outlook on life has changed.
“There’s hope, like a whole weight has been lifted off our shoulders,” he said, as he hung a Red Sox jersey from his cabin ceiling panel. He pointed to the storage space in his cabin, where he keeps his sneakers and hats, deodorants and cologne, prescription medicines, a hazardous waste box for used needles. “It gives you a place to lay your head, know you have somewhere to go,” he said.
Of Mass. and Cass, he said, “If I was stuck down there, I don’t know what I’d do.”
In the area of Mass. and Cass, residents and business owners are pleading for more to be done, faster. Vagrancy and blatant drug dealing have persisted after the tents were removed. The crisis will remain there as long as the neighborhood has a reputation as a drug haven, they say; many of the people who have been relocated to new housing still return, caught up by the temptations of the open-air market.
City officials say they are working to confront the continuing crisis at Mass. and Cass, with an emphasis on addressing crime and quality of life. Mayor Michelle Wu is slated to announce updates of her plan at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
But the officials also emphasized the importance of a public health approach, saying the city cannot arrest its way out of a crisis driven largely by a confluence of mental illness and opioid addiction.
To treat both, supporters of the housing initiative said, one must have the comfort and stability of a home, no different than someone in cancer or diabetes treatment needing housing security.
Dr. Monica Bharel, who is leading Boston’s Mass. and Cass efforts, said the style of low-threshold, transitional housing can help provide a sense of dignity and respect for a person still on the path to recovery, without having the fear that a relapse can lead to an eviction.
“This hope, dignity ... they see for the first time that they could get their life on track,” she said.
Representatives of organizations that have contracted with the state to operate the new permanent units endorsed the focus on providing people with housing and the care needed for their stability.
“This is really the solution to homelessness,” said Hwei-Ling Greeney, executive director of the Amherst Community Connections, which will manage 10 units scattered across apartment buildings in that Western Massachusetts town.
John Yazwinski, executive director of Father Bills & Main Spring, a homeless service provider with offices in Quincy and Brockton, said the effort marks the first time the Department of Public Health has led an initiative to not only provide private housing, but also the treatment needed to support someone working toward recovery. His organization will operate 20 units in communities south of Boston, including several at a hotel in Brockton that his organization acquired and renovated.
“When you’re targeting people who have struggled for a long time on our streets, in and out of different facilities, who are homeless and have barriers, you really need those services,” he said.
On any given day at the Shattuck cabins, residents mill about on their own, knowing they can lock their belongings away in their cabins. A nurse is there at all times, monitoring who is out and about — checking in on those in their cabins who are possibly high on drugs. A security guard is posted at the gate, and social workers and counselors remain well into the night.
“It’s just so important for our residents to have a place to put their head down at night, and to feel safe,” said Lauren Easton, of Commonwealth Care Alliance, which is running the cabin community for the state.
During a recent tour, she pointed out the interactions between staff and residents. Someone — she doesn’t know who — planted a flower plot by one of the cabins. Residents hung their drawings of flowers in the community room, where they have access to fresh foods and drinks. A few gathered over pizza slices on a recent day.
By the courtyard, Stephen Vella and Jennifer DePrimeo paused for a moment to reflect over a quick snack. It’s the first time they have stayed together — in one of the cabins built for couples — since they left the tent encampments in December, separated by the restraints of shelters built only for men and women.
DePrimeo, 31, recalled the day around November when social workers tapped on her tent on Atkinson Street as a rainstorm raged, asking her what her name was, telling her that she would be moved to new housing, that the encampments would be coming down soon.
DePrimeo said she has lived on the streets for roughly a decade, most of that time at Mass. and Cass.
She tried to get clean a few times, but found the transition difficult. Especially without support services. Life has been hard, she said, particularly since her father died after a life on the same streets she is trying to escape.
“People have to understand, it really is a disease,” said Vella, 42, who knew DePrimeo’s father. “It’s what keeps people out there.”
For now, life is here, at the pop-up cabins, where they have been receiving counseling and medically assisted recovery services. They are eligible for new housing now, too, and have recently viewed apartments across Greater Boston.
They have no intention of returning to Mass. and Cass, Vella added.
“They had to do something — the stabbings, the overdoses, robberies, all of it was going on. It was inhumane,” he said. “If I had my choice, I’d never go down there again.”