Mayor Michelle Wu announced an expanded effort Tuesday to address the humanitarian crisis in the area known as Mass. and Cass with an 11-point focus on housing, health care, and public safety programs, amid concerns that crime and vagrancy have persisted and will grow worse as summer approaches and more people tend to stay on the streets.
Called the “Warm Weather Program,” the plan involves directing more health care workers and police officers to the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, guiding people to support services and housing options, and arresting those engaging in drug dealing, prostitution, and violent crime. Tent encampments will be taken down the moment they go up. City public works crews will increasingly clean streets and sidewalks, and paint new crosswalks.
And the city will work with health care organizations to create daytime engagement centers in different neighborhoods, connecting people to social support services such as mental health care and addiction treatment, and offering needle exchange and other programs that mitigate the harm caused by drug use and shared needles. The new locations, still to be determined, are meant to distribute services citywide. These services are currently concentrated in the Mass. and Cass area.
Officials say the strategy will cleanse the environment that has become of Mass. and Cass, an open-air drug market and a haven for related crimes and vagrancy — a place where, until January, sprawling tent encampments were based — and connect people to housing and services that will help them on their road to recovery.
“The goal here is really to meet people where they are, and understand the root causes of the challenges we’re seeing,” Wu said Tuesday. “We want to make sure we are providing first and foremost the services that everyone in our city needs, and taking down the barriers to access those services.”
Officials also said they will revamp operations at the daytime engagement center on Atkinson Street. Run by the Boston Public Health Commission, officials recently closed it after a series of stabbings in the area. Residents and business leaders nearby have long complained that the center, which was intended as a place for people to congregate, especially during cold weather, contributed to crowding and crime. It is located next to the city-run men’s homeless shelter, 112 Southampton.
Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, head of the health commission, said the engagement center will open again, but with a limited scope to provide medical services, harm reduction services, and clinical care. It will not reopen as a dayspace, she said.
Instead, new engagement centers run in partnership with community agencies will replicate those services in different neighborhoods, she said. She said city officials are currently soliciting proposals to run the facilities.
“Every corner of the city has been impacted by substance use,” Ojikutu said. “Our services must meet people where they are at and remove barriers to access to care.”
Ojikutu said her department has been running a pilot transportation program to shuttle people from Mass. and Cass to privately run day centers in other parts of the city. She said that program will continue.
And, Ojikutu said, the city will expand a community engagement team that has been operating in Nubian Square to at least three new neighborhoods. The engagement teams, comprised of faith leaders and community leaders, reach out to people on the streets and addicted to drugs and direct them to care, while identifying other needs of the community.
Business owners and residents remain frustrated that crime and vagrancy have persisted around Mass. and Cass. In January, Wu cleared out several homeless encampments and moved more than 175 people into transitional housing. But many people return, lured by the open-air drug market that has taken root over the last decade.
During a community meeting last week, police reported a 26 percent jump in violent crime through May this year compared to the same time in 2021, and a 77 percent spike in arrests. Of concern, police said during the meeting, is the perception the area is a safe haven for drug use and drug dealing.
The immediate goal in January was to move people from the unsanitary, unsafe tents and into housing, city officials reiterated, noting they recognized the long-term need to address the root issues of mental health and substance abuse that has caused people to want to live on the streets.
“We knew then, as we do now, that the work wasn’t over, but rather just beginning,” Wu said. She said the city continues to look at long-term plans to address the crisis, such as rebuilding a recovery campus on Long Island, off Boston’s shores. But Tuesday’s announcement was meant to put an immediate plan in place, as warmer weather arrives.
The plan was developed in consultation with multiple city staff, community members, public health, and public safety experts, said Dr. Monica Bharel, who Wu tapped to lead the response to the crisis. Bharel was hired on a temporary, six-month basis, and she is set to leave the post on Friday. City officials said they are interviewing potential candidates to serve as a liaison across city agencies to implement the plan.
Sue Sullivan, head of the Newmarket Business Association, which has been working to address and raise awareness of the crisis in the area, welcomed Wu’s plan on Tuesday, particularly the focus on decentralizing services from the area, which community groups have been pushing for years.
“I’m very hopeful that the community’s push for decentralizing services has resonated with the mayor and that she believes, as we do, that it’s key to changing the dynamics of the Newmarket area,” she said.
Dr. Miriam Komaromy, medical director for the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center, which has been operating programs in the Mass. and Cass area, agreed with the need to locate services to all parts of the city. “Addiction is everywhere in our society and people need help and support wherever they are,” she said.
But she also praised Wu’s focus on a public health and housing-led approach, “with a clear-eyed vision of the need to expand permanent supportive housing.” She called Tuesday’s announcement a “Phase II” of Wu’s plan.
“How do we engage people . . . and help them become meaningfully engaged with activities, opportunities, to have basic employment?” she said. “This is headed in the right direction.”
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617. Sahar Fatima can be reached at email@example.com Follow her on Twitter @sahar_fatima.