Confronting a return of the homeless gathering and persistent drug use in the troubled Mass. and Cass area of Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu on Thursday urged the state government to help resettle many of the people there by building 1,000 units of specialized housing in other communities in Massachusetts.
“We are calling on the state to step up as a partner,” Wu said at a news conference near the location that was disrupted by several protesters. “We need the state to help create 1,000 new low-threshold [housing] units outside the city of Boston. This is the scale of support that would allow us to truly address this regional crisis.”
Wu said the services the city expends on the problem often are for people who come to Boston from across New England, with new ones arriving as soon as others are moved into programs.
”The reality is that as we’ve been able to serve these hundreds of residents, who have gone through the housing and treatment pipeline with us, hundreds more residents have arrived,” Wu said. “At the city level, with the funding that we have, with the resources that we as a municipality have, we cannot do it alone.”
Wu added that crews have collected more than 200,000 syringes from the streets around Mass. and Cass since January.
“That’s not even counting what community members have been doing in terms of coordinated efforts,” Wu said during a briefing at nearby Clifford Park in Roxbury, where discarded needles have been a chronic problem for youth sports teams that practice there.
Asked about Wu’s request, a spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker noted the administration has requested $20 million from the Legislature to fund so-called threshold housing for the homeless and people with substance use disorder. The spokesman said the state has also funded $40 million in other housing and substance abuse programs, including for a 16-bed recovery site aimed at women coming off Mass. and Cass.
The mayor’s comments came one day after the city relocated scores of people from Southampton Street to Atkinson Street, a block away. Boston police estimate that about 200 people congregate on the streets of Mass. and Cass daily.
“And we’ve seen the number of 311 service requests for needle pickups decrease because of the routine cleanings that are now scheduled for areas just like here in Clifford Park,” Wu said, with protesters holding signs just behind her.
The mayor cut short the briefing in the park when the loud chanting interrupted her speech. City Hall officials said they recognized several people among the demonstrators as antivaccine protesters who have repeatedly showed up at Wu’s events to object to Boston’s COVID-19 policies.
The mayor later continued the news conference at the Boston Public Health Commission office down the road.
Wu also discussed Boston’s efforts to address the homeless encampments in the area. She said the city has connected nearly 400 people with temporary, low-threshold housing this year.
“So far we have managed to prevent the reestablishment of a permanent fortified encampment at Mass. Ave. and Melnea Cass Boulevard,” Wu said.
Sheila Dillon, the city’s chief of housing, said that as of Thursday morning, 72 people who left Mass. and Cass for low-threshold housing options have now moved into longer-term housing.
“As you can imagine, this work has been difficult,” Dillon said. “This is some of the hardest work that I have witnessed.”
She said that of the 188 people staying at the city’s six sites, 150 have a housing plan, and 112 have either an apartment waiting or money for rent. She called Boston a “proven model” for other communities to replicate.
Dillon also said that low-threshold housing, where those seeking shelter do not need to be sober to get support, is an effective way to address homelessness by putting housing first.
“They’re putting their lives back together, they can think, they can breathe, they can eat, they can sleep,” Dillon said. “The results are actually quite good for people that have really been living for years with these issues.”
Wu said the city is hiring more public health case managers, but needs help from the state.
Boston has created nearly 200 low-threshold housing units in the past year, Wu said.
“These units have been critical in ensuring that we could serve so many residents,” she said. “And the outcomes have been truly phenomenal in terms of the uptake on treatment and services that specific individuals who are in these housing units have been able to access.”
Boston is by no means an outlier when it comes to its homeless and addiction problems, said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the city’s Public Health Commission.
“Every city has a Mass. and Cass,” Ojikutu said. ”Here in Boston, we’re confronting these challenges aggressively. We’re changing strategies and trying new approaches. We don’t have one solution to this problem. No one does.”
In the past year, the number of unhoused people in the area dropped from 262 to 173, while the number of tents fell from 90 to 20, she said. The city collects nearly three times as many syringes as it distributes, she added.
”People experiencing substance abuse disorder deserve a chance to get better,” she said.
Wu’s announcement was attended by several neighborhood residents who in interviews spoke about living near an open-air drug market and constantly finding needles in their local park.
Roxbury resident Leon Rivera, 28, said he takes his 8-year-old daughter to the park all the time, but worries for her safety because of the needles scattered across baseball fields and by the playgrounds. He said she has seen people injecting drugs, describing it as “trauma for children.”
In an interview, Rivera said he came to hear updates from the mayor, whose administration is “just not moving fast enough” to clean up Mass. and Cass.
“We really don’t want any more conferences, we don’t want any more meetings,” Rivera said. “We really want an action plan, and that’s about it. That’s what we’re here for.”
Rivera said businesses are being driven out of the area and called upon Wu to come up with a comprehensive plan that includes additional law enforcement presence, as well as a 24/7 response effort, such as a team of 20 to 30 people ready to provide immediate access to detox beds.
“You can’t tell folks that they want to get into recovery and they have to wait a month to find a bed,” he said.
Juan Bravo, a 38-year-old Dorchester resident, said his son, Angel, plays football at Clifford Park every week and was there when a 9-year-old boy fell on a hypodermic needle while running laps.
When Wu arrived, Bravo introduced his son to her as a crowd swarmed around them. She asked if he feels “a little worried” when coming to the park. “Yes, about the needles and stuff,” he replied.
“This is a park for kids,” the fifth-grader told the Globe before Wu arrived. “It’s not for trash. It’s for kids to play.”
Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to the Globe by the mayor’s office, a previous version of this story incorrectly said Michelle Efendi was among the protesters on Thursday.
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