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Baker fires back at Wu over approach to Mass. and Cass crisis

In August, an outreach worker talked with people on Southampton Street in the area known as Mass. and Cass.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

An unusually public spat between Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Michelle Wu over the intractable problems in Boston’s Mass. and Cass area escalated Thursday, underscoring their differing approaches to the crises of homelessness and addiction there, and the urgency of the situation as winter nears.

A week after Wu said the state must “step up as a partner” to improve conditions for the roughly 200 people who congregate in the area daily, an audibly frustrated Baker pushed back, saying: “I thought we had a partnership.”

“I actually thought it must have been a mistake or something,” he said of Wu’s remarks Thursday during an interview on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”

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In an interview after Baker spoke, Wu was diplomatic but firm. She said she is grateful for the state’s efforts, particularly funding for hundreds of specialized housing units, but then added, “It would not have happened if the city had not insisted and pushed for that.”

And with 150 people on an ever-growing waitlist for housing and treatment, she said, “no one is doing enough.”

If the state acts only when cities “are insisting and pushing for it,” the need will continue to outpace supply, she said.

“We’ll be able to serve [only] as many people as Boston can serve. And that won’t be everyone,” Wu said. “We will continue to do our part in Boston, and strive to do more. I’ll also be honest about what we need from our partners elsewhere to truly solve this.”

The suffering at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard has been a major challenge in Wu’s first year in office. It also stymied her predecessors, some of whom also pressed for more help from neighboring municipalities.

Clustered near where Roxbury, the South End, and Dorchester meet, the area has social services for those contending with homelessness and addiction. But it is overwhelmed by those same social ills, a veritable open-air drug market where violence, theft, and prostitution are commonplace.

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Wu, who made the crisis an early priority of her tenure, has lately been pressing for more state and regional cooperation.

In a pointed response this week, the Baker administration listed efforts it has taken already, including providing $40 million to fund so-called low-threshold housing, where sobriety is not a requirement, as well as shelters, outreach programs, and clinical treatment services.

“At this point, more work must be done by the City of Boston,” Marylou Sudders, Baker’s health secretary, wrote Wednesday in a letter to Wu. “The humanitarian crisis that exists in the area is exacerbated by individuals preying upon vulnerable people and we urge you to pursue criminal investigations and community policing efforts, so everyone’s rights are protected.”

Baker, likewise, said on the radio Thursday that “at some point, the city’s got to deal with those drug dealers who just hang down there and prey on people.”

Wu defended the city’s approach, which she said has vastly improved the landscape at Mass. and Cass.

Seventy-two people who had been living on the street there have moved into permanent housing, she said, and temporary, low-threshold units house 188 more people, the vast majority of them with a housing plan. There are no longer permanent structures there, or frequent fires, and the size of the crowd has shrunk, she said.

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City officials meet about Mass. and Cass daily on an 8:45 am call. The area is cleaned some 25 times per week. After months of constant efforts, Wu said, the city knows what works.

“And we also know what doesn’t work, which is criminalizing addiction and poverty,” Wu added. “Drug trafficking laws are enforced on a daily basis there. There has been violent activity that immediately has been addressed.”

Wu specifically called on the state to build 1,000 units of low-threshold housing outside of Boston. Sudders wrote that the state has put $33.6 million into creating 380 such units statewide. But the Wu administration said it is not aware of any specific plans about where those housing units will go. Some communities are resistant to standing up such housing within their borders.

Baker said he directed Sudders to write to Wu to “set the record straight” about the state’s efforts.

The state’s most powerful political figures, Boston’s new progressive mayor and Massachusetts’ outgoing Republican governor hardly see eye to eye. They have major policy differences on transportation, climate, and housing. But even in this reliably blue state, it’s rare for Democrats to criticize the exceedingly popular Baker. He and former Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh famously enjoyed a “bromance.”

But Wu has not hesitated to put public pressure on Baker, urging the MBTA to take more drastic action to address safety concerns, for example, and tangling with the state over a proposed takeover of Boston Public Schools.

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She is keenly aware, too, that in January she’ll be contending with a new administration on Beacon Hill, after Baker completes his second term and leaves public office. In a statement earlier this week, Wu seemed to prod the lame-duck governor, suggesting she expects more progress under his successor.

“We look forward to being the strongest partner now and in the next chapter of state leadership taking this on and scaling up what we have seen works and saves lives,” Wu said.

Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to the next governor as Governor Charlie Baker’s “predecessor.” In fact, that person will be his successor.


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.