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A year on, Mass. and Cass continues to test the mettle of Mayor Michelle Wu

The area continues to test the mettle of Mayor Michelle Wu, who swept into office a year ago Wednesday with lofty rhetoric and progressive ideals.

Boston Public Works used front-end loaders to clear tents and debris at Newmarket Square in Boston on Jan. 12. The Wu administration's order to remove the tent encampments was one of the most dramatic steps taken in efforts to effect change at Mass. and Cass.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Mass. and Cass.

Locally, the name is synonymous with rock bottom: Boston’s open-air drug market, where addiction, homelessness, and mental health problems converge.

It’s also a political quagmire of intersecting public health crises with no easy answers.

Just ask Mayor Michelle Wu. Within a month of taking office last November, she jumped on the issue, announcing that the city would clear the area’s entrenched encampments. But a year into her mayoral term, the stubborn thicket of problems there persists, despite ongoing efforts by Wu and her administration to tackle the humanitarian crisis that unfolds daily near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.


Mayor Wu surveyed scene at Newmarket Square on Jan. 12.Craig Walker/Globe Staff

Over the years, Mass. and Cass has proven to be an impossible test for Boston pols. Whatever programs are implemented, criticism follows: Policy moves are either viewed as heavy-handed and regressive or pie-in-the-sky and ineffective. Wu’s experience has been no different. She faces ongoing criticism from law-and-order hard-liners and progressive advocates alike for her initiatives to help the region’s most vulnerable get back on their feet. The area continues to test the mettle of Wu, who swept into office a year ago Wednesday with lofty rhetoric and progressive ideals.

Wu defends her administration’s record on Mass. and Cass.

“We have served a lot of people,” she said during a City Hall interview.

Wu has taken action on numerous fronts. Last December, the city opened an Atkinson Street engagement center that offers services to the chronically homeless and those struggling with addiction. During the city’s clearing of tents in January, officials connected those who were scratching out an existence on the streets with housing and treatment services.

There are currently six sites throughout the city that offer what’s known as low threshold emergency housing — transitional housing that does not require occupants to be sober, in a bid to offer a first step toward more long-term recovery. (More than 430 people have utilized the city’s low threshold options during the past year, Wu said.) Among those sites is the Roundhouse, a former hotel that has drawn controversy in part because it is located in the thick of Mass. and Cass, and the area’s temptations.


In response to criticism, Wu stressed that the city works every day to help people get off the streets.

But despite those moves and continued street outreach in the area, stark realities remain. It continues to be the epicenter of the city and region’s opioid crisis. On any given day, scores of people can be seen buying, selling, and using hard drugs there, fueling criticism that the mayor is not doing enough.

Members of Boston’s homeless community congregated on Atkinson Street, where they were moved off of Massachusetts Avenue, on Oct. 20.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Some think the city’s tolerance of the open-air illicit drug market is wrong, that it should step up enforcement of existing laws and arrest the dealers who ply their trade on the streets for all to see every day. Others cite studies showing this is not a problem that Boston can arrest its way out of, that more support services are needed and the city should go further and open up supervised consumption sites and effectively decriminalize hard drugs.

On the campaign trail last year, Wu pitched a “hub-and-spoke” model to address the problems here, a proposal that would locate recovery services and supportive housing throughout Boston so it is not just concentrated near Boston Medical Center and Mass. and Cass. But some complain that the city has failed to really decentralize services for the homeless and those struggling with addiction that are clustered in the area; the “hub and spoke” model has yet to materialize, they argue.


Wu counters that fewer people congregate each day in the area than a year ago, and the sprawling encampments that encompassed multiple side streets and stretched into Newmarket Square last fall are gone. Tents still pop up at Mass. and Cass, but they are often taken down relatively quickly, according to various street cleaning schedules.

Wu maintains that Mass. and Cass really is a statewide problem, that many people who show up there are from other communities in Massachusetts. She recently clashed with Governor Charlie Baker over the government response to the area’s problems.

Asked if she expects a better partner in incoming-governor Maura Healey, Wu did not answer directly. But she said the state can and should be a partner to help solve the problem. More than 150 people are on a waitlist for access to low threshold housing; the state could help with that backlog, she said.

“No one needs to be on the street or in one of our parks across the city,” she said.

There have been hiccups. Earlier this year, the Atkinson Street engagement center was forced to close after a spate of stabbings; city officials shut the street itself down to the gathering of crowds. The center has since reopened.

More recently, the Mass. and Cass crowd was herded off Southampton Street back onto Atkinson Street, where it remains.


Last month, a new engagement center for the homeless opened across from Boston police headquarters in Roxbury.

For its part, Wu’s administration has a list of successes it points to: nearly 80 formerly homeless people who were living on the streets of Mass. and Cass last year have found stable housing and have left the low threshold sites. There are currently 188 people staying at six low threshold emergency housing sites in the city; of those, 60 percent have either identified an apartment or obtained a way to pay rent. In addition to the dozens who have found stable housing, 145 people who had been sleeping outside in the Mass. and Cass area have moved into permanent supportive housing of their own.

Metal detectors and security are present at the new engagement center for Mass. and Cass at the Whittier Health Center in Boston.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“We have seen how much need there is out there,” Wu said.

Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, which represents a collection of businesses that have borne the brunt of the problems in the area, acknowledged that Wu inherited the problems of Mass. and Cass and gave the mayor kudos for making the hard decision this past January to clear the entrenched encampments. The last year has seen progress in the area, Sullivan conceded, even if problems of addiction persist.

“She’s given it a lot of attention,” said Sullivan. “But in the end this isn’t going to go away until the very hard decision gets made of stopping the open-air drug trade down there.”


Domingos DaRosa, a local community advocate who also favors a law-and-order approach to Mass. and Cass, offers a harsher assessment of Wu’s track record, giving her administration “an F-minus.”

A key reason: People are still arriving at Mass. and Cass “not so much to use the services but to take advantage of the open-air drug market.”

The use of the Roundhouse hotel, which offers a slew of services, including connecting people to methadone clinics and giving the homeless a place to stay while they wait for more permanent accommodations, also continues to be a flashpoint for many neighbors.

The Roundhouse hotel was reflected in the windows of the Hampton Inn on Massachusetts Avenue after it was vandalized in February, leaving windows broken and trash strewn. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Steve Fox, chairman of the South End Forum, an umbrella organization for neighborhood groups, said the fact that the Roundhouse operation continues is proof that “We’re not seeing any evidence of decentralization.”

Three of the city’s six low-threshold emergency housing sites are in the Mass. and Cass area, including the Roundhouse.

The city also has failed to move the drug supply away from Mass. and Cass, he said. “It’s still the go-to location.”

Other experts say this not a problem that will be solved by punitive measures. “It’s collective punishment,” said Jim Stewart, a founding and steering committee member of SIFMA Now!, a group that advocates for sites for safe consumption of drugs in the state. “This is not a problem that is going to be solved by arrests and engagement with the criminal justice system.”

Safe drug consumption sites and decriminalization of hard drugs have “proven to be the way to go” throughout the world, he said.

The fact that the city has offered housing options that don’t pack people in “like a classic shelter” is a positive development, but he was quick to add: “there’s not enough of it.”

Leo Beletsky, professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, said he thought the use of the Roundhouse represented a positive development, an initiative that should serve as a model for further programming.

“Why aren’t we doing more of that?” he asked.

At Mass. and Cass one recent afternoon, those who call the streets home had a litany of suggestions for the city. People were wrapped up in winter coats to guard against the cold. But the chill didn’t stop dozens from injecting drugs on Atkinson Street. Some favored supervised consumption sites. But among 10 people interviewed, many simply called for more: more mental health and addiction services to help those in need and more housing.

“Housing and God,” said one man who identified himself only as Angel when asked what was needed to help fix Mass. and Cass.

Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him @Danny__McDonald.