The violent melee began shortly before noon on a mid-July day in the chronically troubled area known as Mass. and Cass.
One man pistol-whipped another on Atkinson Street, triggering a brawl that sent three people to the hospital with stab wounds, including one with injuries that were at one point considered life threatening. At the scene, officers confiscated a knife, a machete, and two loaded firearms.
Within a week, there were two more incidents involving people at the encampment. A person was stabbed near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, and someone beat another person with a baseball bat. In the weeks since, police say, someone was assaulted in a robbery, another person beaten with a “fist and a broomstick,” and another person pepper sprayed in a McDonald’s drive-through area.
The series of extraordinarily violent events over such a short period, city and community officials say, prompted Mayor Michelle Wu to unexpectedly sound what she called Wednesday “a new level of public safety alarm.” Officials are trying to strategize new plans to control a criminal element that has overwhelmed a homeless encampment in the neighborhood, and forced outreach organizations to pull their teams from the street out of fear for their safety.
“We have to increase the safety measures,” said Tania Del Rio, whom Wu appointed to coordinate the city’s response to the homeless encampments and the open air drug dealing and use that have long plagued them. Del Rio noted that the city’s cleaning crews and police have found more weapons in recent weeks.
The Mass. and Cass problem was one of the first issues Wu sought to tackle when she took office in November 2021. Now, the mayor’s declaration that the city must find a new strategy — “We have to get going on a different approach,” she said on the online “Java with Jimmy” show Wednesday — reflects a marked shift from the public health-centered approach she first implemented.
In May, Wu resumed enforcement of the city’s anti-encampment laws, forbidding people from setting up tents on the sidewalks. The city cleared everyone out, but now about 40 to 50 tents are back on Atkinson and Southampton streets, though their occupants regularly have to move them for the city to clean. The city estimates that typically more than 200 people congregate in Mass. and Cass each day.
In an interview Thursday, Del Rio said the city will continue to offer services, including transitional housing to people who have been living without a home and on the streets, as well as those who are battling substance addiction.
But she also insisted Boston must confront criminals who are making the area so unsafe. Wu’s administration has declined to elaborate on its new plan, and Del Rio on Thursday said, “We’re not ready to discuss what that is yet.”
But, she added, the city will target those who engage in “dangerous behavior,” calling the current situation “untenable.”
Del Rio said many of those who are “engaging in things like drug trafficking and violence” have places to live, but descend upon the area to commit crimes.
Del Rio said the violence has escalated over the past three to four weeks, starting with the July 15 triple stabbing. After that, she said, nonprofit service groups including Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program and Eliot Community Human Service pulled outreach workers from the area.
“Then it felt tenuous without them,” Del Rio said.
A spokesperson for Healthcare for the Homeless declined to comment, and representatives from Eliot didn’t respond to a request for an interview.
Sue Sullivan, head of the Newmarket Business Improvement District, which employs some of the people who live on the streets and helps keep the area clean, said the environment seems to be fraught with more violence, describing a vicious cycle in which people have “shorter fuses, a lot more escalation.” Just Tuesday, two people were arrested for allegedly dealing drugs and possessing firearms illegally.
This week, multiple people on Southampton Street said that the area had become more dangerous, and that they didn’t want to be there; many remain for nearby social service organizations. Several fretted about more weapons on the streets. One man who didn’t want to give his name said, “The last time I said two words I got jumped by 10 people.”
Del Rio said that the public health approach was still effective in many ways, and that officials have placed hundreds of people in either permanent or temporary supportive housing over the last two years. Those efforts, she said, have helped officials “mitigate the size and the scale of the problem” and reduce the number of tents that line the area, and the city says many of those people placed into housing are not the ones on the street now.
But some public officials have increased pressure on Wu to take more aggressive action to address crime in the neighborhood, calling for police “sweeps” that have proven controversial before. City Council President Ed Flynn said Wednesday that he wants a public safety and public health emergency declaration for the area.
And on Thursday, Senator Nick Collins, a South Boston Democrat who represents the area, said the city and state need to find a new strategy.
“We just need the will to change course from a strictly harm reduction and containment policy that is clearly failing,” Collins said in a statement. “This is a public health and safety emergency, so it requires a public health and safety response.”
Representative John Moran, a South End Democrat, on Thursday sent a letter to Police Commissioner Michael Cox and State Police Colonel John Mawn calling for a “warrant sweep” targeting people accused of violence, sexual assault, or drug dealing, as well as better enforcement of anti-encampment protocols.
“The current situation at Mass. and Cass is dire and in need of immediate action,” Moran said.
Civil liberties groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts have objected in the past to police sweeps and tent removals, saying the city should instead be doing more to offer services. ACLU representatives could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Four years ago, then-mayor Martin J. Walsh came under criticism for what critics saw as a particularly heavy-handed sweep to remove people from the area. And in May, Wu drew criticism from some on the left for restarting anti-encampment enforcement. Civil liberties groups and some public health professionals argue that arrests and forced treatment for addiction doesn’t work and only exacerbates addiction issues.
Meanwhile, people who live and work in the area remain frustrated. Domingos DaRosa, a critic of Wu who lives nearby, said the mayor has “only dug us into a bigger hole” with her public health-centered policies.
“We were told it’s working,” he said. “It’s obviously not working.”