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At Mass. and Cass, a plan for a new sleeping space for homeless people is met with uproar

An encampment of tents and shelters lined Atkinson Street last week in the area known as Mass. and Cass.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

A new plan by the Wu administration to remove homeless people from the streets in the Mass. and Cass area by opening a “safe sleeping space” nearby is being met with stiff opposition from South End residents who fear such a move would push the chaos of the open air illicit drug market into their neighborhood.

The shelter initiative is part of a new strategy by city officials to respond to the myriad public health and quality-of-life problems in the area around Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, the city’s top public health official said during a virtual meeting Tuesday with the South End Forum, an umbrella organization for neighborhood groups.


Some of the measures announced in the meeting include closing down Atkinson Street, where scores of people gather daily to use and sell drugs, as well as filing an ordinance to make it easier for police to remove tents from sidewalks and streets. Encampments continue to pop up around Mass. and Cass, with ramshackle shelters offering a reprieve from the elements for homeless people while providing a space concealed from law enforcement for opioid and sex trades.

It was unclear what would be involved in closing down the street; a spokesperson for Mayor Michelle Wu declined to answer questions Thursday. On Friday, Wu plans hosted a news conference to highlight the city’s new approach to Mass. and Cass.

Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said during the virtual meeting that the safe sleeping space on Mass. Ave. is intended to be a temporary solution while authorities “bring some order” to Atkinson Street, which has been wracked by violence recently.

“This is not a long-term plan at all,” she told the neighborhood group.

Should homeless people have their tents taken away, officials say, they want to give those encamped on Atkinson Street a safe place to sleep at night. According to Ojikutu, the most viable option for a sleeping space for about 30 people who fall into that category is an indoor space on Massachusetts Avenue near a Boston Medical Center building that spans the street, between Albany Street and Harrison Avenue. It’s just on the other side of the Mass. and Cass intersection from Atkinson and further into the South End.


Clinical services would be provided at the space, which would be available for men, women, couples, and people who can’t tolerate or function in a congregate setting such as the men’s homeless shelter at 112 Southampton St., which has its main entrance on Atkinson Street.

“Most of these are chronically unhoused individuals who have nowhere to go,” Ojikutu said.

At the South End Zoom meeting, the reaction was swift, harsh, and overwhelmingly negative. Residents were frustrated at what they perceived to be another burden placed upon their neighborhood, which is already a hub of social services — including homeless shelters — for unhoused people and those struggling with addiction.

Multiple people wondered aloud: Why couldn’t the city find another spot to host the 30 individuals?

“This is ridiculous,” said state Representative John Moran, his voice rising. “I’ve had it. We’re not putting a fourth shelter in the South End.”

David Stone added: “This is going to be a disaster for the South End neighborhood.”

“We are tired of Band-Aids,” said George Stergios, another resident. “This is another Band-Aid.”


A letter from the South End Forum opposing Wu’s plan sent to city councilors bluntly stated, “Transforming Mass & Cass into ‘Mass & Albany’ is not the answer.”

“With Atkinson Street closed, two hundred or more people will be in search of where to go next, a reality for which the City has no plan or answer at all,” the South End Forum letter read. “Inevitably, the drug scene will reconstitute itself, except now centered on Mass. Ave and Albany, drawn by proximity and the relocated services.”

Ojikutu said using drugs would not be tolerated inside the proposed space, there would be a security presence 24/7 at the location, the space would have a metal detector, and those who were staying there would have to register with officials. Additionally, people would not be allowed to congregate outside the entrance.

“Security is of the utmost concern,” she said.

Still, some unanswered questions loom, including the timeline of the Atkinson Street closure. City officials at this week’s meeting were adamant that police would not do sweeps of the area as they have done in the past. A 2019 police crackdown of the area, for instance, was met with criticism from civil liberties advocates.

The city’s new plan comes amid concerns about spikes in violence at Mass. and Cass. Earlier this month, Wu said the area had reached a “new level of public safety alarm,” following of a surge in violence over the summer.


And this week, Ojikutu acknowledged the problems brought on by the violence, saying that clinical services are not currently being offered at the Atkinson Street engagement center, which has been closed in the past because of brutal street violence. That center opened in late 2021 to provide a daytime drop-in space for those struggling with addiction and homelessness, offering food, shelter, clothing, treatment resources, and access to medical care.

After numerous attempted resets regarding how social services are rendered on the street, Ojikutu said, the city has to try something else to change the realities of Atkinson.

“Things are incredibly dangerous on that street,” said Ojikutu.

In July and August, there have been about seven assaults per week in the Mass. and Cass area, more than double the norm, city officials said at the South End meeting. Recently, a triple stabbing prompted street outreach workers to pull out from the area temporarily, and many agencies are calling for a sharper focus on safety. Public safety calls for service for the area have increased 10 percent year-over-year.

Data from the Wu administration show that the majority of people who congregate on Atkinson Street on any given day do not actually live in encampments that dot the area. Authorities say reductions in unsheltered homelessness have not resulted in reductions in crowds that define the day-to-day of Mass. and Cass.

The complexities of Mass. and Cass continue to bedevil policy makers and grab headlines. On Wednesday, city officials and health care providers toured the shuttered and derelict addiction recovery campus on Long Island, hailing the site’s potential to help solve the city’s opioid and homelessness crises. But the opening of such a campus, which residents hope will alleviate the problems at Mass. and Cass, is still years away.


Last week, the South End Forum, along with local businesses, proposed a multimillion-dollar, multistage recovery campus in Widett Circle, a secluded industrial area located about a half-mile from Mass. and Cass.

Earlier this summer, the state announced plans to put more than 400 units of supportive housing at Shattuck Hospital in Boston’s Franklin Park in an effort to combat the region’s homelessness and opioid epidemics. That plan has also been met with pushback by critics who say they don’t want the park, which is Boston’s largest open space, to turn into “another Mass. and Cass.”

Danny McDonald can be reached at Follow him @Danny__McDonald.