Mayor Michelle Wu and other city leaders outlined a new strategy to reduce violence in the Mass. and Cass area Friday, including a new ordinance that would make it easier to clear homeless encampments and plans to open a new safe sleeping space that could accommodate up to 30 people.
During a Friday morning news conference, Wu and other officials tried to strike a delicate balance. The proposed new city law would empower police to clear tents and ramshackle street shelters that are often hotbeds of criminality, including opioid sales and sex trafficking. But officials also tried to frame the city’s actions as empathetic to Boston’s most vulnerable whose only home is the streets, saying that the implementation of the strategy would be constitutional, respectful, and humane.
“Every policy that the city of Boston contemplates always starts with people,” said Wu.
In this case, people’s tents would be removed from streets or sidewalks only after individuals had been offered shelter, transportation to shelter, and given the opportunity to have their belongings stored somewhere, she said.
Still, the mayor acknowledged that the new plan would likely cause serious disruption to the very dynamic of Mass. and Cass, the epicenter of the city’s opioid and homelessness crises, near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
Wu’s announcement came at The Base, a youth sports academy in Roxbury, not far from Mass. and Cass, attended by law enforcement, politicians, organized labor officials, and advocates.
Concerns have grown over violence at Mass. and Cass this summer, and on Friday Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox acknowledged that there have been increases in gun arrests and assaults in the area.
“It’s clearly becoming more of a public safety issue,” he said.
Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden, meanwhile, called Mass. and Cass a “seething cauldron of enormously complex societal issues.”
“It’s a crisis of human brokenness,” he said.
With the exception of street cleaning, currently, authorities are supposed to give 48 hours notice before removing tents.
“This is just not a realistic way for us to be able to address the situations,” said Cox.
Atkinson Street is the heart of the Mass. and Cass problem. Home to a men’s homeless shelter, known as 112 Southampton St., and an engagement center meant to help those who are homeless and addicted, crowds gather on the road there daily to use and sell drugs. Cox said outreach teams will be positioned in other potential hotspot areas to try to prevent encampments from popping up there once tents are cleared off Atkinson.
The goal is for Atkinson, a small side street off of Southampton Street, to be a usable thoroughfare for vehicles again, said Cox.
“I want to be clear: We’re not trying to criminalize homelessness,” said Cox.
Earlier in the week, some South End residents expressed heavy skepticism that the city would be able to prevent the day-to-day Atkinson Street chaos from spreading to other nearby areas. And there are some unanswered questions about the city’s new strategy, including its timeline. Wu’s office plans to file the proposed ordinance early next week. But if and when it’s passed will be up to the City Council, a legislative body that continues to make headlines for its divisiveness.
The administration’s hope is for police to be able to utilize the ordinance before the colder months of winter set in. Regarding the clearing of tents in the Mass. and Cass area, Wu said officials are still finalizing some of “the details of what the operation will be.” Some areas of Mass. and Cass may be temporarily blocked off, she said, and the engagement center, which opened in late 2021 to provide a daytime drop-in space for those struggling with addiction and homelessness, will be closed while Atkinson Street is “stabilized.” The hope is for the center to re-open after tents are cleared.
The 112 Southampton St. homeless shelter will remain open.
On Tuesday, the new 30-bed safe sleeping space proposal faced concerted pushback from frustrated residents during a virtual meeting with the South End Forum, an umbrella organization for neighborhood groups.
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.
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.”
“We are tired of Band-Aids,” said George Stergios, an area resident. “This is another Band-Aid.”
City officials have stressed that the safe sleeping space on Massachusetts Avenue would be temporary, drug use inside the space would not be tolerated, and once the people using the 30 beds leave for other shelter or housing, the beds would not be repopulated with other people.