Each day that lawlessness is allowed to continue near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, the open-air drug market and homeless encampment known as Mass. and Cass in Boston’s South End, is a day that the city’s inaction puts more lives at risk. On Aug. 19, Kimberly Webb became one of the latest victims after being stabbed, allegedly by Michael Bellanti, a 33-year-old homeless man, on Atkinson Street. Just after midnight Webb returned to her tent, where a friend found her and called EMS. She died nine days later at Boston Medical Center due to a perforation in her heart.
Stories like this one are the reality of the city’s current policy at Mass. and Cass. Since Mayor Michelle Wu declared the last tent clearing in January 2022, the city has generally allowed hundreds of people to return to the area and camp out while rarely enforcing drug laws. The resulting squalor feels lawless and inhumane. People wander aimlessly. Many openly use drugs, and most appear to be ill.
On one recent visit, as I chatted with city outreach workers, a man came up and asked for a clean needle. Next to us, someone bumped into one of the tents as they moved their belongings for one of the thrice-weekly cleanings of the area. From inside the tent came a spate of expletives and yells. A Boston Public Health Commission worker shared that “it feels more dangerous lately. . . . There’s more unfamiliar faces.”
Mass. and Cass is a humanitarian tragedy with multiple causes. It’s partly the confluence of a mental health crisis, addiction, a local housing shortage, and the spread of fentanyl. On top of these factors, Boston officials like to blame the closure of Long Island Bridge in 2014 for Mass. and Cass, but similar tent cities have emerged in recent years all over the country in places like Houston, Dallas, Portland, and Sacramento with no bridge closure to blame. The underlying reasons are complex, but when the encampments endure, it’s because cities let them, under the influence of progressive ideological orthodoxies about drugs and crime that took root in part as a reaction to war-on-drugs excesses.
Such “harm reduction” strategies are rooted in good intentions. Proponents generally contend that arresting people or forcing them into treatment will backfire. They cite research that says overdoses and overdose deaths follow police sweeps of encampments. But can the harms that would supposedly come from a heavier police hand really be worse than the nightmare Mass. and Cass has become, especially for the people living there? So far in 2023, street outreach has reversed about 220 overdoses. With over 30,000 EMS incidents since January 2022, medical emergencies are routine, with a weekly average of 345. Crime is commonplace, too. There have been over 14,000 Boston police incident reports since January 2022 and 691 this August alone.
We need to be honest about the shortcomings of the progressive approach — for surrounding neighborhoods, but also for vulnerable addicted people themselves.
At Mass. and Cass, the decision not to crack down on tents has given criminals free rein to prey on the encampment’s inhabitants. “The police are hamstrung from doing anything,” says former Boston Police Department Commissioner Ed Davis. Since police cannot enter the structures due to city orders and a regulation stating they must give 48 hours notice, these shield human trafficking, drug dealing, and violence.
“There are stabbings, I won’t say every day, but every so often,” says Tania Del Rio, Mayor Wu’s director of the Coordinated Response Team. With a triple stabbing in July, danger has escalated to new levels and city partners had to pull outreach workers from the area.
The uptick in serious violence has occurred despite the overwhelming presence of law enforcement. On a recent visit, I was never out of the eyeshot of one of the security officers who are funded by members of the Newmarket Business Improvement District or Boston cops who are present 24/7. The Boston Police Department also has patrols in the surrounding areas, officers in plain clothes, and two specialized drug and human trafficking units.
But due to city policy, there’s often little that law enforcement can do. According to BPD statistics, July and August were the busiest two months in the area this year for overall “part 1″ crime — violent crime and property crime — with July’s 99 incidents almost double the previous July’s 53. Other tragedies are hidden. When the encampment was temporarily cleared in January of last year, two bodies were found inside the tents.
Another issue that police and service providers face is the aversion to prosecuting drug-related crimes that has become popular in progressive states. “I can’t tell you how many times that people have been arrested for low-level charges, high-level charges, all kinds of charges, and they do come back real quick . . . sometimes before the officer is done with the paperwork,” says Del Rio, whose team is a constant presence at the encampment, especially since service providers pulled out. “There has been a significant increase in the enforcement that’s being done in the area of individuals that we know to be engaged in criminal activity,” says Nicole Taub, BPD’s chief of staff. “Unfortunately, what we see is people come back [to Mass. and Cass].”
Only about 75 of the approximately 200 people at the encampment actually sleep there. Many come from out of the city or state to take advantage of the lax enforcement of drug crimes.
The homeless at Mass. and Cass suffer the most from the status quo. Though the city offers street health care and recovery services, being surrounded by addicts and dealers can only impede recovery. If they were able to disperse the camp, with proper housing available, police and service providers could continue their compassionate work on an individual basis to help people get into shelter and treatment programs. “It’s a lot easier for us to deal with individuals when they’re separate from a congregation of a large group to have those meaningful conversations,” says BPD Superintendent Lanita Cullinane. “Even if someone today is saying that they don’t necessarily want to go to the shelter,” Cullinane says, she hopes that as service providers and law enforcement build a relationship, “at some point, we’ll get them to that place.”
Given the safety threats that homeless encampments pose to their inhabitants and local residents, it’s no wonder that some progressive cities have reached their breaking point. Last November the Portland City Council voted to ban daytime camping by 2024. Last August, Sacramento banned homeless encampments, citing criminal activity that victimized the homeless as well as “dangerous health conditions for the occupants and the entire city.” In March 2022, Mayor Eric Adams of New York announced a crackdown on homeless encampments and in November announced a plan to involuntarily commit homeless folks experiencing severe mental illness.
Boston needs to change, too.
On Aug. 28, Wu took a small step in the right direction. She introduced an ordinance to the City Council to “establish a prohibition against unsanctioned use of tents, tarps, and similar temporary structures” on public property at Mass. and Cass that has since stalled in the City Council.
Though Wu is signaling a change, her choice to file an ordinance, and the council’s reluctance to approve it, highlights the delicate politics involved with a new policy that would essentially admit that the whole progressive philosophy underpinning the city’s past approaches has failed. It’s already against the law to use drugs in public or block sidewalks, and Wu’s ordinance seems aimed more at giving the police political cover to enforce laws they could have been enforcing all along. Wu said she filed the ordinance because Commissioner Michael Cox requested it. “When the police commissioner comes to me and says BPD needs the specific authorization to do their jobs well and with transparency, I’m going to take the actions needed to move that forward,” Wu told me in an interview.
City councilors, though, are reluctant to put their fingerprints on such a shift. Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, the chair of the government operations committee, postponed the hearing on the ordinance until the end of September, when it lasted almost eight hours. A vote on the ordinance has yet to be scheduled, and the council also has the option to do nothing: Unless it is voted down, the ordinance will automatically go into effect 60 days after being proposed.
Trepidation from Wu and the council may reflect the likelihood that progressive opponents will label any effort to clean up the encampment as inhumane sweeps. In fact, they are already criticizing her in advance: “If the Mayor’s request for an ordinance permitting sweeps is approved, more highly vulnerable people will be incarcerated and will come out sicker and more difficult to house. If the ordinance fails, Mass. and Cass may look the same, but people will continue to recover and leave the area,” wrote one social worker in Commonwealth magazine.
But without decisive law enforcement at the encampment, there will never be any incentive to move the vulnerable off the streets and into treatment or the power to arrest criminals who prey on the situation. “I just would encourage people who have very liberal views on this to understand that they are sacrificing a whole group of people in the city to a horrible life, because there’s no leverage to get them the treatment that they need,” says Davis. The ordinance might also serve as extra assurance for BPD, which in the wake of police reform could be skittish about taking decisive action on crime at the encampment, even with the necessary laws on the books. “Going hands-on in this age and time, you have to be super, super careful. . . . The majority of the world doesn’t come to your aid,” says Jose Ruiz, one of the two candidates for City Council in the district representing Hyde Park and Roslindale and a 29-year veteran of BPD.
Del Rio says the proposed ordinance would not constitute a sweep but a compassionate effort to help the homeless. “I don’t want to see more people get hurt or worse, on all of our watch.”
Days matter at Mass. and Cass. And whether or not Wu gets sign-off from the City Council, a shift is overdue. Until there is decisive, urgent action, Del Rio’s lament will continue to be a reality at Mass. and Cass — more people will get hurt, and all on the city’s watch.
This story was updated on Oct. 10 to correct the spelling of Kimberly Webb’s name.
Carine Hajjar is a Globe Opinion writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.