A sprawling homeless encampment that until recently was home to more than 100 people, and was the site of rampant violence and illicit drug use, came to a quiet end late Wednesday as city crews cleared out the last of the inhabitants and their belongings.
As the city dismantled tents and homeless encampments in the area known as Mass. and Cass, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said the task “has been a long-standing challenge in the city of Boston.”
”For me, this is an issue that we are never going to give up on,” Wu said during a press conference held on the sidewalk outside of the City of Boston Engagement Center on Atkinson Street.
Since Monday, teams of outreach workers with the city and nonprofit groups had been fanning out through Mass. and Cass to prepare people living there for removal. They were trying to nudge the area’s 80 to 90 remaining tent inhabitants toward shelters and treatment centers, as well as connect them with area relatives who might be willing to take them in.
On Wednesday morning, a gentle drizzle fell on Mass. and Cass as outreach workers weaved their way between the last remaining tents, occasionally stopping to talk to people about the voluntary offer of shelter beds.
“We’re making great progress it’s been all hands on deck,” Wu said.
The area near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard has been the epicenter of Boston’s twin crises of homelessness and opioid abuse, as well as a haven for drug dealers and sex traffickers. The area had also become so violent in recent months that several nonprofits working with the city have pulled their teams, citing safety concerns.
“I want to just caution that this is a series of challenges, no city can just say ‘okay we’re done,’” Wu said. “It will take continued effort and staffing and programs along the way.”
Scores of people at the site have taken up the offer to relocate to shelters. The scene on Wednesday was largely peaceful, though some inhabitants who had not left by midday could be seen injecting drugs into their arms, even as outreach workers walked by them with bins of trash.
As of 4 p.m. Wednesday, the area was clear of all tents and other structures. The Boston Police Department was operating a 24-hour mobile command center on Atkinson Street to monitor the area. Atkinson Street would be blocked off to traffic for at least two weeks, police and city officials say.
City officials and police have avoided taking a heavy-handed approach, and said they would not force anyone to leave without first offering them a space in an emergency shelter. Under an ordinance approved by the City Council last week, tents would be removed from streets or sidewalks only after the occupants were offered shelter, transportation to shelter, and the opportunity to store their personal belongings.
The city reserved 100 beds at shelters throughout the city to accommodate those being moved.
“Once all the tents are down, we’ll make sure the streets are cleaned but that won’t be the end of our efforts by any means,” Wu said.
Tanya Stephens, 38, and her tent-mates, Omar Credle, 49, and Elsa Gomez, 50, were among the last people remaining at the camp as of late Wednesday morning — and they appeared in no hurry to leave.
While outreach workers and police swirled around their tent, Stephens calmly loaded a syringe with fentanyl and injected the drug straight into her forearm — a routine she repeats a few times a day, she said. “This stuff doesn’t phase me anymore,” Stephens said of the fentanyl.
A few feet away, Credle smoked a pipe of crack cocaine that gradually filled the tent with smoke. Meanwhile, Gomez looked on while tending to her two beloved puppies, Scooby and JJ, which she keeps close by to calm her anxiety and depression, she said.
Months earlier, the trio resolved to stick together for their own safety. They guarded each other against thefts and assaults, and were prepared to rush for medical help if any one of their group happened to overdose. At Mass. and Cass, they said, overdoses from heroin and fentanyl had become near-daily occurrences, but there was always someone nearby who had Narcan, a medication that can reverse the effects of an overdose. “It’s safety in numbers,” Credle said.
But now, the tent-mates said they were worried they would be separated and left to fend for themselves in shelters or other places they considered even less safe than Mass. and Cass. “My biggest fear is being alone,” said Gomez, who has been living near the intersection since April. “Out here, if you overdose, there are people around who can help. But out there, it’s every man and woman for themselves.”
All three had been offered spots in area emergency shelters, but they were refusing to go unless ordered to do so by police. Stephens said she once was assaulted in a Boston-area shelter, and had a pair of her shoes stolen overnight.
“I want to go somewhere safe, but shelters aren’t an option,” Stephens said. “They are filled with a bunch of dirty, perverted men who can’t keep their hands off you. You wake up and your stuff is gone and no one cares.”
Alexandra, a camp inhabitant who declined to share her full name, looked anxious as she watched clean-up crews tear down the last of the tents on Atkinson Street. The woman said she was worried that some of the inhabitants at Mass. and Cass would not survive the winter if they lacked access to treatment for their substance use, as well as medications such as methadone and Suboxone that reduce cravings.
“There are good people out here who happened to be caught up in a bad habit,” she said. “Not a single one of us ever imagined we would end up here.”
For some neighborhood residents, there was relief on Wednesday afternoon. Marie Cropper, a teacher at the Suffolk County jail near the former camp, looked jubilant as she walked down Atkinson Street at dusk on Wednesday on her way home from work. For the first time in three years, Cropper said she felt comfortable inhaling the air that once smelled of urine and feces.
”That smell, that rancid smell, is finally gone,” Cropper said. “You don’t understand what it feels like to walk through here and breathe again. I thought this day would never come.”