The threadbare tents and other ramshackle structures are gone. Hundreds of drug needles and two tons of refuse have been swept up and carted away. And the crowds of people who once used and peddled illicit drugs around this intersection in Boston’s South End have moved on, leaving barren pavement and an uneasy calm.
But now, after an intensive, three-day effort to clear out the troubled area known as Mass. and Cass, Boston city and police officials face an even more formidable challenge: How to prevent other dangerous encampments from sprouting up throughout the city while addressing the underlying conditions that led to Mass. and Cass?
At a press conference Thursday, Mayor Michelle Wu said that the peaceful dismantling of Mass. and Cass, the epicenter of the city’s homeless and opioid crises, marked the beginning of a new, collaborative effort to connect people struggling with mental health and substance use problems with social services. The city would be working more closely with the Boston Police Department and area nonprofits to respond to problem areas before they spiral out of control.
“Certainly, we have worked to change the dynamic here in this area and citywide,” Wu said.
In just the past few days, 102 people who lived in the densely-packed area of Mass. and Cass have moved into emergency shelters, homes for recovering addicts, mental health facilities, and the homes of friends and family, city officials said. By Wednesday evening, an area that was once a haven for drug dealers and sex traffickers, and became so violent in recent months that some nonprofits pulled their outreach teams, looked like any other busy intersection. Some people passing by the area were so surprised by the transformation that they stopped to gawk and take photos.
City officials and police avoided taking a heavy-handed approach. 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. Outreach workers visited with people inside their tents and worked to remove any obstacles they had to accepting shelter beds. Wu said one woman would not leave until her puppy was vaccinated, which workers arranged late Wednesday. Others needed medical care or their clothing washed, she said.
The quiet emptying of Mass. and Cass stands in stark contrast to an aggressive sweep of the area in 2019, under former Mayor Martin J. Walsh, during which dozens of people were arrested and their personal belongings taken or destroyed.
“We know that we haven’t solved the entire challenge of the opioid crisis, homelessness, and mental health, but we have shifted the dynamic and that is a big step forward,” said Wu, declaring the collaborative effort to clear the area a success and a model for the rest of the country. “We will continue to reach people wherever they are throughout the city with services, with housing offers, with placement in shelter so that we can keep this going.”
Neighborhood residents and business owners expressed relief that the encampment was gone, though some in the area questioned how long the peace would last. In January of last year, weeks after Wu took office, the city cleared a previous encampment from Mass. and Cass, removing more than 40 tons of debris. Yet within four months, more than 120 people had returned to the area, according to city data.
“Every crime you can imagine was committed here,” said Marie Cropper, a teacher at the Suffolk County jail near the former camp, as she walked home Wednesday from work along Atkinson Street. “You can’t solve a problem this big in three days.”
Janett Colombo, owner of a pizza shop near Mass. and Cass, estimates that walk-in traffic to her business has plunged by 60 to 70 percent over the past two years, due to the escalating drug use and violence in the area. Last summer, a customer at her restaurant, New Market Pizza, was stabbed and her husband, Ramiro Colombo, received stitches after he was hit in the head with a baton. Were it not for their thriving catering business, the restaurant would have closed a year ago, Colombo said.
“We had a lot of customers leave and say they wouldn’t come back until this area was cleaned up,” she said. “The chaos was too much.”
Colombo said it would take several months of calm, as well as a heightened police presence, for her former customers to feel safe enough to start filtering back. “They need to have a steady police presence in this area, 24-7. And not just for one month,” she said. “If they do this for one month, forget about it. It won’t work. This has to be sustained.”
Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox has said there will be a much heavier police presence in the Mass. and Cass area, as well as heightened efforts to prevent further encampments. The department has opened a mobile “command center” on Atkinson Street staffed with officers who will monitor the area, and that street will be closed off for at least two weeks. The department also has developed special units that will patrol the city and quickly respond if they receive reports of further encampments, he said.
In the coming weeks, outreach workers with the city, the Boston Police Department, the Boston Public Health Commission, and their nonprofit partners will be convening three times a day to identify areas where homeless people are congregating and in need of shelter, officials said.
“We see this as a milestone in a long road that has many more miles, but it’s an important one because the safety and the health risks that were present at the encampment are now no longer our concern,” said Tania Del Rio, whom Wu appointed to coordinate the city’s response to the homeless encampments.