Police conducting a sweep Tuesday in the South End oversaw the destruction of several wheelchairs belonging to homeless people, according to witnesses — resulting in a flurry of condemnation on Twitter, including strong words from a city councilor.
Less than 24 hours later, city officials faced heated criticism for their actions during a South End community meeting Wednesday night regarding drug use and homelessness in the neighborhood.
“You are targeting the disabled who cannot survive on the streets!” one person shouted.
“It’s structural violence against homeless people!” said another.
So many people turned out for the meeting at the South End Branch Library the meeting had to be held outside the building on Tremont Street.
City officials organized the meeting to brief residents and businesses about the city’s effort to combat homelessness and drug addiction in the area.
Maureo Fernandez y Mora, a 24-year-old from Jamaica Plain, attended the meeting looking for an explanation.
“I thought it was unacceptable,” they said of the wheelchair disposals.
Marty Martinez, Boston’s chief of health and human services, said the disposal of wheelchairs should not have happened. “That is not protocol, and that is not supposed to be happening, and we’re going to work with the Police Department to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.
The Tuesday night sweep, which the witnesses said involved more than a dozen police cars and Department of Public Works trucks, was part of an effort to “clean up” an area frequented by homeless people that started after an assault on a Suffolk County deputy sheriff Thursday.
Although there had been arrests last week, the police arrested no one Tuesday, but they reportedly instructed homeless people to leave.
Advocates for the homeless, tipped off to the police action, turned out to witness it. Among them was Dr. Dinah Applewhite, an addiction medicine fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, who snapped a photo of two or three wheelchairs being crushed in a garbage truck on Albany Street and posted it on Twitter.
The photo was shared on Twitter and the police conduct widely criticized. City Councilor-at-Large Michelle Wu retweeted it with a comment: “This image represents a cruelty that government should try to stop, not carry out.”
Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a Boston Police Department spokesman, said the officers went to the neighborhood based on crime data “to protect the general public safety in the area.” The wheelchairs, he said, were thrown away because they were damaged and soiled with “bodily fluids.”
But Jared Rennick, a 38-year-old homeless man, told the Globe Tuesday night that he needed a wheelchair that was destroyed, along with the backpack that held all of his possessions. He was using a cane and wore a back brace and a walking boot.
“I’m doing nothing wrong to anyone out here,” he said.
Applewhite said the city was criminalizing the homeless by tossing out their belongings.
“What else are you saying other than ‘Your mere existence is illegal,’ ” she said. “That’s definitely the message.”
Applewhite and another witness, Cassie Hurd, said Rennick was giving someone a haircut under the street light when the police convoy pulled up to the corner of Albany Street and Massachusetts Avenue. They said his girlfriend or wife, sobbing, begged city workers not to take the wheelchair.
“She was very hysterical and she was saying, ‘Why would you take the wheelchair?’ ” Applewhite said.
Hurd and Applewhite are members of SIFMA-Now, a group that advocates for a safe place for addicted people to inject drugs.
Todd Kaplan, a lawyer with Greater Boston Legal Services, followed police on his bicycle. He said he saw a wheelchair in a garbage truck at Harrison Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard and spoke with an elderly man who said it was his.
Boyle said that anyone who needs a wheelchair should approach an officer and will get help acquiring one.
Wu, who was not available for an interview, added in other tweets:
“The urgent need for clean & safe streets can’t come at the expense of destabilizing treatment for those who need it & destroying property of those who have no home to store things, while just moving people on to somewhere else. . . . Our public resources should match the scale of the crisis, not set up a conflict between public safety, public health & community.”
City Councilor Frank Baker, who represents the South End, said he hadn’t heard about Tuesday night’s sweep but praised previous law enforcement actions. “It’s out of control down there,” he said.
Milton Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report.