With fall weather approaching, Mayor Michelle Wu today announced a phase change to double down on the City’s public health-led approach to the intersecting crises of co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders and unsheltered homelessness centered in the area of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue. To ensure continued access to treatment for those in need and stabilize the area for residents, workers, and local businesses, the City and law enforcement partners, including the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department, are taking three steps to curtail heavy crowds, drug trafficking, and increasing violence on Atkinson Street and in the Mass and Cass area. First, the City will file an ordinance next week with the Boston City Council to empower the Boston Police Department to prohibit the tents, tarps, and other temporary structures which are shielding much of the dangerous activity in the area and undermining the ability of providers to deliver services to individuals in need. Second, Mayor Wu and the Boston Public Health Commission also shared plans, working with partners, to bring online additional shelter beds, temporary overnight space, and to temporarily relocate medical services to support unsheltered residents. Third, Commissioner Michael Cox outlined plans for officers’ sustained presence on Atkinson Street and through mobile Citywide units coordinated through a central operations post to eliminate violence in the area and return Atkinson Street to standard use as a road for vehicular traffic, while addressing any other areas of concern Citywide.
“We are doubling down on the success of our public health approach and taking new steps with partners across all levels of government to stabilize the area so that we can serve people in need,” said Mayor Michelle Wu. “No one is being served living in a crowded and dangerous encampment, visited by hundreds of people engaged in drug trafficking and violence. By adding temporary transitional beds, medical services, and enhanced enforcement authority, including mobile police units, we are committed to changing a dynamic that undermines public safety and our support for residents.”
City and state law enforcement, fire, emergency services, public health, homeless services, sanitation workers and many health providers operating in the area have grown increasingly concerned about the prevalence of large tents and tarps, some of which have measured 1,600 square feet, and the role these temporary structures play in shielding human trafficking, drug trafficking, weapons, and fire hazards inside the encampment. Although the City engages in daily cleaning at Atkinson Street, the sheer number and size of temporary structures continue to undermine both law enforcement activity and case management efforts. Recent surveys confirm that fewer than half of the individuals on Atkinson are living there, yet overcrowding and incidents of violence on Atkinson in recent weeks have caused key providers to withdraw staff from the area, citing safety concerns.
These newly-announced measures will build on the City’s successes in helping individuals move from chronic unsheltered homelessness into supportive housing and recovery by improving public safety, reducing crowding, violence, and drug trafficking in the area, and creating better conditions for case management and outreach workers to assist individuals in need. Since January 2022, more than 500 individuals who were living at the Atkinson Street encampment have gone through the City’s six low-threshold housing sites, and 149 have moved into permanent supportive housing. There are currently 184 individuals living in the sites.
“Over the past few weeks, the situation on the ground at Mass and Cass has made it impossible for BPHC and our partners to adequately provide critical services to those in need. Things need to change, and this ordinance is a necessary step to get the situation under control,” said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, Commissioner of Public Health and Executive Director of the Boston Public Health Commission. “But BPHC’s commitment to providing critical services for those suffering from substance use and mental health disorders remains. We will continue to ensure access to care in the Mass and Cass area and across the City of Boston.”
Expanded shelter capacity and additional temporary transitional beds
To increase the availability of low-threshold housing for chronically unsheltered individuals who currently live in Atkinson Street encampment, the City plans to open 30 temporary, transitional beds at the Boston Public Health Commission’s campus at 727 Massachusetts Avenue. These beds will be reserved for specifically identified individuals who are currently engaged in services with BPHC’s case management teams. These beds will only be available until the individuals move onto permanent housing or an open low threshold spot at one of the other housing sites and are not intended to be populated with new individuals. The City is also expanding low-threshold shelter space at the City’s emergency shelter locations. After the ordinance goes into effect, the City will be restricting access to Atkinson Street and will temporarily close the Engagement Center located there. The Boston Public Health Commission, in partnership with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), will open a temporary site for medical services also at 727 Massachusetts Avenue so that individuals have uninterrupted access to care. Security will be stationed inside and outside the temporary site on a 24/7 basis.
“We at BHCHP strongly support the creation of more low-threshold housing opportunities for the people staying at Mass and Cass, and we are committed to working with the City and other community partners to seek safer, more humane conditions for people experiencing homelessness in this area, as well as our own staff who work there each day,” said Dr. Denise De Las Nueces, Chief Medical Officer for Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. “We thank Mayor Wu and her team for working diligently to attend to the safety concerns on and around Atkinson Street.”
“I am grateful every day for the opportunity to work closely with all constituents in the Newmarket neighborhood: our unhoused neighbors, small and large businesses, and all Bostonians who live, work, or travel through this area,” said Tania Del Rio, Director of Coordinated Response Team. “As we continue to provide crucial shelter, housing, medical, and connections to substance use treatment, we must strive to do so in a safe environment for all. I thank all teams, whether City or partner agencies, for their tireless commitment to serving our most vulnerable neighbors.”
Proposed ordinance and sustained coordinated response
The proposed ordinance will establish a prohibition against unsanctioned camping with a tent, tarp, or similar temporary structure in the public right-of-way or on public property, provided that individuals are offered shelter and transportation. The ordinance also requires the City to maintain a robust program to store personal belongings and to ensure that individuals have access to those belongings. The administration plans to file the ordinance on Monday, August 28, 2023.
After enactment, the Boston Police Department, with the support of outreach staff from the Boston Public Health Commission will lead a sustained coordinated response and staff combined teams, including mobile units, to restore Atkinson and Southampton Street and ensure compliance in surrounding areas. The Boston Police Department will coordinate these efforts at a central operations post and will have a presence in the area at all times.
“The ordinance will provide clear authority and a path for our officers to keep the individuals who are struggling with homelessness, mental health and substance use disorders safe. In addition, this will provide officers a tool to better serve the residents and businesses whose daily lives and safety have been disproportionately impacted by the situation in the area,” said Boston Police Commissioner Michael A. Cox. “Removing the cloak of tents, tarps and other make-shift structures will lessen the appeal to those coming to prey upon individuals in need of services and enhance our ability to enforce the laws. The goal is to allow those who need help the opportunity to get it in a safe space, while keeping our residents and our officers safe.”
Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden thanked Gov. Healey and the Massachusetts Legislature for earmarking $1 million in the new state budget to the Services Over Sentences (SOS) program run by the District Attorney’s Office. The SOS program provides services to low-level offenders at Mass and Cass as an alternative to traditional prosecution and sentencing.
“It is most important to realize that Mass and Cass is not just a Boston issue,” said District Attorney Kevin Hayden. “The physical confines of Mass and Cass may rest in Boston, but the people who make their way here come from across the state. That’s why we are so grateful that the Legislature and Governor Healey saw fit to provide $1 million in funds in the new state budget for our Services Over Sentences program. This money will give us and our partners at North Suffolk Community Services the ability to expand the SOS program and to get more low-level offenders out of Mass and Cass and into treatment programs and employment training programs and housing assistance programs.”
Mayor Michelle Wu recently announced that the City has secured its Chapter 91 License from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) to reconstruct the Long Island Bridge. With this long-awaited license in hand, the City has secured the most significant state approval required in its years-long efforts to rebuild the bridge and restore access to the 35-acre public health campus on Long Island. With $81 million already available in the FY24 capital budget for the bridge, Mayor Wu announced that the City would accelerate progress on construction immediately and set a goal that in four years the bridge would be rebuilt to a campus with a first phase of buildings ready to reopen for programming.