Bigger role for police in Mayor Wu’s new Mass. and Cass plan

BOSTON — Boston police would be granted the ability to take down tents at Mass. and Cass., under Mayor Michelle Wu’s plans for a new approach to address the homeless encampments in an area that’s the center of the state’s opioid epidemic.

The mayor announced Friday that she will propose an ordinance to “empower” the Boston police to remove tents at the intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue, which she said can shelter illegal activity, including drug dealing and human trafficking, as public health concerns and violence have grown in the area.

“All of these challenges require coordination among our public health and housing and recovery community and public safety ... Today we’re doubling down on that approach,” Wu said. “There will be some serious disruption as well in the dynamic where people who have been used to gathering and congregating at Mass. and Cass., and for those who are conducting criminal activity, that disruption is certainly warranted and we will not be tolerating illegal activity in any hub or location in the city.”

Police would only be allowed to take down tents if individuals living there have already been offered shelter, transportation to that shelter, and storage for their belongings, Wu said.

“That’s very important for protecting the civil liberties and humanity of those we are looking, ultimately, to serve,” Wu said.

Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox added, “We’re not trying to criminalize folks that are homeless, at all. But the fact is, there are certain people who prey upon people who are down and out, and they come to the area hidden by shelter tents and tarps, and really the law is intended to disperse them, to get them away from the area, obviously, or to actually get them in the criminal justice system.”

Under current protocol, Boston officials identify an encampment, and then have 48 hours to work with the individual living there to remove the tent and either find shelter or move elsewhere. After 48 hours, if the individual resists, police officers can arrest them for civil disobedience.

Wu’s proposed ordinance, however, would give police the legal authority to take away tents and tarps, even if they are an individual’s personal property.

She plans to file the proposed ordinance on Monday and see it introduced at Wednesday’s Boston City Council meeting.

The mayor said the new plan focuses on tents because a “very small number” of people using tents and tarps are doing so because they are actually in need of housing. The makeshift structures otherwise are used to hide illegal activity -- especially drug dealing, violence against women, and human trafficking, she said.

“There are people on Mass and Cass that are down and out, that are homeless, that are suffering from substance use disorder and that need help. And we intend, along with all of our partners, to offer that help,” Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden said. “That being said, higher levels of criminality will not be tolerated, and we will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law for committing serious crimes like violent crimes, stabbings, shootings, human trafficking -- what’s happening to our women down at Mass and Cass is absolutely intolerable. These are things that we will no longer tolerate.”

Along with strengthening police powers, if the city council approves the ordinance, Boston will also open 30 additional transitional beds near Mass. and Cass., Wu announced. These beds would be offered to those who lose tent shelters that they were living in.

“I want to be clear and acknowledge that the City of Boston’s so-called ‘law enforcement sweeps’ in the past have not been successful. That is not what we are trying to replicate. It’s very different, what we’re proposing today,” Wu said. “Not only was there absolutely no infrastructure setup back then, several years ago at this point — with those images of a wheelchair being crushed — and really no intensive efforts on the safety side without the coordination support and full long-term plans in place. But today, we have a year and a half of being on the ground, really understanding the situation up close, knowing people who are in need of services and knowing who is not in need of services and are there to prey upon those who are looking for housing shelter.”

Wu said Boston has built almost 200 low-threshold shelter units since January 2022, which will be important as the city moves to get people off the street.

“Low threshold” housing does not require an individual to be drug-free to enter, as some other homeless shelters have traditionally done. These new transitional housing units admit chronically homeless individuals with substance use disorder and offer harm reduction treatment.

As of Friday, Wu said 173 individuals were in the city’s five low-threshold housing centers, where they stay in individual rooms until they are “stabilized” and can move to more permanent housing.

“There really aren’t any empty spaces at any given time, because we’re always transitioning the next person into that spot as people are leaving those spots for permanent housing every single week,” Wu said. “A lot of what you see on Atkinson Street is people eagerly waiting to get into those sites.”

She added that the state has moved to open similar facilities in other parts of Massachusetts and that the city is looking for opportunities for more transitional housing units as well as reforming its more traditional congregate shelters.

Facing pressure to make changes from area business owners and residents, the mayor also said that there will be a 24-hour presence of police officers for the “phase change,” which she said could take up to a few months. There will be more police across the city, to “make sure that we’re not simply displaying and creating a different set of challenges elsewhere in the city,” Wu said.

She added that it was important to move people out of the area before the cold weather makes it “life or death.”

During the period of “stabilizing” the area, as Wu described it, the Boston Public Health Commission would establish clinical services to 727 Massachusetts Ave., as well as the 30 new temporary beds.

“We are eager for these clinical services to get to the people who need them,” said Deputy Commissioner Michelle Clark. “We believe that this space is necessary to make continuity of life-saving services, promote the safety of our staff, partners and clients and support the work of the BPD to get the situation in the area under control.”

At a press conference on Friday, DA Hayden also highlighted new funding into a program his office offers, “Services Over Sentencing.”

Lawmakers and Gov. Maura Healey steered $1 million into the program in the fiscal year 2024 budget -- the most money the program has received from the state. Under the alternative-to-prosecution program, non-violent offenders with mental health or substance use disorders can volunteer to work with clinicians and coaches in a recovery program, replacing a conviction or traditional sentencing, according to the DA’s office.

“The actions we are taking today aren’t solving homelessness, but will be a big step forward,” Wu said. “I believe we’re moving toward a very important phase change that will make a significant difference for the many, many communities made up of workers and residents at Mass. and Cass... This is necessary for public safety and health.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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