Boston Mayor Michelle Wu plans to issue an ordinance by the end of the month that will ban encampments of unhoused people around Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue — or Mass. and Cass — while increasing policing and limiting access to some streets in the area, Boston Public Health Commission Executive Director Dr. Bisola Ojikutu said Wednesday.
The ordinance will include an increased police presence and “enhanced enforcement” to block tents and encampments “not just in the Mass. and Cass area, but around the city,” Ojikutu said in an interview with GBH News. “These tents and encampments actually shield criminal behavior and victimization.”
The new protocol follows multiple violent incidents in the area this summer, including a triple stabbing outside the Southampton Street Shelter in July.
“As people are dispersed from the area based on this enhanced security procedure, we don’t want to lose them,” Ojikutu said. “We also know that there are some people who don’t necessarily desire or do well in congregate shelter settings, so we’re trying to offer some alternate availability in terms of a place where they can sleep.”
Wu’s administration is currently evaluating the use of office buildings and other city-owned facilities as short-term housing and centers for clinical services, as some services “have been curtailed because of the violence” in the area, Ojikutu said. A Boston Public Health Commission office on Massachusetts Avenue will be converted into a shelter for 30 people and a temporary clinic site over the next six months, the first of several spaces being evaluated by the city.
The city has enlisted mobile outreach teams to connect with people experiencing homelessness and substance use disorder in the area, Ojikutu said. Ahead of the clearing, the city has added individuals to its case management system and reached out to shelter providers with requests to hold space and increase capacity.
“A lot of people there are living with substance use disorder and they have nowhere else to go,” she said.
In the wake of violence earlier this summer, case workers from local nonprofits and outreach organizations were prohibited from providing services on Atkinson Street, where crowds of people using drugs and seeking clinical services would congregate during the day. In July, city leaders limited the number of people allowed to gather on Atkinson Street to 100 at a time, a cap enforced by officers from Ware Security, a private company hired by the Boston Public Health Commission.
As of mid-August, the number of people congregating in the area reached more than 150 per day — about the same number as last August — according to the city’s data dashboard . Three times per week, city workers and employees hired by the Newmarket Business Association conduct street sweeps along Atkinson, clearing tents and cleaning sidewalks.
In an interview with GBH News, Wu said the ordinance is still being developed but said the city is focusing on addressing safety issues that have risen over the summer.
“We’re reducing and eliminating violence and illegal activity like drug trafficking and human trafficking and assault and worse things that happen there,” Wu said. “We don’t want to have to tolerate so much of the additional violence and other impacts that make it very dangerous to do this work.”
With an ordinance in effect, arrests of individuals with outstanding criminal warrants would continue, Wu said.
“There is a very active effort when individuals are known to have a background or repeated efforts of breaking the law and are causing that danger to others,” Wu said. “There are already folks being taken in for outstanding warrants as the area is patrolled right now.”
The ordinance would build on a steadily increasing police presence at Mass. and Cass, with more than $4 million spent on police overtime alone in the first ten months of Wu’s tenure, and a substantial increase in arrests within the first year, according to the Boston Police Department.
During the week of July 16, Boston police officers responded to 186 incidents — the highest spike since January, but far below peaks last summer and fall.
Additional details on the ordinance will be released by Friday, according to Wu. The specific timeline to begin enforcement depends on a 60-day window for the Boston City Council to challenge or debate the proposal: with no push-back, enforcement can begin — though a legal challenge is possible from the local chapter of the ACLU.
“Cities and towns cannot target people for criminal law enforcement operations just because they are sleeping and taking shelter outside when there are no adequate alternatives,” Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement to GBH News Wednesday. “Likewise, the property of people experiencing homelessness is subject to due process rights, regardless of whether government officials deem that property to have any value.”
Kelly Turley, associate director for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, says more resources are needed to increase housing opportunities and support research-backed harm reduction initiatives.
“Criminalization of people experiencing homelessness and moving people along without actually providing housing or services to become stable doesn’t lead to positive outcomes either for the individual or for the larger community,” Turley said, emphasizing the need for long-term supportive housing and wraparound support.
Since a tent clearing conducted by city officials in January of last year, 149 people have been permanently moved into six new “low-threshold” housing sites and more than 4,000 people have been connected with substance use treatment programs, according to city data .
“I hope that they keep on that path, and that they don’t waver in their commitment,” Turley said. “It’s based on recognizing people’s humanity, but it’s also based on research and evidence that this approach can work and has worked.”
On Wednesday, Wu toured the abandoned addiction recovery campus on Long Island and held a press conference about her plan to reopen it over the next few years, including rebuilding the bridge that connects the island to Quincy.