Gov. Baker supports sheriff's plan for 'Mass. and Cass'

City workers took steps Monday to remove tents from an encampment in the South End. But not many people moved.

Boston Public Health Commission workers offered storage bins to those living in tents near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard and told them they had to start packing up. Those living in the tents were offered a spot at a nearby homeless shelter. But activists say many of those living in the tents are not eligible for shelter placement.

Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey said the efforts toward removal Monday were not related to the executive public health order she issued last week calling for the tent encampment in the so-called "Mass. and Cass" area to be taken down.

"Today and everyday, city of Boston outreach workers are on the ground, providing unsheltered people with options for shelter and services," Janey's office said in an emailed statement. "As procedures are developed to fully implement the public health executive order as soon as possible, the city will continue regular clean-ups and post notices where tents must be removed. This week, clean-ups will be conducted in areas targeted for scheduled building maintenance. No person will be asked to move their tent as part of this effort without first being offered shelter."

In all, people have erected an estimated 150 tents in the neighborhood. Boston officials have said that area shelters have about 170 beds available on an average day.

Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins is building a courtroom and addiction treatment facility at his nearby jail to help get people off the streets. He expects that the facility could be operating in a few weeks.

When asked about Tompkins' plan Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker said he supports it.

"We've been working with him and with the courts and with our colleagues in the health care world to make sure that there is support for those folks if they need it, which I think is the right way to do it," Baker said. "You can't use a traditional court-type process for this. You need to come up with something that recognizes the serious and significant physical — and in some cases mental health — issues that these folks are dealing with."

But many public health experts say a jail should not be used to house those with mental health and substance use issues. Dr. Sarah Wakeman, medical director for substance use at Mass General Brigham told WBUR's Radio Boston Monday that research shows forced treatment is not effective.

"The problem is we need to do things that are actually effective," Wakeman said. "The idea that we need to put people in compulsory treatment or jail-based treatment settings has been studied throughout the world and the outcomes are terrible. I really worry that this effort will actually increase harm and increase death."

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins told Radio Boston that Sheriff Tompkins plan is the only viable one to deal with the encampment. While Rollins said she understands concerns from public health leaders about using a correctional setting to deal with mental health and substance use problems, action is needed to help those living in what she said is "squalor" in the "Mass. and Cass" area.


"We are dealing with the most medically compromised population that you can imagine and we need specialists," Rollins said. "We have been in meetings about this for weeks and we are going to make sure that whatever is proposed is lawful. I agree, though, that if I could choose a location, it would not be this location."

She said representatives from the state, the attorney general's office, the state public defender agency and the trial court are meeting about how to deal with the encampment and will work to ensure that the removals from "Mass. and Cass" are done properly, and that people are getting help.


Headshot of Deborah Becker

Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



More from WBUR

Listen Live