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State mulls plan for 'cottages' at Shattuck Hospital to address homelessness and addiction

The state is reviewing at least two proposals to help deal with the large tent encampment at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston.

In October, acting Mayor Kim Janey ordered the tents to be removed, citing public health and safety concerns. Additionally, a special court session started at the Suffolk County jail this month. The session was intended to send those with criminal charges to addiction treatment, but advocates say more people are ending up cycling through the court system.  

One proposal under state review would provide temporary housing to people who are living in the encampment, and another would facilitate creating an addiction treatment center at the Suffolk County jail.

The housing plan involves creating a so-called "Temporary Cottage Community" on the campus of the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain. Eighteen cottages with either one or two beds would be erected on the campus to provide temporary housing for up to 30 people. The state would work with the company Pallet to build the cabins, and contract with a local health and human services provider to offer other services such as security, meals, mental health and addiction treatment, and case management.

"In response to the humanitarian crisis in an area of Boston referred to as 'Mass. and Cass,' there is an urgent need for both temporary and permanent low-threshold transitional housing for individuals who are homeless," Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Mary Lou Sudders wrote in an email to stakeholders. "The 'Temporary Cottage Community' will serve as a safe place for those in transition from homelessness to more stable housing."

The cottages could be occupied as early as next month. State officials said this is the first phase of longer-term plans for supportive housing and services on the hospital campus.

Speaking after taking the oath of office Tuesday, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said the city would look for more housing options.

"The number one need right now is stable, supportive, low-threshold housing. So that's what we must continue to explore," she said. "I've said for a very long time that we are going to be looking at every city-owned building, public building and other opportunities to create that housing right away."

Separately, state Sen. Nick Collins has filed legislation that would permit Suffolk County to involuntarily commit people to addiction treatment at the South Bay House of Correction. His proposal would allow Sheriff Steve Tompkins to enter into agreements with other facilities that hold men under the state law known as Section 35. The law allows a judge to civilly commit someone to addiction treatment for up to 90 days if that person's substance use is deemed dangerous.

"We have a daunting task that requires us to be creative, prioritizing compassion, a civil solution and I think this bill does that," Collins said during a recent hearing on the bill before the legislature's Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery.

Tompkins has suggested using part of a building on his jail campus for an addiction treatment facility for up to 100 men and women. The sheriff has said that a health facility would be preferable, but he has the space and could quickly take in people living in the encampment, which is located near his jail.

Massachusetts is believed to be the only state in the country that involuntarily commits men to addiction treatment in correctional facilities, rather than in treatment programs. Currently, those who are involuntarily committed under Section 35 are sent to programs run by the Departments of Public Health or Mental Health, or to facilities overseen by correctional agencies such as the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center in a former minimum security prison in Plymouth, or a facility at the Hampden County jail. Tompkins has said his program would be modeled after the one in Hampden County.

Right now only men civilly committed under Section 35 are sent to correctional facilities. The state stopped sending civilly committed women to jails and prisons after a lawsuit 2016. A similar suit involving men is pending.

Another bill before the Legislature, co-sponsored by state Rep. Ruth Balser, would bar the state from using correctional facilities for those committed under Section 35. That bill was the result of recommendations by the state's Section 35 Commission, which in 2019 concluded the state should stop using correctional facilities for those involuntarily committed to addiction treatment.

Balser said using correctional facilities for treatment is going in the wrong direction and criminalizes mental health and addiction.

"Regardless of intentions, a jail is not the right place for a treatment center," Balser said. "We are surrounded by world class health facilities and I believe that we could make something work in the health care world and not in the criminal justice world."

This article was originally published on November 16, 2021.

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

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