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Judge denies ACLU bid to block tent removals along 'Mass. and Cass'

A Boston Public Health Commission worker collects a syringe from a puddle on Southampton Street during the clearing out of people living in tents in the "Mass. and Cass" area. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A Boston Public Health Commission worker collects a syringe from a puddle on Southampton Street during the clearing out of people living in tents in the "Mass. and Cass" area. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A Suffolk Superior Court judge has denied an American Civil Liberties Union request to stop Boston officials from removing tents at an encampment near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.

Judge Janet Sanders said it was “difficult to decide” on the request for a temporary restraining order against the city over the way the tents are being cleared. Sanders said she is being asked to decide on “two public welfare crises” — the failure of government to provide adequate housing, which she said has caused “the neediest among us to resort to desperate measures and sleeping on the streets,” and the “public health and safety issues surrounding the encampment.”

“We are disappointed that the judge declined to enter the temporary restraining order,” said ACLU attorney Ruth Bourquin. “But we are encouraged by her emphasis on the city continuing to improve its steps in terms of how its treating people and who it’s seeking to displace.”

The ruling came hours after Mayor Michelle Wu announced that she would pause the removals until the lawsuit is resolved. After the hearing, a city spokesperson said in a statement that Wu will take a holistic approach to the encampment.

“Particularly as winter approaches, already unsafe living conditions on the streets will only become more dangerous,” the statement said. “Mayor Wu’s team, led by Dr. Monica Bharel, will be urgently working with regional and state partners to take a holistic approach to the public health and housing crisis near the intersection of Mass. Ave and Melnea Cass Boulevard, with a focus on expanding low-threshold and permanent housing, treatment and support services."

Sanders has scheduled a hearing on Nov. 29 to continue her review of issues raised in the case, and the discrepancies in descriptions of how the tent removals have been handled so far.

The ACLU suit, which was filed on behalf of three people living in the encampment, says the city is unconstitutionally destroying people’s belongings and failed to offer people viable shelter alternatives. The suit says the removals also violate federal law because many of the people in the encampment have disabilities which prevent them from living in congregate housing such as homeless shelters.

“Here in court today representations were made indicating that the city does not currently have housing options for many of our clients who cannot use congregate shelters,” Bourquin said. “We call upon the city to not force people, under threat of arrest, to leave where they are, unless and until they have a housing option that takes into account their disabilities and other barriers to the housing available or being relegated to sleeping on the streets without a tent over their head.”

Sanders issued her decision after a two hour hearing in which attorneys for the city and the ACLU outlined how workers have gone about removing people. Last month, former Mayor Kim Janey issued an executive order saying the city would remove tents from public ways, but only after providing notice, offering storage for personal belongings and offering other shelter to the people displaced.

The city estimated that more than 300 people were living in the encampment at one point. City officials have said they have helped more than 60 people find alternative housing in either shelters, transitional housing or in treatment programs.

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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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