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The special court session created to help address Boston's tent encampment has ended

The Suffolk County Jail. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Suffolk County Jail. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Less than three weeks after it started, a controversial court session inside the Suffolk County jail has stopped operating. The Trial Court has rescinded the order creating the court effective as of Friday.

The court — known as the "Boston Municipal Court Community Response Session" — was designed to hear cases of those with outstanding criminal warrants who frequent the nearby tent encampment, where city officials, neighbors and business owners have raised concerns about public health and safety. The court operated for a total of just nine days.

"Given the low case volume at the Community Response Session, the Trial Court has made the decision to discontinue the session," the court said in a statement. The court said the Boston Municipal Court will continue to collaborate with the city and other agencies to "expand services to those court-involved individuals in need of services."

During the sessions, 21 people appeared before a municipal judge who presided virtually. It remains unclear how the court handled all of the cases because many people were sent to other courts where their warrants originated. It appears that more than half of the people arrested by Boston police and brought into the special court session were either released to treatment, or released and required to appear in court at a later date.

Those who were released were ordered to stay away from the encampment, even if they had been receiving health services in the neighborhood.

From the outset, the court session was criticized for issues such as the lack of medical services for people in custody, lack of accommodations for non-English speakers, and advocates said it was unclear whether the intent of the session was to help more people in the encampment get into addiction treatment or to incarcerate them.

“I want to thank the Trial Court for listening to our concerns and for putting an end to a project that never really accomplished what it set out to do,” said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state public defender agency. “We have said from the beginning that the stated goals of this session could have, and should have, been achieved at a physical, existing courthouse.”

Advocates criticized Boston police for bringing one person to the session after arresting the person at a nearby methadone clinic. Newly-elected Boston Mayor Michelle Wu called the arrest "unacceptable" and promised to take a more "public health approach" to the encampment.

"It's not surprising that a process with no credible medical, legal or public health support has, as predicted, failed," said Jim Stewart, director of the First Church Shelter in Cambridge, who has been monitoring the special court session.

Although city officials said the court would handle only people who had outstanding warrants for serious crimes, most faced relatively minor charges such as drug possession or trespassing. All of them were arrested in the neighborhood near Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard on the morning before they appeared at the special session.

The court session was described as a separate, parallel effort to the city's decision to clear the tent encampment. As the session began, Boston officials were simultaneously removing sections of tents from city streets.

Under an executive order from then-acting Mayor Kim Janey, city workers were told to tape notices on tents that would be removed in 48 hours. On the designated day, outreach workers would approach those living in the tents and offer other shelter and storage for personal belongings. Those who refused to move could be charged with disorderly conduct.

Some outreach workers estimate there are still about 80 tents in the neighborhood, although most are now located a few blocks from where they were removed.

In the past three weeks of removals, the city says more than 150 people have been placed in some type of shelter, with 126 people sent to addiction treatment programs, 16 people placed in transitional and permanent housing, and others going to homeless shelters. The city has said no one was charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to move a tent. At one point more than 300 people were estimated to be living in the encampment.

In a lawsuit, the ACLU sought to halt the tent removals arguing the city did not ensure that people had adequate shelter. The suit alleged violations of constitutional and disability rights. It also said many people cannot live in congregate care settings such as homeless shelters for reasons that include mental health issues or not being able to stay with a partner.

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Although a judge this week rejected the ACLU's request for a temporary restraining order to stop the tent removals, the two sides are working out details of how the removals will proceed, and what types of housing will be offered to those who are asked to leave. Suffolk Superior Court Judge Janet Sanders has asked both sides work out their differences. Although they were scheduled to be back in court again later this month, that hearing has been put off to give the city and the ACLU time to review the details of the removals and the housing options offered to those who are displaced.

Before the judge issued her ruling Wednesday, Mayor Wu announced a pause in the tent removals because of the litigation. She says her administration is working to find housing alternatives, and new sites are expected to open soon.

"The bottom line is we need more low-threshold supportive housing across the board," Wu said. "It is not safe for people to be in tents on the streets."

The mayor also pledged to continue daily outreach to help people access support, services and in-patient treatment beds when they are available.

"We are working diligently to get people into those beds," Wu said.

The state this week outlined a proposal to add some transitional housing on the campus of the Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain. The plan involves erecting 18 individual cabins in a "temporary cottage community" that would house up to 30 people. A local service provider would be responsible for supports such as security, meals and case management.

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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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