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Boston's tent encampment to be cleared by Jan. 12, Wu says06:12
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The tent encampment near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston will be gone by Jan. 12.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and officials from her administration say they have found new housing options for those living in the encampment.

“The date that we've set — by which all the pieces will come together in terms of beds available, outreach and continuing work with community members — is Jan. 12," Wu said at a press briefing on the plan Wednesday.

The plans call for 41 transitional housing beds at the EnVision Hotel in Mission Hill, two temporary housing programs and a treatment program on the Shattuck Hospital Campus, and transitional housing for up to 60 people at the Roundhouse Hotel near the encampment on Mass. Ave. The city is also working on programs at three city shelters specifically for those who have been living on the streets in the neighborhood.

Dr. Monica Bharel, who is working as a senior advisor to the mayor on the encampment, said many of the housing options would include medical care and case management to help people get treatment and eventually permanent housing.

“We're offering meaningful options, meaningful upfront options to individuals that are low threshold, safe spaces for these unsheltered individuals to be able to get the medical treatment that they need and begin to heal and recover in an appropriate environment," Bharel said.

The housing plans were developed based on surveying those living in the encampment. The Boston Public Health Commission presented data showing that, at one point, there were 143 people living in 77 tents in the area. According to the data, about a third of the encampment residents are women, the mean age of those living there is 40 years old and 64% of those staying in the tents are people of color.

Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said the plans were developed focusing on "health equity and racial justice" and using an "evidence-based strategy" to get people out of the tents.

Starting Thursday, city workers will go to each tent and provide information about housing options and services.

"Individuals with a public health focus led by our recovery teams will say, 'How can we help you go to another option, because this is not an option for you to be here?' " Bharel said. "We are doing this in collaboration with the Boston Police Department, Department of Public Works.”

Starting Thursday, city workers will go to each tent and provide information about housing optionsIf someone refuses to leave after exploring housing options, city officials said the "encampment protocol" announced by former acting mayor Kim Janey, is still in effect, meaning a person could face charges if they don't move their tent. But they say they don't expect that people will want to stay on the streets.

“The goal is not to arrest people or to criminalize behavior that we know is related to illness," Ojikutu said. "This is a public health oriented approach. We are going to be very aggressive. I'll use the term aggressive because we are doing ... multiple levels of outreach."

Wu paused tent removals shortly after taking office last month because of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. The suit claimed the city was violating people's rights by not offering viable housing options. The ACLU said it welcomes the approach announced by Wu Wednesday.

"We are heartened to hear that steps are underway to create viable housing options, and we will be monitoring actions on the ground to ensure proposed placements accommodate disability and other health needs," ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose said in a statement. "A public health and equity lens, paired with respect for due process, offers a lasting path to public safety.”

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Other advocates offered cautious acknowledgement of the plan.

"It seems to be an attempt to offer at least some options that are informed by proven, best practices and not unfounded punitive ideas about those experiencing homelessness," said Jim Stewart, director of the First Church Shelter in Cambridge, who has been monitoring the situation in the area and offering assistance to those living in the tents.

"The plan for evidence-based, clinically-appropriate housing combined with comprehensive mental health and substance use disorder treatment services in diffuse locations is the right approach," said Julie Burns, president and CEO of RIZE Massachusetts, a foundation that works on efforts to address the opioid crisis. "Our foundation will continue to partner with the city and state and support the innovative efforts of providers serving people with substance use disorder."

But not everyone is pleased. Dozens of people have complained about the plan to use the Roundhouse for transitional housing, saying it does not de-centralize services away from the so-called "Mass and Cass" area.

"This idea of creating a new facility and new programs right in the heart of Mass and Cass. is such a mistake, especially when we're doing nothing to address the open air drug market that has existed there," said Stephen Fox, chair of the South End Forum, an umbrella group representing some neighborhood organizations in the area.

They are asking the hotel's owners not to lease the property to Boston Medical Center, which would oversee the services provided there.

The Roundhouse plan would only be for one year, city officials said, and they are continuing to look for other transitional housing sites. They said they had to move quickly with the cold weather here and they will continue to look into other options.

“I will be the first to admit that we don't have the perfect solutions in front of us to choose between right now, given the time of year and given the context that that we are walking into," Wu said. "But having a truly public health and housing-led approach to get at the root causes here is what will ensure that we no longer have a situation that is not safe for hardly anyone who is involved, whether it's patients needing treatment or residents and businesses in the area.”

This article was originally published on December 15, 2021.

This segment aired on December 15, 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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