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As city clears tents from 'Mass. and Cass,' some say they still have nowhere to go

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The tent encampment on Atkinson Street, outside of the Southampton Street Shelter at "Mass. and Cass." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The tent encampment on Atkinson Street, outside of the Southampton Street Shelter at "Mass. and Cass." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

For the most part, the tent encampments near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard are gone.

During a press briefing Thursday, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said 154 people from the encampments were placed in shelter as of Wednesday. The mayor said no one was forcibly removed and efforts continue to find shelter for those who are unhoused.

"There are some folks still out on the street," Wu said. "I know our outreach teams have continued to work with everyone, and we'll continue to provide services and offer housing and shelter for people who are in need to get out of the cold. Every single day that goes by in winter is a life safety risk for people who are unhoused."

She said city crews will be working to continue to clear the "Mass. and Cass " area this week. Boston police confirmed there have been two deaths in the encampments in the past five days. They said those deaths are under investigation.

The work began Wednesday morning, when city workers went tent to tent, talking with those living in them about Wu's deadline to clear the encampments from streets by the end of the day.

The mayor promised "a public health approach" would be used to move people living in the tents out and into alternative shelters. But by the end of the day, amid an increased law enforcement presence, some advocates said the process amounted to not much more than a police sweep of the neighborhood.

Mayor Michelle Wu speaks with Norris Cowart who has been in and out of the Southampton Street Shelter, about the current conditions on Atkinson street and the possibility to get affordable housing. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Mayor Michelle Wu speaks with Norris Cowart, who has been in and out of the Southampton Street Shelter, about the current conditions on Atkinson Street. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Dozens of tents were taken away in Newmarket Square before they were cleared on Atkinson Street, the two places with the largest encampments. A recent city census suggested that 145 people were living in the tents. As of Wednesday, the city said more than 100 people had been placed in shelters or housing.

But it was clear there were dozens of people still living on the streets Wednesday, some unaware of the mayor's deadline to remove the tents. City health officials said the removal process involved informing everyone living in the tents that they were being cleared and offering them shelter.

After talking with those inside and checking that a tent was empty, city workers would mark a yellow X on its side, indicating that it was ready to be removed. Crews would then take down the makeshift structure and sweep or shovel it into the streets. By Wednesday afternoon, Atkinson Street was full of debris: clothing, pallets, toiletries, food, coolers, wheelchairs and other belongings. All of it was then loaded into city public works trucks.

A sign that reads, “Please be quiet there R people sleeping” hangs on a lamp post in front of one of the last tents remaining in the homeless encampment at the Newmarket Triangle. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A sign that reads, “Please be quiet there R people sleeping” hangs on a lamp post in front of one of the last tents remaining in the homeless encampment at the Newmarket Triangle. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Going through the debris was Michael, a 42-year-old man who declined to give his last name. He said he had been living in the encampment for about six months before his tent was cleared. He said he has nowhere to go, and he can't find his belongings. So Michael was rifling through the debris for valuables — including syringes, which he could turn in to a program that pays people to clean up needles from the streets.

"I'm looking for needles to turn in and get some money for what I have to do, which is get high," Michael said. "The city demolished my tent, and I had a lot of clothing and stuff in there."

Michael said that a city outreach worker had recently approached him about finding housing, but there was no follow-up. Now he's looking for a place to spend the night and stay warm.

Volunteer shelter workers dismantle a homeless tent dwelling at the Newmarket Triangle. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Workers dismantle a homeless tent dwelling at the Newmarket Triangle. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Volunteer shelter workers throw part of a tent and debris into a garbage truck at the Newmarket Triangle. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Workers throw part of a tent and debris into a garbage truck. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Despite the increased crowds and security near the tents, many people were openly injecting or smoking drugs. Some were nodding off and seemed indifferent to their surroundings.

Some of the encampment residents did secure housing and praised the city for helping them get out of the tents.

After hearing about the Wednesday deadline to clear the streets, 43-year-old Tim Gallagan left the tent he'd stayed in for about seven months. He now lives in one of the supportive housing programs the city set up at the formerly vacant Roundhouse hotel, close to where he had been camped. In the program, case managers and medical workers from Boston Medical Center provide services to those living in the 60 hotel beds.

Gallagan was working Wednesday with outreach workers to help sweep away the tents and belongings. While he felt sympathy for many of those he had been living on the streets with just days before, he said he was grateful to be out of the cold and moving toward housing and controlling his addiction.

"It's a huge positive step," Gallagan said. "Some people might not think so. People are crying because their stuff is getting thrown away, literally. People acquired a lot of stuff as they've been homeless, and, as you can see, it's all getting thrown away."

Wu's point person on the encampments, former state health commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel, was helping to oversee the city's efforts. She said the process is evolving and city workers would continue to try to reach everyone staying on the streets.

"This is a fragile population that we're working with, and things change hour to hour," Bharel said. "But people are cooperating. They understand what's happening today. They understand that we're looking for safe alternative and that is the goal."

Volunteer shelter workers begin to clean up Atkinson Street after tents and large pieces of debris were removed. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Workers begin to clean up Atkinson Street. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Among those helping to clear tents was Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association. For the most part, Sullivan said, area businesses are pleased the tents are coming down after years of lodging or fielding complaints about the dirt, trash, crime and drug use near the encampments.

"For us, this is like Christmas and and the Fourth of July all together," Sullivan said. "It's a win-win for all. Those living in tents now actually have somewhere to sleep tonight — nobody should be out here in this weather at all. From the perspective of the businesses, they can rest easier tonight."

Boston Police block off Atkinson Street with caution tape after they removed the tent inhabitants to remove the dwellings. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Boston police block off Atkinson Street with caution tape after they removed the tent inhabitants to remove the dwellings. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

But the removals did not take place without some snags. By late Wednesday afternoon, police came out in force on Atkinson Street and told people to leave as the street was blocked off with yellow tape. Dozens of people walked around the corner to Southampton Street, many of them saying they had no place to go.

Jason Thompson, 40, said he was approached by an outreach worker over a month ago about finding another place to stay and signed up for help. But he never heard back.

He'd been living in a tent for 18 months, until it was cleared Wednesday. He said he wants to get out of the cold, get help to recover from his addiction and turn his life around.

"I'm trying to get into the first thing that's available," Thompson said. "Anything that's available, I'm willing to give it a try. I'm going back down the street, sign up again, hopefully get in a bed tonight somewhere. If not, I'll be back here."

The city hasn't said what might happen if people return, but Wu has said people will not be criminalized for being homeless. Boston police say no arrests were made on Wednesday.

Cassie Hurd, executive director of the nonprofit Material Aid and Advocacy Program, was helping encampment residents move their belongings and find a place to stay. She said several people did not have access to housing, and she felt the police presence was intimidating.

''If you are removing someone from the self-created community that they have, absent of a solution that identified will work for them, that is absolutely a sweep," Hurd said. "There was no need to create this sort of crisis that's traumatizing for people and coerce people into shelter if you are calling it a true public health plan."

Two land mover trucks remove a pile of debris from the homeless encampment at the Newmarket Triangle. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Two land mover trucks remove a pile of debris from the homeless encampment. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

WBUR's Lynn Jolicoeur contributed to this report.

This article was originally published on January 12, 2022.

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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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