Tents are gone from Boston encampment, but dozens still congregate in the area

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Even without tents from the Boston encampment cleared by the city this year, dozens of people continue to congregate in the area. There are concerns that some people may return to living on the same streets near Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard as warmer weather approaches.

Some family members of people who frequented the encampment are also questioning whether enough treatment services — beyond housing — are available to help their loved ones.

The largest crowds of people are lingering on Atkinson Street, near the new city-run "engagement center." A significant number of them can be seen openly using drugs outside the center. Many people in the area go inside to get out of the cold or get something to eat.

"Basically, we provide a comfort zone for our homeless, [those with] substance use disorders, a lot of mental illness here," said Joseph Phoenix, who manages the center, for the Boston Public Health Commission.

"We are just a safe place where they can sit down, relax. A lot of them have been up all night."

Inside The 'Engagement Center'

Dozens of people are inside the main area of the modern-looking center — a large, concrete-floored room with benches lining the walls and long tables with chairs set up in the middle. A cafeteria-style counter stretches along one wall, where people are offered food and drinks. On the opposite wall are about a half-dozen shower stalls. An outdoor fenced-in smoking area is in the back.

Visitors sign in at the front desk, and many seem to know each other. Some watch TV or browse their phones. Others appear to be dozing, some with their heads down on the tables. Some chat among themselves or with the public health workers trying to connect them with services.

On average, more than 300 people visit the center every day. Most days, more than half a dozen are connected with addiction treatment. Some come to the center looking for help finding housing; others have been placed in housing, yet visit the center during the day.

Among them is 63-year-old Gus Feliciano, who, for the first time in five years, is no longer sleeping outside. Feliciano now lives with his partner in the Roundhouse Hotel. The city leases two floors of the hotel to temporarily house those who were staying in the encampment. Feliciano is among the 164 people the city has placed in housing. Many of the housing programs include case managers to help with medical and behavioral health needs. Feliciano hopes to soon move into a permanent apartment.

"The city is giving people opportunity," Feliciano says. "For me, after five years, I'm finally — finally — getting my own place."

A file photo of the now-removed tent encampment on Atkinson Street in the area known as "Mass. and Cass." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A file photo of the now-removed tent encampment on Atkinson Street in the area known as "Mass. and Cass." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Morale in the area has improved since all the tents were taken down, Phoenix says, adding it's more peaceful now. He says treating unhoused people with dignity has improved the dynamics.

"The whole feeling is different down here," Phoenix says. "Attitudes are better. We treat them all with respect here, and we usually get it back most of the time. They're like family to us. We treat them all like family."

Worries Problems Will Persist

Some family members of those who had lived in the encampment remain worried. Forty-five-year-old Alex often went to the encampment when he knew his 31-year-old brother was living in a tent there.

"I've walked through there searching for my brother," Alex says. "I've seen it firsthand, and there's absolutely nothing attractive about it. I can't really comprehend how someone would think that that is a normal way to live. "

Alex, who doesn't want his last name used to protect his brother's privacy, says his brother has been dealing with mental health and addiction issues for more than a decade, and often frequented the "Mass. and Cass" area. He often reminded his brother that he had been beaten and robbed there, but his brother kept going back.

"He would say, 'I just want friends,' " Alex says. " 'There are people down there I can relate to, you know. These are my friends.' "

His brother can't stay with him, Alex says, if he's using drugs. The last time he heard from him was about two months ago when Alex got a call asking to post bail after his brother was arrested near "Mass. and Cass." Alex refused. Two days earlier his brother had fled an addiction treatment program, and Alex thought jail might be a better option.

"There was that little bit of relief, you know. If he's there, he's safe," Alex says. "It's not that I wanted him to go through any kind of pain. I just wanted him to be alive."

His brother had agreed to talk for this story, but stopped responding. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful. Alex has been told his brother is among those who have been placed in housing in Boston. But Alex believes that what his brother needs most is long-term treatment, and greater oversight of his care.

"I don't think that housing is the best option," Alex says. "I don't think that giving him or anyone else that is going to make this problem disappear. It might make it disappear from 'Mass. and Cass.' "

Boston officials have said they're taking a public health approach to the encampment and housing is a first step toward stability, and hopefully, recovery. They say in many instances, social workers work closely with those who seek services in the "Mass and Cass" area. The city also has been holding "listening sessions" with residents to discuss the city's response, and officials acknowledge that long-term plans are needed to address the intersection of homelessness and addiction that's happening across the state.

Alex's uncle, Gerry Murphy, hopes the attention on the encampment will lead to new ways to help those who are unhoused or with mental health and substance use disorders.

Murphy points to the more than dozen treatment programs his nephew has attended, including an involuntary commitment. He says all of the programs have been short-term, with little follow-up care. Murphy believes that without changes to the treatment system and attention paid to mental health, education and job training,  problems will persist.

"The state of Massachusetts has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on my nephew — putting him in rehab and trying to solve it that way," Murphy says. "But the revolving door we see after these 30- or 45-day programs shows that it's not effective. And not just for my nephew — look at all the people struggling. It's objectively not working."

Alex is concerned the cycle of drug use and living on the streets will continue near "Mass. and Cass" — especially once the weather gets warmer. He says people know the area and know that treatment and social services are there, so it's likely somewhere they'll go — and stay — once it's more comfortable to do so.

"Each one of those people is, is a brother or a son or a daughter," Alex says. "You know, it's just the amount of pain, [and] in just one city. Just think about how much that affects the families out there. It's just, it's almost unfathomable."

This segment aired on February 23, 2022.


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Deborah Becker 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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