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Boston officials visit jail as they seek options to house people at 'Mass. and Cass'

Boston police park at the intersection of Atkinson and Southampton Streets to keep an eye on the crowd that has gathered in the area (Deborah Becker/WBUR)
Boston police park at the intersection of Atkinson and Southampton Streets to keep an eye on the crowd that has gathered in the area (Deborah Becker/WBUR)

With dozens of people still congregating in what's known as the "Mass. and Cass" area of Boston, city officials say they are "exploring all options" — including a controversial plan to use a nearby jail — to house people who linger there.

Last fall, before Mayor Michelle Wu took office, the city proposed using a building on the campus of the Suffolk County jail to house some of those living on the streets in the area near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. The plan was scuttled amid opposition to using a jail to house people, most of whom have mental health and addiction issues.

This week, Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins said officials with the Wu administration recently toured the Nashua Street jail as a potential location that could accommodate about 100 people from the "Mass. and Cass" area.

"As the calendar has circled around again to fall and winter, the conversations have picked up," Tompkins said. "Some of the mayor's folk did visit with us about a month and a half ago and they looked at Nashua Street, and we haven't heard much from them since. I understand the urgency, so I entertain the discussions."

There is no formal proposal on the table, Tompkins said, though he believes he has the capacity to take in some of the people who continue to live on the streets. But Tompkins said he doesn't want to face the same criticism as last year, from those who said he sought to criminalize people who are unhoused and experiencing mental health and addiction issues.

If the plan to use his jail were to move forward, Tompkins said, he would want assurances that his facility would house only those already involved in the criminal legal system. A court would have to mandate treatment for up to 90 days, Tompkins said. He envisions an arrangement where a person could agree to treatment in exchange for help dealing with outstanding criminal warrants.

Tompkins said he would not support using the state law known as Section 35, which allows for people to be involuntarily committed to treatment if their addiction is considered dangerous. The law is the subject of a pending lawsuit.

"Although I am in favor of Section 35,  for this initiative I'd rather we just work with individuals that are already engaged with the legal system because I don't want to hear the noise that we are trying to criminalize people," Tompkins said.

The mayor's office said Wu is grateful for Tompkins' partnership, and the city is looking at various ways to increase the availability of housing and services to help people at "Mass. and Cass." After WBUR first published its story about the jail tour, Wu's office said it does not expect to move forward with the Nashua Street plan.

" ... I'd rather we just work with individuals that are already engaged with the legal system because I don't want to hear the noise that we are trying to criminalize people."

Steve Tompkins

But the fact that city officials visited the facility shows the urgent need to find solutions to help those at "Mass. and Cass." Last week, the city moved dozens of makeshift dwellings from Southampton Street because of safety concerns on the busy roadway. People were directed to nearby Atkinson Street, which is now blocked off to traffic with Boston police vehicles on either end.

On Monday, dozens of people lined Atkinson Street — several huddling under tarps and large umbrellas in the light rain. Many people were openly injecting or smoking drugs; some were nodding off; some were clearly under the influence of drugs. It was also clear that some people were there to sell drugs.

"Johnnies, I got Johnnies," a man shouted as he walked up and down Atkinson Street, using a street name for the prescription drug gabapentin. The substance is a non-narcotic prescription pain reliever that can produce a high when taken in large doses and can enhance the effects of opioids.

Some local business owners — and some city councilors — say the continued issues show that Boston needs to take a different approach to stop people from living on the streets. The city cleared out a large encampment at "Mass. and Cass" in January, after declaring the area a public health emergency. City officials at the time said 77 tents had been erected there. City outreach workers offered shelter and treatment before removing the tents.

But people have continued to congregate in the area, which is home to several services for those who are unhoused and in need of addiction and mental health treatment. Over the summer, some tarps and makeshift tents returned to the neighborhood. Many local businesspeople and politicians say they are in favor of using Tompkins' facilities to house more people.

Boston City Councilor Frank Baker, who supported the original plan to use a Suffolk County jail facility to house those from "Mass and Cass," said the city should take advantage of the capacity available in the sheriff's buildings. The Nashua Street jail is operating at almost 300 prisoners below capacity, according to the sheriff's office. Baker also wants to see a stronger legal process to involuntarily commit people to treatment.

Without drastic changes, Baker said the problems at "Mass. and Cass" — and the cost of addressing them — will only get worse. And he criticized the current approach for allowing people to remain on the streets, rather than placing them in treatment programs that he said should last for 60 to 90 days.

"Long-term hospice is what we're doing," Baker said.

Gerry DiPierro, owner of DiPierro Construction on Massachusetts Avenue, also supports the idea of using the jail for housing. DiPierro said the area near his business has gotten worse over the past year, and his building is routinely vandalized and damaged. He said he feels less safe now and said people continue to flock to "Mass. and Cass" because of the myriad services, such as outpatient addiction treatment and needle exchanges, concentrated there.

"There's still just a large amount of resources here," DiPierro said. "People are getting all the drugs they want here. They're getting all the services they want here. Everything's right here."

Area business owners, including DiPierro, have joined together to hire a private security company and install surveillance cameras. Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, which represents businesses in the "Mass. and Cass" area, said the private security company responded to more than 11,000 calls in the past four months. She said she is arranging a meeting between business owners and city officials.

"People are getting all the drugs they want here. They're getting all the services they want here. Everything's right here."

Gerry DiPierro

While Sullivan thinks there have been positive steps taken by the city to reduce the number of people on the streets and provide housing, she would like to see a crack down on the open drug use and more ways to involuntarily commit people to mental health and addiction treatment.

"Business owners are tired. They're tired of having to call 911 or call security all the time because someone is disrupting their business," Sullivan said. "We shouldn't just be allowing people to do whatever they want on the street. "

Sullivan is working with the city and helps run a program that hires some of those who lived on the streets to clean up the area and keep order. Tim Galligan, 44, is one of those workers. Since the tents came down in January, Galligan has been living in the Roundhouse Hotel, a facility set up to provide temporary housing for people from "Mass. and Cass." He had been living in the area for about seven months before that.

Galligan expects to move into more permanent housing soon, and said the transitional housing gave him some stability.

"I've got a lot more structure since I went in there," Galligan said. "My anxiety has gone down too. I can kind of relax, I don't have to worry so much."

On WBUR's Radio Boston program Monday, Wu said the city has been making progress on "Mass. and Cass," but still needs help. Since January, when the city removed the encampments, Wu said 400 people have been connected with housing services and almost 200 units of so-called "low threshold" housing have been created.

"Low threshold" housing is for people who may not be eligible for homeless shelters because of substance use or mental health issues. Such programs provide case managers that connect people with services and help them keep their housing. Wu is asking the state to create 1,000 more similar units.

"The number seems very large, and it feels very daunting when we're talking about this," Wu said. "But to just remind folks, the reason why we're talking about this and putting forward this number with such specificity is in the city of Boston we were able to go from zero units to 200 units in a matter of just a few months."

"There are lots of people who are coming in from all across the state and even New England, outside Massachusetts."

Michelle Wu

She said the 20 tent-like structures now in the area are not the same as the tents that were on the streets last year, because many of the previous structures were fortified with items such as wooden pallets and propane tanks for heat. Wu also said a recent survey of those living in the area showed that almost half had most recently resided in another city or town outside of Boston.

"There are lots of people who are coming in from all across the state and even New England, outside Massachusetts," Wu said. "Boston is a center city. We are never going to say we're putting up walls and shutting our compassion down and our ability to serve down. We are alsways going to be that hub, but we need resources and the partnership from the state to actually do it right and get at the root causes here."

Shortly after Wu was elected last November, she said the "Mass. and Cass" area would be a "high priority" for her administration. She also said she would be taking a "public health approach" and focusing on getting people into care, rather than involving the criminal legal system.

“The humanitarian crisis at "Mass. and Cass" demands urgent, bold solutions that create genuine pathways to recovery and stability for our most vulnerable residents,” Wu said last November, when announcing the plan to dismantle the tents lining the streets.

Some point to Wu's statements then and say they are suprised that she would reconsider using a jail building to house those from the Mass and Cass area. They point to research showed that those forced into treatment have worse outcomes and those released from correctional facilities have a high rate of overdose death.

Leo Beletsky, Northeastern University assistant professor of Law and Health Sciences, said using coercive approaches might seem like an option, but he called it "using the wrong tools to address the problem" and doesn't provide any kind of "lasting solution."

"Massachusetts already has one of the most highly utilized involuntary commitment systems in the entire country," Beletsky said. "Thousands of people are involuntarily committed every year and those people by and large are worse off when they come out than when they went in."


Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect statements from Mayor Wu's office.

This article was originally published on October 25, 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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