City councilors call for Mass. and Cass emergency declaration; Wu admin. pushes back

Local News

Boston City Councilors Erin Murphy, Frank Baker, Ed Flynn, and Michael Flaherty said that officials need to declare a state of emergency to improve the situation at Mass. and Cass.

An encampment of tents and shelters lines Atkinson Street in the area know as Mass. and Cass, Aug. 17, 2023. John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe

Multiple members of the Boston City Council are calling for a state of emergency to be declared regarding the Mass. and Cass area, where the twin crises of homelessness and substance abuse collide. Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration is pushing back though, urging the councilors instead to approve Wu’s own recently-revealed plan.

A state of emergency declaration would give the city “more flexibility” in responding to the situation, Councilors Erin Murphy, Frank Baker, Ed Flynn, and Michael Flaherty said in a letter to the Boston Public Health Commission Friday. They cited the state of emergency that was declared in response to the pandemic, and Gov. Maura Healey’s recent declaration in response to a surge in migrants coming to Massachusetts. 

“What is unfolding at Mass and Cass, and surrounding neighborhoods, is similar in its multifaceted complexity, and no less dire in its threat to human life and well-being,” the councilors wrote. 

The councilors did not detail specific ways that the city should handle the area, which has been plagued by an uptick in safety concerns this summer. 

Last month, Wu announced that her administration would be pursuing a “major phase change” in its approach to Mass. and Cass. Wu filed an ordinance that would empower police to take down tarps and tents, while creating a set of temporary beds for those that are displaced. 

The plan specifically targets Atkinson Street, where some live in tents while many more gather daily. Officials have said that much of the criminal activity there, from drug trafficking to violence and human trafficking, takes places out of sight inside the tents and tarp structures. With the new ordinance, Wu hopes to clear Atkinson Street and return it to an operational roadway. 

In their letter, the councilors characterized an emergency declaration as a “dramatic intervention” and said that “politically expedient solutions that do not address the underlying problems” could make matters worse. 

Wu’s new plan relies on adding 30 new beds at the Boston Public Health Commission’s Miranda-Creamer Building nearby. In announcing the plan, Wu stressed that this would be a temporary measure and the beds would not be backfilled. 

The councilors said that opening the new shelter would “continue adding to the undue burden already shouldered by the South End and Roxbury neighborhoods.”

Wu’s ordinance must be approved by City Council. 

“The Mayor is waiting on legislative action from Councilors to move forward with needed public safety changes at Mass and Cass and across the city. We urge this Council to move beyond symbolic gestures and pass the proposed ordinance expeditiously,” a city spokesperson said in a statement to 

Boston police reported 161 incidents at Mass. and Cass last week, a figure slightly above the weekly average. Police activity spiked in July, when police at one point responded to 186 incidents in a week. This was the most since January, according to data compiled by the city. The weekly number of BPD incidents fell back below average later in July, before stabilizing around the average in August. 

In their letter, the councilors said that there was a 57% increase from June 2023 to July 2023 in the number of people who received substance use treatment at Mass. and Cass. 

“Businesses are suffering, youth activity programs have been jeopardized, and our first responders are subject to dangerous conditions that exceed what should reasonably be expected of people already performing difficult jobs,” the councilors wrote. “Long ago, this exceeded the quality of life threshold and has become an outright Public Health Emergency.”