Wu announces plans to take down tents, open temporary shelter near Mass. and Cass

Local News

Public safety concerns spiked at Mass. and Cass this summer, so officials are looking to remove the temporary structures that they say hide much of the criminal activity there.

An encampment of tents and shelters line Atkinson Street in the area know as Mass. and Cass. JohnTlumacki/Boston Globe

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, Police Commissioner Michael Cox, and other officials announced Friday that they would be pursuing a “major phase change” in terms of the city’s response to significant safety concerns in the area of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, known as Mass. and Cass. 

Wu said she will be introducing an ordinance that will empower Boston police officers to take down tarps and tents, while establishing a set of temporary beds for those displaced.

Help for those that need it

Of the hundreds that gather at Mass. and Cass every day, a relatively small number actually camp on the street overnight and have no other housing options. 

“A very small number of people relative to the population of folks who are present during the day … are actually using tents and tarps because they are in need of housing,” Wu said. “We do not believe that living on the street, in a tent, in the public way is safe for anyone when there is adequate shelter that is available as an alternative.”

Since much of the criminal activity that takes place at Mass. and Cass, from human trafficking to the storage of weapons, occurs out of view behind tents and tarps, officials are focusing on clearing these out. 

The ordinance would only apply to those who have been offered adequate shelter instead, as well as transportation to that shelter and storage for their personal belongings. As such, the other major component of Friday’s announcement was that the city will be establishing a temporary set of transitional beds nearby. 

Wu pushed back on the idea of this being a “forced shelter.” She said she was focused on increasing public safety and returning vehicular access to Atkinson Street. 

“When we are taking such serious steps to curb the public safety concerns and to return the operations of Atkinson Street to a functioning vehicular street open to travel, that means that there will be some serious disruption as well in the dynamic for people who have been used to gathering and congregating at Mass. and Cass,” Wu said at a press conference Friday morning. 

Earlier this month, Wu said that public safety had notably deteriorated at Mass. and Cass, where the region’s crises of substance abuse, homelessness, and mental health collide. With colder months approaching, officials said that now is the time to take serious action. 

So, as many as 30 transitional beds will be set up at 727 Mass. Ave. As the people that move there are connected with other housing opportunities, the beds will be eliminated. The facility is not intended to be a “revolving door” or to backfill spots as a permanent location, Wu said. It will be used to manage the transition until Atkinson Street is “stabilized.” Many of those that will be moving to this facility have already been identified by the city, and officials have been working with them to prepare for the change. 

The Atkinson Street engagement center will be closed during this process, and officials hope to reopen it as soon as possible. The clinical services being offered there will relocate to the Mass. Ave facility. 

Wu did not frame this announcement as a massive shift in direction by her administration. 

“We are absolutely doubling down on what the city and our partners have been doing because it’s been working,” she said. 

More than 500 people have now been served by low-threshold housing created by the city since the beginning of 2022, Wu said, and 149 have completely moved through the program to attain permanent housing. This has been working, but action needs to be taken to restore public safety, she said.

Police actions

Cox, who was sworn in last August, has now had a full year to assess the situation and create detailed plans of how to curb the criminality at Mass. and Cass, Wu said. Officers will maintain a 24/7 presence in the area, and a central operations hub will be established nearby with BPD officers, public health workers, and others. 

“Law enforcement sweeps” have not been successful in the past, Wu said, and these plans are not meant to replicate those. 

In recent months a drastic need for change has made itself evident specifically on Atkinson Street and Southampton Street, Cox said. He noted a “double-digit increase” in gun arrests and assaults in the area. 

More than 200 people gather on these streets every day, he said, which contributes to many public safety problems. Removing temporary shelters will lessen the appeal for those who come to the area to prey on those in desperate need of services, Cox added. 

Current BPD policy requires 48 hours of notice before tents and tarps are cleared away outside of the voluntary street cleaning process, Cox said. 

“Given that we’ve learned how the drug market and other activities in the area operate, this is just not a realistic way for us to be able to address the situation,” he said. 

The ordinance would also allow Cox to create special BPD teams that would be dispatched to “hotspot” areas around Boston where people may try to reestablish encampments. Location specifics would be evaluated in real time, and could change daily. 

Cox acknowledged that residents would have concerns about people being displaced into their neighborhoods. 

“I know people may be fearful that it’s going to come to their neighborhood, but the reality is we’re going to be in every neighborhood just to make sure that that doesn’t occur,” he said. 

Public safety has specifically deteriorated on Atkinson Street. Denise De Las Nueces, who leads Boston Health Care for the Homeless, said Friday that her organization was forced to pull staff from Atkinson Street and temporarily pause clinical services due to safety concerns. This is causing a “profound” impact on patients, and medical care is being disrupted for many who desperately need it. 

“Our EMS team and other first responders cannot access the street in its current state. We are in a humanitarian crisis. It’s clear to all in this area that something urgently needs to be done,” Boston Public Health Commission Deputy Director Michele Clark said.

In 2019, the city initiated “Operation Clean Sweep,” where a total of 34 people were arrested near Mass. and Cass over two days. The action drew harsh criticism, and accusations of unconstitutional stops. 

On Friday, Wu sought to distance the new plans from that effort. She addressed reports that wheelchairs and other personal items were destroyed in 2019, and said that officials are working to revamp the city’s storage system so that people can access their belongings as needed. 

The ordinance will be filed Monday and will be taken up at next Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Wu said. Council members will need to hold a hearing and vote on the ordinance, and other logistical steps need to be taken before these plans go into effect. This will likely take around two months, and officials hope to have everything finalized sometime this fall, before temperatures start to truly dip.