Wu files Mass. and Cass ordinance, details plans in new blog post

Local News

Mayor Michelle Wu also responded to reports that City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson was robbed at Mass. and Cass over the weekend.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. Erin Clark/Boston Globe

Last Friday, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Police Commissioner Michael Cox announced a major change in terms of the city’s handling of the area known as Mass. and Cass, where the region’s crises of homelessness and substance use converge. 

In a blog post Monday, Wu detailed the thinking behind the plan, which looks to authorize police to clear tents while opening up temporary shelter beds for those displaced nearby. 

Wu also filed an ordinance Monday that would give the plan the green light. It is set to be taken up by the Boston City Council later this week, with Wu waiting on their approval. 

In her Substack post, Wu gave an overview of the recent history that led to the current situation at Mass. and Cass, where safety concerns recently spiked. She touted the accomplishments of her administration, and framed the new plans as “doubling down” on the city’s current, successful approach. 

As the city’s policies have decreased the proportion of people who need low-threshold housing, the number of people who have housing but still travel to Mass. and Cass to commit crimes has grown, Wu wrote. Drug trafficking, human trafficking, violence, and the storage of weapons are all concerns at Mass. and Cass. As such, some of the city’s community partners have decided to withdraw their outreach workers from the area to keep them safe this summer. 

The public safety issues undermine the valuable housing and recovery services being offered to people that need them, Wu wrote. Much of the criminal activity at Mass. and Cass takes place out of the public eye inside tents and tarp structures. 

Hundreds were living in tents and structures fortified with wood and construction materials in the area as recently as 2021. In early 2022, a few months after becoming mayor, Wu authorized a major project to clear these semi-permanent structures and relocate those that needed shelter. While this succeeded in the short-term, Wu wrote, temporary tents and tarp structures still pop up after every street cleaning, especially on Atkinson Street. 

Cox communicated to Wu that his officers need the authority to move quicker in clearing out the temporary structures, as the current 48-hour notice period “makes it difficult to match the immediacy of public safety issues and drug trafficking concerns in the area.” So the new ordinance gives officers that authority, while simultaneously being “carefully tailored to protect the rights of those who need housing and services, with clear requirements for available and accessible shelter, as well as adequate storage for personal belongings,” Wu wrote. 

The goal, Wu wrote, is to remove tents to eliminate criminal activity while making sure that no one is left without a place to sleep. The city has determined that a “relatively small” number of people are living in tents at Mass. and Cass because they have no other adequate housing options. While the tents are removed, the city is adding up to 30 new beds at the Boston Public Health Commission’s Miranda-Creamer Building nearby. Wu touched on concerns from residents about relocating people from Mass. and Cass closer to their homes and businesses. 

“Although neighbors have been concerned about adding more social services infrastructure in this same area (and even closer to the residential neighborhood), we must create overflow to absorb the impact of this significant change, and will close down the site as soon as all the individuals have moved on to permanent housing or one of the City’s low-threshold sites,” she wrote. 

Wu hopes to simultaneously restore Atkinson Street to an operational roadway while preventing new encampments from popping up in other neighborhoods. So Boston police will establish a 24/7 presence on Atkinson Street to implement the ordinance, and dispatch “coordinated response mobile units” to other parts of the city. These units will have police and public health workers tasked with preventing new encampments. The effort will be coordinated through a central operations post near Mass. and Cass, where plans can be adjusted in real time. 

In her post, Wu sought to contrast these plans with previous efforts to clear Mass. and Cass. This is not a return to the “failed strategies of sweeps” or an admission of failure, she wrote. The plans should succeed because of the progress that has been made in building out the city’s public health and housing infrastructure, according to the mayor.

“It is precisely because of the progress from our public health-led approach that we are able to take new steps with our partners to stabilize the area and make the transition to a safe and effective outreach system,” Wu wrote. 

In her post, Wu also responded to reports that City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson was mugged while at Mass. and Cass over the weekend. Fernandes Anderson was reportedly in the area to collect information for herself ahead of the vote on Wu’s new plans when her phone was stolen. Boston police officers helped her get it back. 

The existence of tents on Atkinson Street made the retrieval of her phone more complicated, Wu wrote. 

“I’m very thankful that she is safe and that BPD officers on scene were able to help get her belongings back that night. We hear from our public health outreach workers and City staff in the area that incidents of violence connected to the tents and tarps occur on a daily basis, and we need to take action to keep our communities safe,” she wrote.