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Mayor Wu says labor shortages are a barrier for expanding supportive, low-threshold housing for people from Mass. and Cass

“The city has identified many beds that we can partner on. The limiting factor here is staffing.”

Mayor Michelle Wu speaks with the media at City Hall on her first full day as mayor in Boston on Nov. 17. Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe

Mayor Michelle Wu said Tuesday that the city is focused on creating more low-threshold housing options to get people living unsheltered around Mass. and Cass off the street, but that the effort to expand the spaces with wrap-around services is being hindered by the ongoing labor shortages being seen across the state.

mass. and cass

The mayor told “Boston Public Radio” that one of the problems the city has faced in trying to get people living on the streets into shelters is that there are often barriers in place that prevent people struggling with active substance use or mental illness from accessing available beds. 

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“We need to be moving towards a much more wrap-around, service included — what’s called supportive low threshold housing — where it’s not just a place to go to sleep at night and store your belongings, but 24-hour staffing when it comes to treatment and services and making sure there’s monitoring for people’s health situations as well,” Wu said.

The mayor said the city is moving in the direction of expanding and moving people into those spaces. The goal is for the city to partner for the beds with provider organizations, which would offer the 24-hour monitoring.

“The city has identified many beds that we can partner on,” Wu said. “The limiting factor here is staffing … With the labor shortages everywhere across the city and beyond, we really are seeing a tremendous need for those who have this kind of expertise to come work in these spaces and help take care of our residents. And if we solve that staffing piece, we can open up a whole lot more capacity.”

Wu announced last week that in response to ongoing litigation from the ACLU, Boston is pausing efforts to remove encampments around Mass. and Cass, the stretch of city blocks that have emerged as the epicenter of the overlapping crises of homelessness, addiction, and mental health in the region. 

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Then-acting Mayor Kim Janey launched the encampment protocols, which were mandated in an executive order, on Nov. 2. The measures targeted the removal of tents in the city, with Janey and officials stressing that the goal was to get people struggling with homelessness, addiction, and mental health connected with resources and services.

The executive order mandated that unhoused individuals be given at least 48 hours notice that their tent must be removed, and officials said no one would be required to remove a structure unless they had been first offered a bed in a shelter or other facility. But under the mandate, people who are offered placement and refuse to remove their tent could be charged with disorderly conduct. 

The ACLU of Massachusetts has taken the city to court over the protocols, but so far the organization has been denied a temporary restraining order to halt the removals. The city has faced criticism over the measures from advocates who said the steps would only cause harm by dispersing and criminalizing a vulnerable population.

Another effort to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis at Mass. and Cass came to an end this week when the special court session at the Suffolk County jail, created for individuals arrested in the area on open warrants, was halted. The temporary virtual court, which officials called a “Community Response Session,” also faced criticism from advocates for being ill-equipped medically to serve the arrested individuals who were struggling with addiction or other medical issues, and for criminalizing people struggling with substance use disorder. 

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Wu told “Boston Public Radio” on Tuesday that to address the crisis at Mass. and Cass, it is important that “all solutions are on the table.”

The mayor said the the special court session, which moved forward as a separate but parallel effort to the city’s encampment protocols, was an important collaboration between the legal system, state, county, and local government. 

But, she said the court ended up not being a true diversionary program since the judge only had the ability to clear municipal warrants issued in Boston.

“Many of the issues had involved other jurisdictions or non-city level warrants that then required people to be sent off to other courts anyway to get their redress and to have that situation addressed,” Wu said. “So people were being held way longer than necessary because the capacity wasn’t there and because the full powers weren’t located there. So, now there will be more of a push for medical treatment to be part of a diversionary process at the existing courts.”

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