Sheriff Steve Tompkins floated committing people living at Mass. and Cass to a repurposed jail. Then came the pushback.

"Public health officials, not law enforcement officers, should drive the decision-making process for a comprehensive solution."

Sheriff Steve Tompkins speaks during a press conference last November. Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe

In the wake of the recent dustup between Boston and Revere over a plan to relocate homeless people in the Mass. and Cass area to a Revere hotel, Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins saw a problem with a solution sitting on his property.

A building on his South Bay correctional campus — once used to house federal immigration detainees — was now vacant. Why not, Tompkins proposed, take those living in the increasing number of tents and makeshift shelters amid the worsening conditions at Mass. and Cass and provide them temporary housing on several floors in the building, where they could receive mental health and substance use treatment.


Whether they want to or not.

Tompkins’s proposal to involuntarily commit homeless individuals to the repurposed detention center quickly engendered backlash from public health advocates and even some fellow local elected officials. But the Boston Democrat, who has criticized city-led efforts to address Mass. and Cass as “100 percent useless,” is defending the plan as a “last resort” as winter approaches.

“Let’s find a way to get people off the street and get them into housing where they would have shelter, food, other medication that they need, showers, and the like,” Tompkins said during an appearance Tuesday afternoon on WBUR.

“We just think it’s a smart idea to get people in a confined space when the winter is coming,” he said. ‘It’s going to get incredibly cold here.”

Tompkins first outlined the plan last week to Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung; he said the building had the capacity to take up to 100 people for 90 days with dorm-style accommodations, including common areas with sofas and other comforts, so it wouldn’t “feel like you’re in a prison.”

Tompkins told WBUR that the idea came out of a discussion with residents and businesses in the Mass. and Cass area. And it’s similar to an approach taken in Hampden County, where individuals struggling with addiction were involuntarily committed to a treatment wing under a state law called Section 35.


Tompkins told WBUR that his proposal would begin with people who already have outstanding criminal warrants — but that a second path could be through Section 35, in which law enforcement or families can request a court order requiring someone to be civilly committed for substance use disorder.

“Most people think that it is a good idea,” Tompkins said.

Not all people, though.

In the wake of his proposal, several civil rights and public health advocates spoke out against the idea, telling the Globe that the approach is not backed by research and that “detention settings are poorly-suited for substance use treatment.”

Though Tompkins noted that his facility has “full blown” mental health and substance use teams equipped to help people who “wind up here anyway,” Brown University public health researcher Alexandra Collins told the Globe that people who are involuntarily admitted to drug use treatment are twice as likely to die from an overdose compared to people who willingly seek treatment.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey also said Tompkins’s plan “raises some questions and concerns.” And Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who along with Boston police would be tasked with carrying out any such plan, said her office is committed to using data-driven, evidence-based, and collaborative approaches to reducing and preventing serious and violent crimes” in the Mass. and Cass area.


In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Ayanna Pressley also spoke out against the plan.

“Substance use disorder is a public health crisis,” Pressley said in a statement.

“That is why public health officials, not law enforcement officers, should drive the decision-making process for a comprehensive solution to combat the substance use crisis that tears at the fabric of communities across the country, including those in the Massachusetts 7th,” she said. “Involuntary commitment to repurposed prison facilities is not the answer to the ongoing crisis at Mass. and Cass.”

Pressley referenced the three recent deaths this summer at the South Bay House of Correction, which included one woman who was civilly committed to the facility for a treatment program.

Tompkins told WBUR that the center receives civilly committed people with “serious, serious medical issues,” but cannot give them a medical due to Section 35, which was why he was primarily looking at those with criminal warrants.

Tompkins added that it “infuriate[d]” him that the substance use and homelessness crises had reached this point, given the country’s vast wealth. In a statement to the Globe, he welcomed Pressley’s input, which he said “could be positive if it gets her legislative colleagues to use their collective muscle to rectify the dire Mass/Cass situation.”

“If there are others outside of a correction facility that can do it, fine,” Tompkins said on WBUR. “Then go for it. We are wide open to that, but we want the discussion to begin in earnest, and let’s begin to really help people.”

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