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‘People were very clear that they did not want to move’: Tents removed at Mass. and Cass as court session in Suffolk County jail starts

The first day of encampment protocols coincided with the first day of a court session at the Suffolk County jail, where three individuals from Mass. and Cass were brought in. 

A man packs up his belongings at Mass. and Cass on Monday. Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe

Sixteen tents were removed from the encampment at Mass. and Cass on Monday, as part of the city’s first day of enforcing new protocols aimed at clearing the temporary shelters that officials say present a public health and public safety crisis. 

The effort, which stems from an executive order issued by Acting Mayor Kim Janey in October, rolled out the same day that a new temporary court was set up at the nearby Suffolk County jail, where individuals from the area, which has become the epicenter of the addiction, homelessness, and mental health crises in the city, with outstanding warrants were brought in. Both efforts have received significant pushback from doctors, advocates, and researchers.

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The new court session is part of a proposal from Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins to get people out of the tents in the area and before a judge, who will determine whether the individuals may be sent to a treatment facility the sheriff is working to set up in the jail instead of a harsher penalty for their charges.

On Monday, three men were brought into the court on charges ranging from drug possession to larceny to breaking and entering, The Boston Globe reports

All three of the men were described during the proceedings as dealing with substance use disorder, and they all asked to be sent to treatment, according to GBH. But the judge only granted the request for one of them. 

Stephanie Garrett-Stearns, Janey’s chief communications officer, said last week that the special court, which she called the “Community Response Session,” moved forward separately from the city’s encampment protocols, but in “parallel,” pointing out that the court was an element also called for in the mayor’s executive order. 

“It is not our expectation that the unsheltered, vulnerable individuals that we are looking to help and support are the primary subject of this new Community Response Session,” she said. “That session is really designed to target individuals charged with serious offenses who are preying upon the more vulnerable in this part of our city. So while the timing is concurrent, these two efforts are really designed to address two different types of populations.”

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The public defender for one of the men brought in on Monday, who was homeless and had been in and out of four treatment facilities in the last year, asked he be sent to a detox facility, rather than be ordered to Fitchburg to address his outstanding warrants, according to GBH. 

“The kind of care that he needs is available to him, our understanding is that the purpose of this session partly is to clear warrants and partly is to get people into care,” attorney Josh Raisler Cohn told the judge. “We’ve been working hard all day at getting him that care, and I would ask that he be allowed to go to that care.”

According to the station, the Suffolk County prosecutor, representing the commonwealth, also reiterated the state’s understanding that the purpose of the session was seeking care for individuals. But Judge Paul Treseler denied the requests for treatment. 

As the court proceedings were unfolding, nearby tents and temporary shelters were being dismantled. 

A city spokesperson said in a statement that 17 individuals were connected with pathways to transition housing on Monday. City officials have stressed that following encampment protocols, individuals at Mass. and Cass must be given at least 48 hours notice that tents must be removed and that no one will be required to remove their structure unless they have been offered a bed in a shelter or another service like a treatment facility. 

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The goal of the protocols, according to city officials, is to get people connected with resources and services. But under Janey’s executive order, people who have been offered placement and refuse to remove their shelter may be charged with disorderly conduct. Boston police may also petition for involuntary commitments for people who “present a likelihood of serious harm to themselves or others” because of mental illness or substance use disorder.

City officials did a recent survey of the tents in the Mass. and Cass area and estimated that 350 people were there, with about 85 percent of individuals reporting sleeping on the street the night before the evaluation was conducted.

Officials have said the city is working to ensure that tent removals are aligned with available services. According to the city, there are about 80 to 90 shelter beds available on a daily basis, with the number fluctuating daily. 

In a statement Monday, the city spokesperson said that of the 17 people connected with pathways to transition housing, nine have already “toured new apartments”: 

These efforts also resulted in the storage or removal of 16 tents in the area. Several other individuals enrolled in treatment, moved to shelter, or returned to their own permanent homes. While the progress on the first day was extraordinary, in the weeks ahead, the City remains committed to engaging with every individual who is suffering from unsheltered homelessness or substance use disorder across our city, including those who did not engage in services today. Every single day, City of Boston outreach workers are on the ground connecting our most vulnerable neighbors to medical care and services. Mayor Janey wants nothing more than to protect the public health and public safety of those living in inhumane and unsafe conditions, and to address those who prey upon them. The availability of appropriate shelter, housing and/or treatment bed options for each unsheltered person is what will determine the pace of the City’s current encampment operations. No unsheltered individual will be required to remove their tent, before shelter, housing, or treatment is available for them.”

Cassie Hurd, executive director of the Material Aid and Advocacy Program, a nonprofit that supports homeless individuals, was around Mass. and Cass on Monday as a legal observer and to provide assistance to people while the city carried out its encampment protocols.

“People were very clear that they did not want to move,” she told Boston.com.  

She said the city is using “coercion” and threats in their strategy to get people out of their tents, with at least one person reporting to her that they felt bombarded by several city employees telling them that they had no choice but to move. 

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“It is a lot of alluding to — with consequence of having the police behind them,” she said. “People understand that there is now a risk of being arrested for disorderly conduct.” 

As people were packing up belongings around Mass. and Cass, Hurd said it was well known by everyone that at the same time, the court session was underway at the Suffolk County jail. 

“[People] are very afraid that they’re going to be picked up and brought in,” she said.

The court session went as Hurd expected it might, she said.

She and other advocates have been raising concerns that the proceedings will only criminalize vulnerable individuals and cause harm, despite officials saying the sessions are for the sake of public health and helping the people struggling with addiction, homelessness, and mental health.

“Tompkins opened this court under the premise that people were too ‘medically compromised’ to go to other courts, but then held people all day, didn’t start sessions until midday — they had to wait longer than they would have if they had gone to court in Roxbury or elsewhere,” Hurd said. “And then two were not able to access treatment when that was exactly what they wanted when offered the limited set of ‘choice.’ It was not a choice just to leave and access further harm reduction services or support. And then that choice of even accessing treatment — that would have been coerced — was removed.”

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Following Monday’s events, Hurd said the concern is that people are largely just being dispersed away from the Mass. and Cass area. Some individuals are remaining in the Newmarket area, but she said they are aware that they will likely just be moved by the city again. 

“It really is significantly less safe to be moving people along than just servicing the encampments and offering basic sanitation,” she said.

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