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Public health coalition urges Mayor-Elect Michelle Wu to halt city’s encampment protocols at Mass. and Cass

"You have the opportunity to implement transformational change for all Bostonians, but especially for the most vulnerable and least considered individuals in our communities."

Tents line the sidewalk on Massachusetts Avenue in September. Craig Walker / The Boston Globe, File

A coalition of public health experts and advocates who have been condemning Boston’s encampment protocols and the new court established at the Suffolk County jail urged Mayor-Elect Michelle Wu on Wednesday to take a “health-centered” approach in dealing with the humanitarian crisis at Mass. and Cass, and stop city efforts to dismantle encampments in the area. 

Mass. & Cass:

The  Public Health & Human Rights for Mass. and Cass Coalition — comprising groups including Boston Health Care for the Homeless, the Boston Medical Center Grayken Center for Addiction Medicine, the Material Aid and Advocacy Program, and Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts — sent the newly elected mayor a list of proposed policy solutions developed by its members to tackle the overlapping crises of addiction, mental health, and homelessness in the area of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. 

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“As the first woman of color elected to lead the City of Boston, you have the opportunity to implement transformational change for all Bostonians, but especially for the most vulnerable and least considered individuals in our communities,” the coalition wrote to Wu on Wednesday. 

In their policy proposal, the group referenced efforts by acting Mayor Kim Janey to disperse the more than a hundred tents around Mass. and Cass, urging leaders to recognize that removing tents displaces vulnerable populations from the services they rely on, including peers, medical providers, and temporary shelters. 

“The City should meet basic needs for people living in encampments until people have access to housing,” the group wrote. 

The coalition also called out the parallel effort underway this week at the Suffolk County jail, where a special court has been set up specifically to process individuals with open warrants in the area. The new court comes as part of a proposal from Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins to establish a treatment facility in the South Bay correctional facility, where the court judge could send individuals struggling with substance use, rather than passing a harsher penalty.

“The existing efforts currently being pursued (i.e. ‘jail court’ and the current administration’s Executive Order) are temporary approaches that do not address the root causes of the crises, rely on coercion through law enforcement, displace people without providing meaningful alternatives, and increase the risk of harm and death,” the coalition wrote to Wu. “We cannot arrest, coerce, or incarcerate our way out of these crises. The conditions at Mass. and Cass require bold action, not temporary fixes that exacerbate the existing conditions and merely move the people living there out of sight without truly serving their needs.”

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The coalition outlined a six-point plan for both city and state officials “to meet basic needs, provide housing, and promote public health for the people living unsheltered in the area of ‘Mass. and Cass.’”

They are calling on leaders to: 

  • 1. Protect Civil Rights and Human Dignity in Encampments and Treatment Settings 
  • 2. Conduct An Assessment of Needs and Solutions of and by Unhoused People 
  • 3. Eliminate Systemic Barriers to Housing and Provide Dignified Non-Congregate Shelter 
  • 4. Prevent Overdose Death and HIV Transmission and Expand Harm Reduction to Keep People Alive and Safe 
  • 5. Expand Effective, Low Threshold Treatment through Immediate, Sustained Investment 
  • 6. Decriminalize Drug Possession and End the Racist Drug War

The group is also urging Wu and other leaders to immediately implement three steps to address the crisis at Mass. and Cass. 

First, they said non-congregate shelters and low-threshold housing should be established, following the model of similar efforts that were established during the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, they said officials must “rapidly increase” voluntary treatment options for individuals.

The third measure must be to “stop the sweeps” and meet the basic sanitation needs of individuals at Mass. and Cass as non-congregate shelter options are established, the group said. 

The coalition stressed that “public health crises require public health solutions.”

“Many people at Mass. and Cass have evaluated the limited options available to them and decided to remain in self-constructed shelter and tents because the shelter system is not actually available to them due to shelter bars and restrictions, because of personal safety concerns in shelters, or due to otherwise unmet needs,” the group said. “Any plan must create options for people that are based on the preferences, needs, and goals of the community members living in encampments.”

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Last month, Wu said she supported Janey’s plan for addressing encampments at Mass. and Cass.

“It is clear that the city and this administration is pursuing an approach that will lead with services, not criminalization, and connect those seeking treatment and shelter to beds that are available,” Wu told Boston.com. “We know that there are dozens of available shelter beds right now in our city. But they’re not always accessible to people because the barriers to entry might be higher. We need low-threshold beds that are appropriate and have the transportation for residents who are unsheltered, who are seeking treatment. And we need to get this in place right away.”

Below, read the letter the group sent to Wu. Read the full policy proposal from the group here.

Open Letter to Mayor-Elect Wu – Mass and Cass by dialynn dwyer on Scribd

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