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Michelle Wu says city is pausing tent removals at Mass. and Cass pending court ruling on ACLU lawsuit

The new mayor said Boston would not necessarily resume the encampment protocols, even if a judge rules in the city’s favor.

Mayor Michelle Wu outside Boston City Hall on Wednesday. Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said Wednesday the city is pausing tent removals around the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard while the Suffolk Superior Court weighs a lawsuit filed by the ACLU to stop the encampment protocols that were rolled out in early November

mass. and cass

Boston officials began removing tents in the area known as “Mass. and Cass” on Nov. 2, implementing procedures mandated in an executive order issued by then-acting Mayor Kim Janey. The protocols targeted the removal of the hundreds of tents established around the blocks of the city that have become the epicenter of the addiction, mental health, and homelessness crises in the region. Janey said the goal was to get people struggling with homelessness, addiction, and mental health connected with resources and services.

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Under the executive order, the city mandated that unhoused individuals in the area must be given at least 48 hours notice that tents must be removed, and officials said no one would be required to remove their structure unless they have been offered a bed in a shelter or another service like a treatment facility. But under the executive order, people who were offered placement and refused to remove their shelter could be charged with disorderly conduct.

In their lawsuit filed on behalf of three people experiencing homelessness, the ACLU said the city drove individuals out of the area without first identifying viable housing options for them and destroyed people’s belongings. 

A hearing on the lawsuit is being held Wednesday morning in the Suffolk Superior Court.

During a press conference outside City Hall a day after she was sworn into office, Wu said while the protocols are paused, the team she has assembled to address the situation at Mass. and Cass will be working to ensure Boston is bringing a public health and housing lens to addressing the humanitarian crisis in the area. 

Wu has tapped Dr. Monica Bharel, the state’s former public health commissioner who is leading the city’s response to Mass. and Cass; Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, who has been elevated to the mayor’s cabinet; and Sheila Dillon, the city’s housing chief.

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“The crises at Mass. Ave and Melnea Cass Boulevard are top of mind for residents across Boston, as well as all the departments working within city hall and across city government,” Wu said.

Wu has previously expressed general support for Janey’s executive order, though she said she planned to make some adjustments once in office. 

When asked on Wednesday if the city would resume removing encampments if the court rules against the ACLU, Wu said “not necessarily.”

“We are in the process of working with the team and Dr. Bharel is going to be leading these efforts and making sure that the city has a proactive look at what the right policies are and especially how we focus on bringing low-threshold, stable, supportive housing into part of that policy,” the mayor said.

“I think across the board there is agreement that we need to take a public health lens and a housing lens to this crisis,” she said. “And how that actually ends up connecting with people’s experience on the ground matters a great deal. So we’re going to be looking at all of that — from the policy all the way down to what is happening on the streets.”

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Wu said the crisis at Mass. and Cass and the need to “continue moving quickly” is at the top of the list of issues she plans to discuss when she sits down with Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday. 

This week, the state announced a plan to establish a “temporary cottage community” for up to 30 individuals from Mass. and Cass on the campus of the Shattuck hospital in Jamaica Plain.

“Every day that goes by, temperatures are colder and colder,” Wu said of the Shattuck proposal. “And it is life or death for our residents who are unhoused living on the street. And so we need to move quickly to find short-term solutions for stable, low-threshold housing. Certainly it’s going to be part of my conversation with the governor later today, as well as the work that we are doing internally, to continue to identify even more options for that kind of immediate housing.”

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