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Mayor Wu calls on state to create 1,000 new units of low-threshold housing outside city to address crisis at Mass. and Cass

"We need the state as a partner."

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu speaks during a press conference at Clifford Park on Thursday. The mayor ended the briefing early as demonstrators interrupted. The press conference later moved indoors. Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe

Mayor Michelle Wu called on state leaders Thursday to create 1,000 new units of low-threshold housing outside of Boston in order to help address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the area of the city known as “Mass. and Cass.” 

The press conference on the city’s efforts to address the confluence of addiction, mental health, and homelessness crises came a day after the mayor acknowledged the city has been unable to meet the increased need for services in the area. 

The briefing was initially held in Clifford Park, which has over the years seen the impacts of the crisis in the form of open drug use, kids being pricked by improperly discarded needles, public sex, and human feces.

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But the press conference was halted and moved indoors after it was interrupted by protestors interjecting and chanting “Shame on Wu.”

According to reporters at the scene, the demonstrators included community members who have been raising concerns about the conditions at the park, as well as those opposed to COVID-19 vaccination mandates. 

“It’s hard to stand here and talk to you all about how much progress we’ve made when I know it still feels like the city is bearing so much and so much visibility affected and shaken by the depth of substance use disorder and mental health and homelessness that we are still struggling to meet the demand to serve,” Wu said. 

But the mayor touted the work that has been done by the city since January, in particular calling out the creation of 192 units of low-threshold supportive housing, saying there have been “amazing results.”

Nearly 400 people from Mass. and Cass have been connected to low-threshold housing, she said. 

“The percentage of individuals who we’re seeing sticking on a treatment plan, making it to appointments and even then moving on from this kind of transitional stage into permanent housing outside the city has been, compared to what the percentages look like for someone who is living on the street or in a tent, it’s night and day,” she said. 

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Typically, “low-threshold” refers to placing minimal requirements on individuals seeking access to services, removing or reducing barriers such as a mandate of sobriety, for people to receive harm reduction care or housing.

Sheila Dillon, the city’s chief of housing, said that as of Wednesday, 72 formerly homeless individuals from Mass. and Cass — who were initially brought into one of the six low-threshold, medically-supported sites that were set up earlier this year — are now living in stable, permanent housing. 

At least 65 of those individuals are in units outside the city, according to Wu.

Dillon said of the 188 individuals currently at one of the six sites, 150 have created a housing plan working with a housing professional and 112 have a housing resource in hand, such as waiting for an apartment or a source to pay rent. That means they will be ready to move on soon, opening up a spot for new residents to come in from Mass. and Cass, she said.

“I think it is certainly a model that we can ask the state and other communities to replicate,” Dillon said. 

Wu said now is the time for the state to step in. 

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Because even as hundreds of people have been served by the city, going through the housing and treatment pipeline, the mayor said “hundreds more” have arrived from other communities and states. 

“We simply cannot sustain a model that we know works of providing housing to be that stepping off point and stabilization point for services, to house the entire New England region,” she said. “And so we’re looking for that partnership from the state.” 

Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said that as of August, 50 percent of the people who were housed as part of the city’s initiatives were taking medication to treat opioid use disorder, 64 percent were engaged in primary medical care, and 30 percent were engaged in mental health care. 

“We know that this works for stabilizing individuals, but at the city level, with the funding that we have, with the resources that we as a municipality have, [we] cannot do it alone,” Wu said. “So our call, our ask, and the result of what we have learned throughout all of these 10 months in how to do this and how to do it right, is that we need partnership from the state. We need 1,000 new units of low-threshold supportive housing to be created and sited outside the City of Boston.” 

Wu said the city continues to be engaged in daily work to identify more locations for units in the city, as well as expanding emergency shelter space and case management in the face of the approaching cold weather. 

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“We will keep doing our share as the city that is a hub of services and welcoming to all, but to truly address the need and depth of the opioid crisis, confounded and complicated with homelessness and mental health, we need the state as a partner, as we do on every issue,” she said.

Overall, Wu and other city officials said the total number of people gathering around Mass. and Cass, as well as the number of tents in the area, has gone down. 

Ojikutu said on one day in October 2021, 262 individuals were walking around the Mass. and Cass area. On the same day this year, that number was 173.

For the same date last year, there were 90 tents in the area, she said, compared to 20 observed this year. 

“We have made significant progress,” she said. 

Citing a survey conducted by the city in the last two weeks of 150 people around Mass. and Cass, Ojikutu said that 47 percent reported that they’d been coming to the area for one year or less. 

“Many of these folks were not here in January of 2022 when we did the initial housing surge,” she said. 

Addressing concerns about the discarded needles, a byproduct of the addiction crisis, Ojikutu said that since January, the city has collected more than 200,000 syringes compared to the 7,300 its harm reduction services have handed out.  

Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, said during the press conference that it’s true that business owners and neighbors in the area will tell you the situation in the area is still “bad.”

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“They’re not wrong,” she said. “But they are wrong, if anybody says there’s not progress being made. They’re wrong. They’ve got very short memories.”

She echoed city officials saying that the only way for the crisis to be truly addressed in the long term is through a partnership with the state where other communities also step up and expand services locally. 

“Boston does a pretty good job of solving its own problems, but you can’t take everyone,” she said. “So somewhere along the way the state either has to incentivize or penalize other communities — can they just take a piece? Can they take a small treatment center? Can they take three units of affordable transitional housing? We’re not asking people to take the world, we’re just asking everyone to do what’s right.”

In her appeal to the state, Wu stressed that the scale of the investment in the model the city has put together pays off. 

She also emphasized that the city will continue taking every step possible to make progress on the humanitarian crisis and its impacts, saying she appreciates and respects the passion and emotion that people who have raised concerns about the city’s approach are experiencing related to the issue. 

She acknowledged that Clifford Park, even with the “tremendous turnaround” with steps the city is taking, is “nowhere near” where it should be in terms of the impacts. 

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“We will take every possible step so that all of our parks and all of our public spaces are what our kids deserve,” she said. “The reality of the situation is that we need to keep making progress every day, and we’re not all the way there yet by any means.”

Watch the press conferences below:

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