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Wu clears out Mass. and Cass as state shelters near capacity


People in the area known as Mass and Cass in 2022.
People in the area known as Mass and Cass in 2022. The City of Boston cleared tents in the area across three days, with the final one taken down on Wednesday. ANDREW BURKE-STEVENSON/DFP FILE

The last tent came down at the area known as Mass. and Cass on Wednesday, a clear-out that has been nearly two years in the making for Mayor Michelle Wu and one that has provoked questions of its purpose and sustainability, especially as state shelters reach their capacity.

The encampment removal began on Monday after the city council approved an amended version of Wu’s ordinance on Oct. 25. The amendments included requiring the City to provide transportation to shelter, eliminating a proposed $25 fine for violating the ordinance and mandating a daily audit of shelter space, according to WBUR

“This is really a city-wide effort to ensure that as we move to get people out of tents and dangerous situations and into housing and shelter, we are going to have our mobile outreach teams moving citywide to provide the safety and support in any neighborhood of Boston that needs it,” Wu said during a press conference on Nov. 1.

In August, Wu proposed the ordinance to remove tents and encampments from Atkinson Street at Mass. and Cass in response to an increase in violence and trafficking, she said in an Oct. 26 press conference, adding that tents and tarps made these incidents harder to address and put City workers and partners on the ground in danger.

“Over the course of the last several days, what you saw was moves that were made from people who were living in tents here as the temperature was dropping, to now being in safe, warm placements, with a roof over their head,” Wu said in a Nov. 2 press conference.

Mass. and Cass has long been a focus of Wu and her administration, and she said this recent effort has utilized an approach catered to the needs of the individual people who live at Mass. and Cass. 

“It really has been an effort tailored to not only making sure people have what they need, but that they are able to live their full lives,” Wu said. “We know that we haven’t solved the entire challenge of the opiate crisis, and homelessness, and mental health, but we have shifted the dynamic, and that is a big step forward for Boston.” 

The recent move from Wu distances itself from previous efforts, such as Operation Clean Sweep initiated by Mayor Marty Walsh in 2019, to combat homelessness and elevate public safety efforts in the city. Wu, who was a city councilor at the time, criticized the initiative, tweeting it “displaced, destabilized & stigmatized” people. 

However, Wu has received backlash for her own ordinance. The American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts released a statement saying that “attempts to criminalize homelessness and sweep people out of sight consistently fail to solve the public health and safety challenges unfolding in areas such as Mass. and Cass.”

“This ordinance appeared to be a more humane approach, [it’s] not. The impact is still the same,” said Cassie Hurd, the executive director of the Material Aid and Advocacy Program. 

Hurd said the City has “broadened the definition of shelter” in this ordinance and expressed concern over the night-to-night nature of many shelter systems — which, according to Healey, are being overrun in Massachusetts, which has catalyzed state efforts to implement a cap on shelters. 

Last month, Healey announced that beginning Nov. 1, the state would not be able to add new shelter units and would not be able to accommodate more than 7,500 families. Families seeking shelter will be assessed and those with higher needs would be prioritized for placement. Those not immediately given shelter will be placed on a waiting list, according to a statement from Healey’s office.

According to the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, as of Oct. 27, there are 7,268 families in the shelter system.

We have the City telling us that … there is more than enough shelter space to house the people they are kicking off of Mass. and Cass, while at the exact same time, the state is saying we’re going on a waitlist and for the first time in 40 years [and] we’re going to abdicate our duty under right to shelter,” said Mark Martinez, a housing attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “So they don’t line up.”

Wu said Boston is working with federal officials to address the growing migrant crisis that the lack of shelter space is being attributed to, according to WCVB

We did a count in the City’s shelter system and more and more adults there are also coming from the migrant crisis overall, so it is straining resources across the board,” Wu told The Daily Free Press on Wednesday. 

Lawyers for Civil Rights, a nonprofit based in Boston, filed a lawsuit last month against the Healey administration for its plan to cap the state’s shelter at 7,500 families, saying it violated the state’s “right-to-shelter” law. However, a Suffolk County Superior Court judge rejected the lawsuit on Wednesday.

Yemil Serret, a paralegal for nonprofit Housing Families and a housing advocate, said he thinks the state of emergency had led to more attention and work being done to combat this crisis. 

It seemed that this was something was planned for a while now about how there could be services given to people there, not just a notice that they have to leave, but that everyone in the community [was] involved … to make sure that people at least have access to shelter and opportunity,” Serret said. 

Rep. Jay Livingstone, who represents the 8th Suffolk district, voiced his initial thoughts on the announcement by Healey to cap the state’s shelters, saying he was “surprised” that the state government was “going to not recognize the state’s right to shelter law.”

Livingstone added that he has asked the administration what they plan to do with families as shelters begin to reach capacity, and said he has yet to receive a response. 

Livingstone, however, reiterated that he thinks Healey is trying to do the right thing.

“Healey is dealing with the situation as best she can, and as humanely as she can,” he said. “I think she always has the best interests of people in Massachusetts in mind.”

In Boston, Wu said the City’s goal is to run a legal clinic with the federal government in December that will help migrants obtain work authorization, in hopes they will be able to earn the income necessary to move from shelter spots and open space for anyone else who needs it. 

Martinez highlighted the greater issues of a lack of affordable housing and Boston’s eviction crisis, problems with intrinsic ties to what’s happening at Mass. and Cass. 

“We have to build housing that the people that are living in shelters are going to be able to afford,” Martinez said. “The best way to alleviate the burden in the shelter systems is to make sure people don’t enter the shelter system.”

Hurd said there are models where encampments are regularly serviced rather than cleared by police that she believes would have been an alternative solution and expressed concern that increased police presence in the area will lead people to “scatter” and hinder the services the City has promised.

“How do you find people when you … dispersed them using law enforcement?” Hurd said. “I know in talking with providers today they were not able to find people … I think there’s been a lot of broken trust because of what the City has done.”

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