“Some people say that’s all they know”: Boston workers clear tents and offer housing options in Mass. and Cass.
The one-day effort marked Mayor Michelle Wu’s most assertive attempt to deal with what has been an intractable Boston disease: the homeless settlements of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, which is become the center of the regional opioid abuse epidemic.
A city survey in early December showed more than 140 people had stayed in more than 70 tents for several consecutive days, although authorities admit the camp had as many as 90 tents at one time.
In the middle of the day, the Newmarket Square triangle, a food and meat packing district, was emptied of tents and street cleaners moved in.
On Atkinson Street, home to dozens of other tents and where outdoor drug use is more prevalent, the effort has been more stretched. There, in the shadow of a city-run homeless shelter and an engagement center for people living in the streets, a garbage truck crawled slowly past the encampment, as town workers threw out tents, poles, tables and baskets of clothes. People continued to move, some using needles. A few people were hit in glass pipes.
Just after 6 p.m. the last dump truck, loaded mostly with old wooden pallets, left Atkinson Street, spent yellow police tape used to close the street earlier in the evening.
Four years ago, then-mayor Martin J. Walsh led a similar effort to clean up the area, what he called Operation Clean Sweep, amid an outbreak of violence and drug use. But the tents have returned and the camps have grown. Last fall, Acting Mayor Kim Janey tried again. But in November, shortly after her election, Wu halted that work, saying she wanted to design a more public health and housing-focused approach to displace people in the area, so they wouldn’t come back.
Wu said on Wednesday his administration had identified more than 200 new transitional housing units, enough to accommodate those who have lived in Mass. and Cass as they prepare for more permanent housing. Many units are considered low-threshold, which means they cater for people who have yet to start recovering from addiction, but provide a safer setting than on the street in cold weather.
“Our goal from the start here was to take a different approach, an approach that was really rooted in the root causes of homelessness and the crises that people live with here,” Wu said Wednesday morning at Newmarket Square as the tents were taken down. “We are already seeing a different result.”
Social workers spent the past week alerting people living in the tents that the camps would be emptied from Wednesday and that by morning many tents were empty.
Still, others said they were unaware the city was planning to dismantle the encampments or were indifferent to the operation. They appeared surprised and frustrated when they were woken up in their tents by social workers with flashlights.
Joseph Brown lived on the streets for over a year, but was unaware of the city plan.
“Erase them where?” ” He asked. “Where are they going to put them? “
John Ransom has lived on the streets for years and said he stays warm by “keeping it moving”. Sometimes he hangs out in a hospital to warm up. Many homeless people don’t like the rules that often accompany staying in a shelter, he said.
“It’s going to be difficult,” he said of removing the tent. “For some, that’s all they know.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which had unsuccessfully asked the courts to stop the precedent efforts to clear the encampments, said Wednesday he had legal teams to monitor the operation.
Carol Rose, chief of ACLU Massachusetts, expressed concern that several people were being illegally forced out of their tents without viable alternative housing options. “If this is true, the very vulnerable residents of Boston will likely be more exposed to the elements tonight, which is not consistent with a public health approach,” she said.
The Material Aid and Advocacy Program, which provides aid to homeless people in Boston and Cambridge, called the operation “reckless and potentially fatal bullying.”
But others who lived in the camps were hopeful because of the city’s help. Jason Ortiz, who lived with his girlfriend in the Newmarket settlement, secured accommodation at the EnVision Hotel, an accommodation site in Mission Hill.
Paris Flores, 35, a father of three who previously said he refused to see his children until sober, said he was offered accommodation in a new dormitory adjacent to the 112 Southampton Street. Flores stayed in her tent on Tuesday evening after learning that someone had tried to steal her things.
Wednesday morning, however, he walked up the street to his new unit, pushing a big black suitcase and a wheelchair loaded with his things, optimistic about his new chances: the dormitory setting allows him to work his convalescence without fear of being thrown out on the streets if he fails a drug test. But now he is on the front lines for more permanent housing.
“I can make myself comfortable there,” he said. “But I am closer than before.”
Newmarket Square business leaders, who had pressured the city to act, also applauded the effort on Wednesday.
Rich Chan, owner of Lun Fat Produce, stood at his company’s loading docks with several workers, watching construction trucks dismantle the tents. Chan said vagrants stole a battery from his truck; someone else broke a mirror. Business has fallen 40 percent in recent years, a loss he attributed to the proliferation of tents.
“All the businesses have gone down, no one wants to come here,” he said. Now he said, “We are happy. Hopefully it stays that way. “
Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, agreed the crisis has been tough on local businesses. She too hoped on Wednesday that people living on the streets would be offered safer and more stable housing.
“I saw them offering people all kinds of housing,” she said. “It’s time to take these tents off the streets. It is too cold. It’s just dangerous. And we just have to get them out of here.
Yet business owners and fellow neighbors are not yet relaxing. During a Tuesday night briefing for community members on tent cleaning plans, several asked the same question: What if the camps come back with warmer weather?
“This is just the start of our work,” promised Monica Bharel, Wu’s public health advisor and update on Mass. and Cass.
The Globe staff’s Travis Andersen and correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this story.