Special to the Gazette
Mayor Michelle Wu this week provided an update on the City’s public health-led response to the intersecting crises of co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders and unsheltered homelessness centered in the area of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue (Mass and Cass). Mayor Wu recently announced a phase change to double down on this approach and ensure the safety and health of those living in the area, service providers, and local business owners and workers.
“Over the last two years, Boston has built an infrastructure for coordinated services to address the overlapping crises of homelessness, substance use, and mental health that has supported hundreds of individuals in need and highlighted the effectiveness of a public health and housing-led approach,” said Mayor Michelle Wu. “As we head into colder weather, our teams are taking action to ramp up outreach for shelter, treatment, and services citywide to ensure the health and safety of all community members.”
Over the past few months, outreach teams and provider partners have continued to develop their relationships with people chronically living in the area to help identify the shelter or treatment option that best meets each individual’s needs. Beginning today, the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) will post notices to notify individuals in the area of Mass and Cass that the prohibition on tents, tarps, and other temporary structures approved by the Boston City Council yesterday will begin on November 1, 2023. Based on individual needs and case management conversations, individuals will be provided transportation to low threshold sites, general shelter, a treatment program, or will be reunified with their family. Storage will be provided for their personal belongings and City staff will maintain a real-time inventory of available safe sleeping space.
“The health, safety, and wellbeing of every resident, no matter their housing status, is the steadfast focus of the City’s coordinated teams,” said Director of the Coordinated Response Team Tania Del Rio. “As we support people transitioning from the Atkinson St. encampment into safer and more supportive environments, we will continue to make sure unsheltered persons citywide receive offers of lifesaving services, while ensuring public spaces remain safe and available for all.”
Some medical services to support unsheltered residents will be temporarily relocated. The Boston Public Health Commission, in partnership with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), will open a temporary site at 774 Albany Street for clinical services so that individuals have uninterrupted access to care during the transition. Security will be stationed inside and outside the temporary site on a 24/7 basis.
“This ordinance ensures that the Boston Public Health Commission and our partners can continue doing the critically important work of connecting people suffering from substance use disorder to treatment; delivering dignified, compassionate care; offering life-saving harm reduction services; providing emergency shelter; and placing people who have been living on the street into safe spaces where they can recover,” said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, Commissioner of Public Health and Executive Director of the Boston Public Health Commission.
Mayor Wu and the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) also provided an update on the additional shelter beds and temporary overnight space that BPHC has worked to prepare over the last few months in partnership with provider partners. To increase the availability of low-threshold housing for chronically unsheltered individuals who currently live in the Atkinson Street encampment, the City will open 30 temporary transitional beds at the Boston Public Health Commission’s campus at 727 Massachusetts Avenue. These beds will be reserved for specifically identified individuals who are currently engaged in services with BPHC’s case management teams. These beds will only be available until the individuals move onto permanent housing or an open low threshold spot at one of the other housing sites and are not intended to be populated with new individuals. Additional shelter capacity has been established at various locations across the City.
“The City of Boston is working with many non-profit partners to make sure that the individuals living on the street have access to shelter and, as importantly, services,” said Chief of Housing Sheila Dillon. “To respond to the growing need for shelter, additional space has been brought on line for both this effort and the colder months. Getting individuals off the street and into shelters will enable our partners to better help individuals pursue pathways out of homelessness and into the treatment and permanent housing that everyone deserves.”
The Boston Police Department (BPD) will have a sustained presence on Atkinson Street and the surrounding area. Mobile Citywide units will coordinate through a central operations post to address criminal activity in the area and return Atkinson Street to standard use as a road for vehicular traffic, while addressing any other areas of concern citywide. During this time, the City will be restricting access to Atkinson Street. The Engagement Center located there will be temporarily closed and services previously provided there will be available in other locations.
The Boston Police Department and the Boston Public Health Commission will lead a coordinated response that will include mobile units of police and recovery services staff to restore Atkinson Street and Southampton Street to regular use and ensure compliance with all laws in surrounding areas. The Boston Police Department will coordinate these efforts at a central operations post and will have a presence in the area at all times.
“I want to thank Mayor Wu and the City Council for their support of this Ordinance, which gives our officers clear authority and the necessary tools to address unlawful campsites throughout the City,” said Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox. “We have seen the role tents and tarps play in the rise in criminal activity and the authority to order removal of these structures when shelter and storage are available will go a long way towards helping us fulfill our responsibility to keep the public safe.”
Residents are encouraged to report encampments they see to 311. These requests will be directed to the Coordinated Response Team, which will activate a co-response between outreach workers and BPD to connect the individual in the encampment to the appropriate services. Criminal activity should be reported by calling 911.
These measures will build on the City’s successes in helping individuals move from chronic unsheltered homelessness into supportive housing and recovery by improving public safety, reducing crowding, violence, and drug trafficking in the area, and creating better conditions for case management and outreach workers to assist individuals in need. Since January 2022, more than 500 individuals who were living at the Atkinson Street encampment have gone through the City’s six low-threshold housing sites and 172 have moved into permanent supportive housing. There are currently 133 individuals living in the sites, 72 of which have a housing resource in hand and are looking for a housing unit.
Mayor Michelle Wu recently announced that the City is seeking a project management firm to oversee reconstruction of the Long Island Bridge. This firm will ensure work can start immediately after City secures final approvals. Mayor Wu has also recently announced that the City has secured its Chapter 91 License from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) to reconstruct the Long Island Bridge. With this long-awaited license in hand, the City has secured the most significant state approval required in its years-long efforts to rebuild the bridge and restore access to the 35-acre public health campus on Long Island. With $81 million already available in the FY24 capital budget for the bridge, Mayor Wu announced that the City would accelerate progress on construction immediately and set a goal that in four years the bridge would be rebuilt to a campus with a first phase of buildings ready to reopen for programming.