The leader of the Mass/Cass 2.0 plan disagreed this week with recent neighborhood descriptions of the plan being a “failure” and that it needed a re-start, noting that the demands of treating COVID-19 zapped the plan of many of its key facilitators and partners.
Now, however, Kim Thai, special assistant to Mayor Martin Walsh, said they are returning to the framework of the plan, and just released the long-awaited dashboard and website for Mass/Cass 2.0 and are working towards many of the milestones that were in the queue before COVID-19.
She said outright the plan is not a failure.
“I would disagree it’s a failure,” she said. “The Task Force meets monthly. When I stepped into this role in February, I was almost immediately faced with a pandemic…One important thing is a lot of those who worked on particular issues within Mass/Cass…pivoted to COVID-19. A lot of people working on Mass/Cass are the same people who were front-line workers and essential workers (during the pandemic)…We’re really trying now to get back to that framework moving forward. We want to tackle the bigger issues and still be able to serve vulnerable populations.”
There are a number of new things to report, she said, noting that the Fire Department has just unveiled the Delta Car to respond to issues on Mass/Cass with trained recovery and addiction specialists. That provides a highly trained approach – as is done with the specially-trained police officers on Mass/Cass – and frees up a regular fire engine from having to respond. Likewise, the internal City Departments and non-profit partners continue to meet by phone three times a week, and the Task Force is unveiling working groups to make progress on issues in between monthly meetings.
“What we’ve done is create working groups,” she said. “The Task Force members have been working out certain areas they want to focus on. Most of the Task Force has been receptive to the idea. They would meet outside Task Force meetings to expedite conversations further about certain topics.”
Those working groups include Decentralization of Services, Public Defecation, Safety, Planning Studies (with BPDA), and Supportive Housing.
At the same time, the plan faces some major obstacles as many have identified that the issues on Mass/Cass have escalated from last summer – with seemingly more people there and more precautions to take with COVID-19.
The most talked about obstacle is decentralization of harm reduction services, such as locating services like needle exchanges, homeless shelters and the many other such services to other neighborhoods and other cities and towns. That’s an issue Thai said will be for the Task Force, and it’s not an easy one.
She said that is one reason the new website for Mass/Cass 2.0 includes a map of services – to show the concentration in the South End as opposed to other communities.
“I don’t think anyone would discourage anyone from seeking services,” she said. “At the same time, the neighbors in Mass/Cass are concerned about the numbers of services in their neighborhood…It’s very complicated when you start talking about neighborhoods, but that’s part of the working groups…At the end of the day, whenever we’re talking, we need these communities to be part of the answer. It’s an important conversation and uncomfortable conversation, but one we have to have. That’s why I think the Task Force is the perfect incubator to start advocating for providing services elsewhere.”
Another challenge has been partners within the plan, like Pine Street Inn that surprisingly located a new homeless shelter right in the middle of Mass/Cass without nary a word to their partners. Thai said that hasn’t strained the relationship, and they are moving forward to work to get people moved out of that situation rather than dwell on what was a crisis decision.
“We’re in a war with a pandemic and Pine Street Inn is a responsible organization that does a lot of work and has been a great partner,” she said. “I think unfortunately people have to make tough decisions…I won’t speak for Pine Street, but I think from a Task Force perspective it encourages everyone to speak up more and engage and participate and talk about questions openly as we move forward.”
There is also a threat to the law enforcement partnership, as resources dedicated to Mass/Cass 2.0 are still being evaluated as to where they fit in with budget cuts due to the loss of some overtime funding in the Boston Police. Many of the resources provided by police in the plan were paid out of the overtime budget, and that is being reconsidered. Thai said all of the services by BPD in the plan are still in place, but there is an evaluation right now.
“There is no final decision made on how police will work Mass/Cass and how it will impact services there,” she said. “That’s an ongoing discussion.”
Despite the challenges – and the setback caused by the total focus on COVID-19 in the vulnerable populations – Thai said she believed in the plan because the people involved are dedicated and passionate. That, she said, is why she remains optimistic even when others involved may have doubts.
“Every department that is participating in this plan are all people so dedicated to trying to resolve this issue,” she said. “A lot of these first responders and City employees are so dedicated to this cause and so passionate about this work. Some people might forget that, but these are passionate people who want to make a difference.”