Public Meeting Held Regarding Solutions for Public Health Crisis at Mass and Cass

The South End Forum Working Group on Addiction, Recovery & Homelessness held a public meeting on October 12 to discuss the work that the Mass and Cass Task Force has done recently, as well as talk about ideas and comments from residents.

According to the group, “the grassroots neighborhood-sponsored Working Group on Addiction, Recovery, and Homelessness was created 7 years ago by the South End Forum, the Newmarket Business Association, the residents of Lower Roxbury, and other neighbors and professionals to provide an open and public issue discussion forum.”

Moderator Steve Fox said that “this is the first of what we hope will be subsequent meetings to have an open and engaged forum for discussion of these matters.”

Before getting into further discussion, Fox laid out some of the topics and issues that the Task Force members have been working on with regards to Mass and Cass, including decentralization of services, continuity of services, Long Island, the Shattuck Hospital area, the criminal justice system, the HIV “mini epidemic” at Mass/Cass, encampment policies, and supportive housing.

Sue Sullivan, Executive Director of the Newmarket Business Association, said that “decentralization is obviously primary,” adding that “in the end, you have to have somewhere to send them,” referring to those who need recovery and mental health services.

Fox said that he is “aware of ongoing meetings” between city and state officials to discuss all the issues at hand and “manage the divergent issue in terms of the criminal justice system.”

He added, “We need to have a public health approach that includes actual beds or locations or spots or resources that are located in places other than Mass and Cass that will help us be able to move people from an encampment to a place where they can get the kinds of housing services and stability that they so desperately need.”

Rev. Dr. Jay Williams said that “the pandemic definitely drove the homelessness and the drug epidemic from bad to worse,” but many departments “are doing good work in their own areas, from the police department to the public works department to neighborhood services,” he said, adding that this is not only a city and state issue, but a “federal crisis.”

“Right now, it seems like there is still not a coordinated comprehensive policy that has been fully enacted to turn the tide, to turn the table that has…compassionate accountability…to say, people are suffering, people are struggling.”

At Mass and Cass, “right now, what we have is essentially an open air drug market,” Williams said. “Right now, there is no coordinated way…to hold people accountable to themselves and to the city; community in which they live.”

There was also discussion about the group of people who do not want to be removed from the area, and Fox said that “the complexity of the problem requires us to have a multi-faceted approach.”

Lyndia Downie, president and Executive Director of Pine Street Inn, said that the organization conducts “some limited outreach” to folks in the Mass and Cass area, with a “goal of placing 20 chronic folks in housing this year,” a goal which she said will be reached.

“As you know, it’s going to be a long road,” Downie said.

Fox said that Boston alone cannot handle this. “This is an issue that is defined by the fact that we live in a state that must be our partner in all of this,” he said. “It’s absolutely crucial that we’re at least holding each other’s hands,” he added, saying that many of the people at Mass and Cass are not from Boston.

“People are ready for housing, but there is no housing for them,” Sullivan said. There were similarities drawn between this crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic and the ability for the state to stand up a field hospital at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center so quickly, and that something similar needs to be done in this case.

City Councilor Frank Baker talked about using the Nashua Street Jail as a “public health facility” that would be run by Massachusetts General Hospital and leased to the Department of Public Health. He also suggested that it be a program for women.

“We need to hold people longer than just the 14 days,” he said, adding that a 90 day period would be more beneficial. He said the location in the city’s West End is a good location, because when folks “step foot back into life, it’s not on Mass and Cass.”

He continued, “Then we can start talking about ferries to Long Island.” Baker said that people cannot be brought out to Long Island “unless they’re three or four months in.”

Former State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry said that “the 90 days are critical” in helping people remove the drugs from their bodies and continue to receive treatment for that along with any coexisting mental health issues. She said having Nashua Street Jail set up as a treatment dormitory rather than as a jail would be beneficial.

“We need to be thinking outside the box,” she said. “I do not believe the buildings on Long Island were kept up. Those facilities may not be available. I want us to be realistic.” She said that Long Island is a longer term goal, so “let’s think of short; let’s think of medium” term goals.

Michael Costello said that “the challenge that the police has in the outstanding warrants” is ensuring that people are “medically stable to appear before the court.”

Sheriff Steve Tompkins said that “we have a facility ready to go” at the South Bay House of Correction, where 100 people can receive services, as well as food and shelter. He said that as the cold weather approaches, this could be a solution for getting people off the streets and into treatment and shelter.

Tomkins said that there are “not enough spare units right now at Nashua St.,” but said that a “dormitory style building versus a correction facility would serve the needs of this population better right now.”

He proposed that there would be a “mobile courtroom” at South Bay so people do not have to be transported to and from the courts; it could be done right from the facility on Zoom.

Flyn agreed with the suggestions of Tompkins and Baker. “We have a lot of probationers that are in and around Mass and Cass,” and “they’re not reporting to their respective probation departments when they’re hanging down at Mass and Cass,” he said. “I also agree that we need to decentralize the services in this area,” and that the city, state, and federal governments all need to work together.

Tompkins said that “correctional facilities will become detox centers. If we are at the house of correction, we have to look at how we help people in a number of different capacities.”

Tompkins also said that the 100 bed facility at South Bay would be managed by the Sheriff’s Department on the security side, and for the health portion, they would work with Wellpath Care, along with other agencies and organizations like Pine Street Inn.

After further discussion, Fox said that since a new administration will be taking office next month, the group needs to “prioritize how we’re going to address Mass and Cass.” He said that these “working group meetings” will continue to “try to ensure that it’s getting the kind of focus that it needs.” He said that “because this is such an urgent issue and fast-moving,” the aim is to schedule another meeting within the next week or ten days as a follow-up. As of press time, no new meeting had been scheduled.

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