First Public Mass/Cass 2.0 Task Force Gets Warm Reception: Questions Linger About Pine St. Roundhouse Lease

Mayor Martin Walsh hosted the first public meeting of the Mass/Cass 2.0 Task Force on Monday evening, with more than 300 people viewing the proceedings, and while residents said a very encouraging report was made, there were still lingering concerns in the South End about Pine Street Inn’s lease of the Roundhouse Hotel.

The Task Force is a 24-person appointed body of residents, community leaders, elected officials and medical professionals that oversee the 2.0 plan and meet at least monthly, if not more. They have never had a public meeting do date, though.

The mayor told those on the meeting there was no easy solution to the problems at Mass/Cass, but he felt like things have improved since the situation spiraled out of control last summer when a toxic stew of COVID-19 issues met a free-for-all drug market based on the sidewalks of the corridor.

“It’s no easy solution,” he said. “This isn’t something where we build a bridge and the problems go away. It’s deeper than that. It’s addiction. No matter what I say on this call to you, we have to work with them and convince them to go to the programs. This area has become a magnet for this type of drug use and people coming down there for that and we have to do everything we can to decrease it and create programs for recovery and work with other providers across the Commonwealth to make sure they are getting people access to treatment in other cities.”

The mayor thanked residents for patience, and had his team from all sectors of the Mass/Cass 2.0 Plan give an update on the work being done – paying particular attention to efforts being made decentralize services to other parts of the state.

“We’re trying to get the word out that we want to spread these services around the state,” he said. “We can’t accommodate every single person in need in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

That was preceded by detailed explanations by the Department of Neighborhood Development about working on permanent supportive housing in other parts of the City (including Brighton), a report from the Boston Police BEST team, and an update from Public Works on how they disassemble encampments humanely – among other things.

One source of continued conflict though is the Roundhouse, and some South End residents and Task Force member Steve Fox aren’t convinced that the Pine Street Inn intends to end its lease of the former hotel after one year. That came up in a question from Worcester Square’s Bob Minnocci.

Pine Street Director Lyndia Downie indicated that placements are happening, but the numbers appear to be behind schedule.

“I think at this point we’ve placed a little over 30 people (into housing),” she said. “Our census is probably a little shy of 140…Finding spots is still tough and that’s what the Housing Placement staff are doing.”

Task Force member Steve Fox said later he was disappointed with that number. He said many still remember that the new shelter situation was dropped on the community without notice, and they were told it would be about 30 housing placements per month, with no backfilling. He interpreted only 30 placements as a setback, furthering his skepticism that Pine Street would extend their lease there or just buy the building.

Downie told him at the meeting, when asked, that they don’t want to buy the building, but Fox said he was frustrated with the uncertain commitment.

“We don’t want to buy the building and don’t have any intention of buying the building,” said Downie. “We are making the transition and are really interested in becoming a larger supportive housing provider. We are now at about 50 percent of what we do is permanent supportive housing…One challenge in all honesty isn’t about what happens there. It takes time to find property, permit it and then build it. We all want it done yesterday but that is a challenge. I will say that I think the next two years will be though because when that hotel is no longer used for homeless people, it doesn’t necessarily mean the numbers of homeless people go away.”

Mayor Walsh immediately jumped in to say he would look into what’s coming next personally.

“I’ll reach out to the Roundhouse Hotel to have a conversation about what’s next,” he told the meeting.

Downie did drop another bomb, however, indicating they are looking to substantially move their operations to Jamaica Plain from the South End when their major supportive housing project in JP is finally out of court and allowed to be constructed.

“Once that building is done, most of our services at Pine Street Inn will be in JP,” she said. “We will in fact have moved dial from the South End to JP in terms of numbers of housing and shelter units.”

Minnocci said the team presentation was impressive, and he was happy the mayor is taking charge of the Roundhouse situation.

“I was impressed that the city’s team seemed engaged and focused on the important topics that, ideally, will lead to decentralization in the Mass and Cass area,” he said. “I was also pleased to hear the mayor speak about topics that were focused on decentralization. It seems as though the administration has advanced in its understanding to realize the urgency and significance of reducing populations of at risk people in the area…I was especially pleased that the mayor is taking a hands-on approach in helping to assure that Pine Street Inn will vacate the Best Western when its lease expires in August. That they added nearly 200 at risk individuals in the heart of the largest illegal drug market in New England is utterly confusing and raises questions about their concern for their clients and the community.”

Desi Murphy, vice president of the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA), said he was also impressed by the presentation, and said the mayor came prepared to talk specifics.

“We saw a professional, organized, and a transparent presentation about Mass Cass,” he said. I was impressed that several cabinet members presented and had in-the-weeds details. The mayor also came well prepared to discuss and I was pleasantly surprised with his in-the-weeds knowledge too. Although I wish the Mass/Cass project would move faster, I’m happy with what I heard and hope we see more updates like this in the future. I was also thrilled that 300 people attended because it shows how important this is to people.”

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