Working Group Meeting Focuses on Ongoing Issues at Mass/Cass as City’s Deadline Looms for Clearing Out Encampments

One day ahead of the deadline set by Mayor Michelle Wu to clear out the homeless encampments at Mass. and Cass, neighbors on hand for a virtual meeting of the South End, Newmarket, Roxbury Working Group on Addiction, Recovery, and Homelessness on Tuesday, Jan.11, expressed their concerns that the city’s measures would only temporarily remedy the problem and the encampments, along with the open-air drug market, would return to the area in a few months upon the return of warmer weather.

“Every January, I start the conversating by saying, ‘how can we anticipate what we’ll need in March or April?’” said Steve Fox, chair of the South End Forum, “and every March or April, it becomes a crisis.”

Dr. Monica Bharel, who serves on Mayor Wu’s cabinet as a senior adviser on the Mass. and Cass crisis, as well as previously as the commissioner of the state’s Department of Public Health, said one day after Mayor Wu announced the  cut-off date to clear out encampments on Dec. 16, city outreach workers identified 145 individuals living there and began talking to them about the impending deadline while evaluating their individual needs and attempting to get them into shelters.

On Monday Jan. 10, the city’s outreach workers and workers from partnering organizations increased their efforts, going tent to tent in an effort to get the people living in them into housing, said Dr. Bharel, and by the next night, 133 of 145 tent-dwellers had left the area or were planning to leave that night.

Another 20 tent-dwellers were also tentatively planning to transition into shelters and temporary housing on the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 11, said Dr. Bharel, adding that the city currently has room of all 145 individuals who were living in Mass. and Cass at the time of the headcount. (The city is also providing assistance to others who migrated to the area after the original 145 tent-dwellers were first identified, she said.)

“Some people don’t have a plan,” said Dr. Bharel,  “and whether they’re onthe list or not, those people will have to vacate the area…and we’ll work with them to find a safe place tomorrow.”

Beginning at 6 a.m. on Jan. 12, outreach workers were scheduled to descend on Mass. and Cass to help individuals living there pack up their tents and other belongings, said Dr. Bharel, and after Wednesday, police patrols in the area will be increased to help get the word out that encampments will no longer be tolerated there.

Shelter is being provided for displaced individuals at the Roundhouse hotel located in the heart of Mass. and Cass. at 891 Massachusetts Ave., which Boston Medical Center has leased for a two-year term; a pop-up “cottage community” comprising pre-fabricated sleeping cabins to provide temporary housing for patients in a parking lot at the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain.; the Pine Street Inn shelter at Shattuck Hospital; the Woods-Mullen women’s s shelter at 794 Massachusetts Ave.; and the Southampton Street Shelter at 112 Southampton St., among other sites, said Dr. Bharel.

“Dismantling the tents is the first step so there isn’t the attraction to come to this area. In many ways this is different, and this is just the beginning of our work,” said Dr. Bharel, said Dr. Bharel, adding that the city will later announce its medium- and long-term plans to address, homelessness, mental health and addiction, as well as to address  the “defects in system” that led to situation at Mass. and Cass.

Ramon Soto, director of government advocacy for Boston Medical Center, was also on hand to discuss the operations at the Roundhouse Hotel, which in addition to a targeted 60 low-threshold beds to be phased in over time, also includes a Transitional Care Center, a medically supported triage for patients referred by street outreach workers and shelter staff to Faster Paths at BMC to receive methadone; as well as the Stabilization Care Center, which provides space for patients with substance abuse disorder to stabilize and connect them with permanent housing and treatment.

While drug use by patients won’t be tolerated at the Roundhouse, Soto said staff would take a “therapeutic approach” to any such infractions.

“It isn’t allowed but isn’t necessarily something that would get them kicked out of facility,” said Soto, adding that many patients ended up living on the street in the first place as a result of receiving “punitive” repercussions stemming from their addiction issues. Instead, patients caught using drugs at the Roundhouse would be “treated” and put on the “path to recovery,” he said.

Weapons won’t be tolerated at the Roundhouse, however, said Soto, and individuals arriving at the facility would be “wand-ed on entry,” while all patients’ belonging would be stored in secure lockers on the exterior of the building, which will be closely monitored.

The Roundhouse opened on Friday, Jan. 7, with a dozen patients living there, said Soto, and that number was expected to climb to 30 by the end of the day on Tuesday, Jan. 11. The facility won’t accept walk-in patients, though, he added, as all referrals must from the city and be based on patients’ individual needs.

Clinical services for patients are expected to come to the Roundhouse by the end of the month, added Soto, after staff experienced “some hiccups in the move-in process that kind of slowed things down.”

Soto also said that BMC is adapting a Memorandum of Understanding with the city that the Pine Street Inn previously had when it operated the Roundhouse to reflect the current needs, and that they would “engage the community in developing it.”

Despite Soto’s assurances, District 3 City Councilor Frank Baker said that Mayor Wu’s administration has yet to answer any questions regarding BMC buying the Roundhouse – something he sees as a very likely scenario.

“The fundamental problem is centralization…and we’re dealing with an administration that refuses to answer questions,” said Councilor Baker, who also expressed apprehension that the city’s efforts to provide shelter for those living in the encampments “gives the impression that Boston is giving out free hotel rooms.”

Councilor Baker, who was elected to his seat in November of 2011, added, “My frustration level has gone beyond anything I’ve experienced in my job so far.”

George Gstergios, vice president of the   Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association, said the reason the encampment at Mass. and Cass exists is due to the city’s public health approach to the problem, including distributing 2,000 clean syringes at Albany Street each day.

“If you’re handing out 2,000 needles a day, you should expect 2,000 drug deals a day,” said Gstergios, adding that the city had been taking a public health approach to the problem for the last 12 years, and during that time, the problem has only gotten worse.

Likewise, South End resident Andrew Brand called the open-air drug market at Mass. and Cass the area’s “primary attraction” due to “the ready availability of drugs and low likelihood of getting arrested.”

Looking ahead, Fox said he thinks the next meeting of the Working Group should focus on the open-air drug market at Mass. and Cass.

“I think we need to hit it dead on and see if there’s any way to decrease the draw of Mass. and Cass,” said Fox.

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