On Mass. and Cass, a Wu turn
Mayor says public safety concerns demand different approach
ACCORDING TO THE old adage, a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged.
That may not be exactly what’s happening with the shift in the city’s approach to the troubled area around Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Boulevard in Boston. But it nonetheless marked a striking turn to hear the city’s progressive mayor, Michelle Wu, declare last week that a “new level of public safety alarm” demands a different response to the troubled streets in that area that draw hundreds of people suffering from addiction, homelessness, and untreated mental illness.
After several years in which public health outreach has been the centerpiece of efforts to deal with the problems there, Wu said last week that rising levels of violence and drug and human trafficking mean the city needs to take “a major step” focused on public safety around the tent encampment that has taken root along Atkinson Street.
Yesterday she began to sketch out what that step could involve, suggesting in a briefing with reporters that her administration is drafting a city ordinance that will be unveiled in the coming days. City officials say such legislation would provide police with the clear legal authority they now lack to remove tents that have sprouted along the sidewalks in the area.
There have been multiple stabbings in the area in recent months. Del Rio said police have confiscated everything “from machetes to firearms” in their effort to address violence that has become so bad it has prompted several partner agencies to pull their outreach workers out of the area.
There is a lot of support for Wu’s vow to ratchet up attention to public safety issues at Mass. and Cass.
“I think that shows positive leadership from Mayor Wu, and I think that she’s doing her best to address a very difficult situation,” said City Council President Ed Flynn.
State Sen. Will Brownsberger, who co-authored the state’s 2018 criminal justice reform bill that sought to turn away from some of the harsher penalties of the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 1990s, said there nonetheless has to be balance between the public health and public safety approach.
“We absolutely want to be about harm reduction, we absolutely want to be about helping people with addiction,” said Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat whose district includes a section of Boston. “But when you have a situation like Mass. and Cass, there is absolutely no alternative but to be aggressively enforcing our laws, because the situation is out of control. It has to end.”
Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, said dialing up law enforcement activity with a crackdown on dealers will only exacerbate problems and lead to more violence if the city isn’t able to also address “the underlying demand for drugs.” He said disrupting drug markets without lessening demand only leads new dealers to enter the market and can set off violent turf battles.
Calling the approach to Mass. and Cass “chaotic and not well-articulated,” Beletsky pointed to the impending closure of a program at the nearby Roundhouse hotel, which has provided 60 beds of transitional housing for those with addiction, as a move in the wrong direction. Boston Medical Center, which runs the initiative, said funding for the program has dried up.
“An ordinance on its own would not solve any part of this situation,” Wu said yesterday, emphasizing that it would have to be part of a “multifaceted” approach that includes a robust pathway to transitional housing.
Wu said a city program providing “low threshold transitional” housing has been highly effective for those it has been able to serve, with more than half of those in the initial cohort of 200 people from Mass. and Cass who were referred to such placements, including at the soon-to-close Roundhouse, having transitioned to permanent housing. The problem now is the lack of more such slots.
The housing supply crunch means the ordinance the administration is drafting that would allow police to clear away tents is the easy part of the new approach being hatched. Having transitional housing and treatment slots available for everyone now living on the streets will be the bigger challenge to the rollout of a new plan for the area.
One helpful development: Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden will soon announce a $1 million expansion, thanks to new state funding, of the office’s “Services over Sentences” program that has funded addiction treatment and other services as an alternative to prosecution for those arrested in the Mass. and Cass area.While Wu has suddenly drawn attention by calling for a crackdown on violence and other illegal activity, Del Rio said it’s not a question of pursuing either a public health strategy or a public safety approach. Both are key parts of what must happen, she said.
“Even our team’s title — the Coordinated Response Team — communicates that,” she said, pointing out that the office works with 12 different city departments, including the Boston Public Health Commission and the Boston Police Department. “We strongly believe that has to be the approach.”