A sweep through Mass and Cass will do irreparable harm

Sweeps driven by misperceptions about people who live in the area

AS A LICENSED clinical social worker who has conducted outreach at Mass and Cass and worked in the city-run men’s shelter on Atkinson Street, I am disappointed in Mayor Wu’s decision to enact another sweep of the Mass and Cass area. Under the guise of “public health,” this sweep will misuse tax dollars and exacerbate an enormous workload for local service providers.

We have enough data to support the conclusion that sweeps do irreparable harm. For instance, in 2021, public health
researchers Benjamin Linas and Joshua Barocas found that sweeps lead to increases in overdose rates, overdose mortality, and hospitalizations for complications of drug use.

Sweeps of homeless encampments are typically driven by misperceptions regarding the individuals who live there and whether they can be assisted. A widely held myth is that Mass and Cass consists of the same immovable hundred people, unwilling to get help. A close-up view reveals that these individuals are members of two broad groups with many complex and diverse needs.

One group is a fixed number of old-timers who are banned from every social services agency and labeled “too sick to help.” Most in this group have been housed before and were unable to maintain housing. Most have mental illness, dementia, traumatic brain injury, and/or addiction. Most have survived unthinkable abuse.

Displacing old-timers from a neighborhood that is familiar with their needs, and eliminating the only place they are allowed
to rest, is a recipe for disaster. If people aren’t allowed in shelters because of unsafe behavior, they will not last in the new shelter being created in theSouth End. If they aren’t allowed to camp, they will have no rest which will only increase their instability. It isn’t ideal that chronically sick and homeless people are living on the street, but it’s amazing how they’ve utilized service providers, tents, comradery, and community to stay alive.

The second group of Mass and Cass residents is a fluctuating number of people who have fled there due to a lack of options. These are violence survivors; young adults aged out of foster care; transgender peoplerejected by their families; widowed, disabled people, veterans; and refugees from underserviced American regions and destabilized nations.

This second group is constantly growing because of a lack of systems designed to care for such individuals, and because the programs available to them are chronically underfunded. It would surprise many to realize that as this group grows, it also shrinks because of its members’ capacity to recover with assistance from housing, triage, medical, and addiction
services.

Danger and agitation at Mass and Cass develops from the desperation its people feel due to a shortage of help available to them. Few members of the general public realize that a passionate network of local providers is consistently lifting people in this area out of chaos and homelessness.

Still, people are becoming sick and homeless at a higher rate than overworked and underpaid workers are able to treat and house them. Simultaneously, numerous social work positions in city shelters are vacant due to low pay and the expensive mandate that city workers reside in Boston.

Meaningful change in the numbers of people living at Mass and Cass can’t occur if frontline workers are not adequately compensated and programs are not staffed to meet the scale of the problem. A more promising and humane response is for the state, alongside Boston, outer municipalities, and the federal government to provide more resources to meet the needs of Mass and Cass residents. It’s inappropriate for the city to allocate funds for sweeps by police, which further traumatize already traumatized people. Blocking vulnerable people from sleeping outside does nothing to protect them from abuse; it often pushes them into more hazardous settings.

Meet the Author

Madeline Lessing

Licensed clinical social worker, Served Mass and Cass area for 3 years
If the Mayor’s request for an ordinance permitting sweeps is approved, more highly vulnerable people will be incarcerated
and will come out sicker and more difficult to house. If the ordinance fails, Mass and Cass may look the same, but people will continue to recover and leave the area. In the meantime, we frontline workers will care for people who can’t until more space is made in the world for them.

Madeline Lessing is a licensed clinical social worker who has served Mass and Cass residents over the last three years.