A fix for the crisis at Mass. and Cass?

Acting Mayor Kim Janey declared last week that Boston will move to dismantle the tent city of homeless people that has grown in the area of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. Janey’s announcement that shelter beds will be found for everyone whose tent is taken down came on the heels of a proposal from Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins to use a vacant building at the House of Correction he oversees to house and provide addiction treatment to those in the encampments who have criminal warrants.

There has been criticism of both leaders from public health experts, advocates, and some other elected officials who say they’re taking a heavy-handed approach that criminalizes a dire public health problem. To them, Tompkins has a blunt response: What’s your plan?

Some are “vehemently against people being housed and helped at an incarceration facility,” Tompkins said on a new episode of The Codcast. “My question is…what’s your plan? Oh, that’s right. You don’t have one.”

The area began to become a gathering place for those dealing with homelessness and addiction after the 2014 closing of a bridge that brought people to the treatment and shelter facilities on Long Island. An abandoned building in the Mass. and Cass area was turned into a 450-bed shelter to deal with the fallout of the closing of the Long Island facility, Tompkins said. 

“We were told that, hey, no problem. People won’t be hanging out. They’re going to come there, get their medication, they’re going to have case work, and you’ll never see them. Well, that didn’t happen,” he said. 

Earlier this year, Tompkins said, “we began to see tents pop up. Two here, three there, one over here, and nobody did anything. The city didn’t do anything. And so I guess more people felt like, okay, let’s establish a community. I don’t know what nonprofit was giving out the tents, but I’m told that a couple of nonprofits were coming down, giving out the tents.” Tompkins said it has “mushroomed” into a small village of about 200 tents and 400 people. “You have an open-air drug den, you have human trafficking,” he said. “And it’s an untenable situation that has to be rectified and remedied now before we turn it into, dare I say, the West Coast, where it’s really out of control.” 

Tompkins says a currently unused building at the House of Correction, which is separate from the jailed population there, could be used to house up to 100 people, who would be arraigned on outstanding charges but then sent there for 90 days where they would get housing and treatment services. 

“Should these activities take place in a health care facility outside of a correction facility? Absolutely, 100 percent. I agree with that,” he said. “But because of the scarcity of beds to address mental health and substance abuse, oftentimes people are sent to jail. And so I have a full blown medical team, substance abuse team, and mental health team. So we can help. We just want to be a part of the solution.” 

Tompkins said there have been discussions with state officials about establishing a “mobile courtroom” at the House of Correction to hold arraignments and begin the process of figuring out a plan for people now living on the streets there. WBUR reports today that work is already underway on a makeshift court. 

For several weeks, regular meetings focused on Mass. and Cass have been convened by Gov. Charlie Baker at the State House in the large first-floor room where the governor usually holds press briefings. The sessions have included Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, Janey, Tompkins, city and state health officials, representatives from the Trial Court, Boston police, and the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which represents indigent defendants, and other agencies. “The state’s involved now big time,” said Tompkins. 

He called Janey’s plan for starting to dismantle the tent city “very doable,” saying it “hits on all of the salient points.” 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“I feel very good about the prospect of this being addressed in a holistic way,” Tompkins said. “The cavalry has finally arrived,” he said of the city announcement and the broader collaborative effort Baker has put in motion.

Janey’s plan does not, however, include Tompkins’s idea for making use of the now-vacant House of Correction building. “I think that’s politics, dare I say,” Tompkins said. He said the ACLU and other groups opposed to his plan “would descend upon her” had she included it. “So I totally get it.” 

“Look at the horrific situation that’s going on at Mass. and Cass,” he said. “It’s  a humanitarian crisis. Would you rather that – particularly in the winter — or would you rather them be inside out of the elements, getting the care that they need? And so that’s what we’re offering.”