A day after attending a meeting organized by Gov. Charlie Baker to discuss the worsening situation at Mass and Cass, the state’s Attorney General Maura Healey Thursday said she supported among other options a proposal from Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins that would allow people experiencing homelessness and substance use disorder to be involuntarily committed and housed in unused detention facility nearby.
Baker convened a meeting Wednesday evening with Healey, Acting Mayor Kim Janey, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins, Boston Police officials and public defenders to discuss possible solutions to the growing problems near the corner of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue.
Tompkins’ plan would convert the empty Suffolk County House of Correction, a former ICE detention facility, into temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness in the area. His proposal would utilize Section 35, a state law that allows someone to be civilly committed and treated involuntarily for an alcohol or substance use disorder.
“What Sheriff Tompkins is offering is space. He’s offering some personnel. He’s offering space that includes beds for people who need housing as well as medical capabilities, the ability to set something up there,” Healey told GBH News in a telephone interview Thursday. “I think it’s collectively for all of us to figure out what the best course is.”
Tompkins’ proposal, which has faced criticism from prisoners’ rights organizations, is similar to a model implemented by Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi in 2018.
“Sometimes it’s the only way to do it to save a life,” Healey said. “I mean, you don’t want somebody to die on you. There will be people who would qualify for Section 35 who could be really helped and supported, and others who won’t qualify for Section 35, but it’s going to be a combination.”
The Baker-Polito administration has also resisted Tompkins’ plan, instead continuing to “engage with the City of Boston and other stakeholders” to work towards a more regional approach, according to communications director Sarah Finlaw.
“The administration supports a regional approach,” Finlaw told GBH News in a statement, “and is making several resources available including treatment beds, supportive housing units and financial support.”
Healey, who has been the subject of speculation about a possible challenge to Baker next year, says urgent action is needed on multiple fronts to address the crisis.
“I want to see action in the next few weeks. I want action now,” Healey said. “We can’t wait ’til after an election. We can’t wait until winter. We’ve got to act now.”
Wednesday’s meeting was planned as part of a series of talks organized by Baker. Doris Wong, who owns a wholesale grocer located in the area, says she’s doubtful action will come out of those meetings.
“It’s the same old political speeches,” Wong told GBH News. “No one will come out and take the lead.”
Healey says she “understands the frustrations” of residents and business owners in the area and that “all options all the table,” including the reopening the Long Island Shelter, which was closed down after a connecting bridge from Quincy was deemed unsafe in 2014.
Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey, who joined Healey and other elected officials at Baker’s discussion, said Tompkins’ plan raises “some questions and concerns,” and suggested a more local approach.
“As we continue to explore all options, it is urgent for the state to act on the $30 million pledged two months ago for a regional approach to the opioid crisis, including decentralized services and low-threshold housing across seven cities,” Janey wrote in a statement to GBH News. “The City of Boston will continue to work with state, county and municipal public officials to support our most vulnerable neighbors.”
Last month, Janey proposed a plan to move 30 people experiencing homelessness at Mass and Cass into a Revere hotel, a plan that was met by criticism from Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo. Arrigo told reporters that the plan is “not happening,” adding that Janey never properly informed him of the proposal.
“We know that well over 60% of the people we serve come from outside of Boston. To help provide services closer to the places that people call home, we need other cities and towns to step up,” Janey wrote in a statement to GBH News. “This includes Revere.”
In response to the pushback, Janey doubled down this week, telling GBH News that Boston Public Health Commission staff has met with Arrigo and has followed up on requests to review plans.
“Standing against this proposal means standing against 30 people having a place to call home. It means denying 30 people the health care they deserve at a time they need it most,” Janey wrote in a statement to GBH News. “We need to stand up together to support our friends, family members and neighbors battling substance use disorder. I want to thank all the cities and towns who have already done so, and I hope Revere is willing to join that list.”
Arrigo’s office said that there are no developments as of Thursday.
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins did not respond to a request for comment on Tompkins’ plan. She says her office allocated a full-time assistant district attorney to exclusively monitor, supervise and prosecute crimes in the area, “with the intention of holding violent and serious perpetrators accountable” while coordinating with local law enforcement, public health officials, medical partners and substance use experts.
“We need a level of urgency from all of our partners and we need solutions, not excuses,” Rollins said in a statement to GBH News. “This crisis has been mounting for over six years. We need leaders to come together to work on humane and public health focused solutions.”
In 2016, Baker signed a bill to end the practice of housing women who are civilly committed for substance use disorders in Massachusetts prisons. The state now faces a lawsuit, brought by Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts in 2019, to end the practice for men.
Bonnie Tenneriello, an attorney with Prisoners Legal Services, said Tompkins’ plan would stop people and families from seeking treatment.
“We know that this is traumatizing for those people,” Tenneriello told GBH News. “We know that it causes shame and stigma that are counterproductive for treatment. We need housing and treatment for people, we just don’t have to do it in prison.”
Yahairia Lopez, who leads a group of concerned residents in the South End and Roxbury, says she tentatively supports Tompkins’ proposal, as long as it includes “a plan that covers all the needs of individuals out there in need,” including mental health resources.
“At this point, anything will help remedy the situation,” Lopez told GBH News. “Winter is coming, and the last thing we want to see is people dying of overdoses or weather-related causes from sleeping in tents.”
Healey says she agrees — and at this point, she’s urging state and city officials to try different methods and see what works.
“We have the resources and we have people with relevant expertise across different realms, they just need to be given the go ahead to act and do it. We know what to do,” Healey said. “Will it work? We don’t know, but it’s just got to happen. And to date, there just hasn’t been the kind of action that we’ve needed.”