The city of Boston will soon step up its enforcement against homeless encampments with a public health focus in an effort to address the unsheltered population in the area near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, acting mayor Kim Janey's administration revealed Tuesday.
Boston Public Health Commission executive director Dr. Bisola Ojikutu declared substance use disorder and homelessness a public health emergency in the city.
In addition to the BPHC declaration, Janey will sign a new, multipronged executive order that, among other things, will prioritize existing laws "to prevent the placement and maintenance" of homeless encampments within the city, according to a copy provided by the administration.
"Tents are not appropriate for housing. They lack clean water and adequate hygiene facilities," Janey said during a press conference announcing the plan. "Even more concerning," she added, "these tents have become the site of infectious diseases, sexual assaults, human trafficking, potential overdoses and violence. We cannot let our most vulnerable residents continue to suffer in these encampments."
Janey's order sets up a city and state "central command structure" to track regional shelter and treatment options for those who must vacate the streets. It also revises the city's "Homeless Encampment Protocol," to establish the principles of: treating homeless individuals with dignity; respecting their belongings; giving them "appropriate notice" when removing their tents; and offering shelter, as well as mental health and substance use disorder services.
"We also understand that some individuals may refuse help that they've been offered. In this instance, enforcement will be used, but only as a last resort. And even then, we're working with the District Attorney's office and the courts to ensure that enforcement itself is a pathway to services, treatment and shelter," Janey said.
A copy of the new Homeless Encampment Protocol was not immediately available for public examination. Janey said during the press conference, though, that the new policy will not require a homeless person to pick up their tent and vacate until there is a shelter space available.
While Janey estimated there are around 170 emergency beds currently available, Boston Health and Human Services chief Marty Martinez said current bed availability is a fluctuating number, and the new central command structure will work to nail it down.
Janey said the new coordinating team met early Tuesday morning. Implementation of the new executive order will begin "as soon as possible," she added.
The order comes as the encampment in the area known as "Mass & Cass" has grown in recent months, drawing criminal activity and alarming residents and business owners. Janey drew the ire of Revere mayor Brian Arrigo last month when she attempted to house a portion of the Mass & Cass population in a hotel in his city in order to kickstart a regional Mass & Cass response.
Both mayoral candidates Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu have vowed to make the issue a top priority in a new administration. Essaibi George and Wu have also called for cultivating a regional strategy where Boston works with other cities and towns to house and treat the growing vulnerable population.
Janey has endorsed Wu, but Tuesday's executive steps resemble some most recently called for by Wu's opponent.
Last weekend, Essaibi George announced a new plan for Mass & Cass which includes a call for the Boston Public Health Commission to declare the area a public emergency zone, a promise to appoint a cabinet official to oversee the city's response, and a vow to allocate $30 million in federal funding to address the area.