Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden’s office is allocating $400,000 toward a program that hopes to provide an alternative to prosecution for those struggling with homelessness and substance use disorder at the Boston intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Mass. Ave, known as Mass. and Cass.

“Along with substance abuse use disorder, we see mental health issues, homelessness, joblessness and numerous other factors,” Hayden said at a news conference Monday. “It would be very easy for us to say, let's just get these people out of here. But the correct approach is to say, let's give these people a way out of here.”

In anticipation of an increase in the area’s population during the summer months, funds from the DA’s Asset Forfeiture Fund will be used to expand Services Over Sentences (SOS), a program started last year in partnership with the North Suffolk Mental Health Association.

A man stands at a podium in a suit, mid-speech, in front of bookshelves with people flanking him on each side
Interim Suffolk DA Kevin Hayden announces funding for the SOS program focused on people living at Mass. and Cass, May 2, 2022
Tori Bedford GBH News

“It’s clear that traditional court involvement is not the answer for many of the vulnerable individuals in the center or fringes of Mass. and Cass,” Hayden said. “We need to present alternative solutions that identify and address the issues that brought them there in the first place. I’m confident this program does that, and I think money seized from drug-related convictions is a fitting method to fund it.”

With a tentative launch date of June 2, the funding will cover one year of services for 30 individuals, primarily but not exclusively focusing on those living in and around Mass. and Cass. Depending on specific needs, individuals will be placed in sober housing, intensive rehabilitation and detox programs. The program will be voluntary, and those who are accepted will be placed in programs around the state under the condition of sobriety, said Audrey Clairmont, the director of addiction services at North Suffolk Mental Health.

Those who are not ready to commit to sobriety or detox “will be weeded out because they have to opt in to this program,” Clairmont said, “and there will be full transparency about what the goals of this program are. The goal is recovery.”

The program will have the capacity to work with 30 people at one time, Clairmont said, though she anticipates that more will be served as people pass in and out of recovery. Hayden described the program as “one piece of the puzzle” working in tandem with programs led by the City of Boston and local nonprofits.

“We have hundreds of people on the street down at Mass. and Cass, and many of them need help,” Newmarket Business Association Executive Director Sue Sullivan said. “This program will allow the DA’s office and the police to give an option for all those who are arrested for crimes that are not violent. Right now, there isn’t an option.”

Eligibility will be determined “on a case by case basis,” Hayden said, sourcing candidates through a court system and accepting both pre-arraignment and post-arraignment cases involving non-violent offenders who have committed “low level” offenses.

When asked what constitutes a “low level offense,” Hayden emphasized a thorough vetting process that varies by case.

“We’ll distinguish between those who need help and those who are preying on the helpless,” Hayden said, “and we'll make that decision on a case by case basis, looking at every situation and making the best determination that we can.”

Those who engage in human trafficking will be prosecuted, and “people that are coming in and selling drugs and moving drugs in that area and selling it to the people that they know have the addiction problem,” Hayden said. “If we catch them, they will be prosecuted.”

In response to a series of recent stabbings in the area, city officials blocked off Atkinson Street and temporarily closed the Engagement Center, a resource facility that offers food, medical assistance and other resources to those living there. On Sunday, more than 100 people gathered along the sidewalk on Mass. Ave, waiting for the center’s reopening on Tuesday.

“They’re becoming more aggressive out here, pushing us out of this area,” Daniel Flynn, who has been experiencing homelessness since 2006, told GBH News on Sunday. “This area is getting ready to be completely shut down, they’re punishing us by drying up the resources.”