Following a city-sanctioned sweep of a new encampment near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard Wednesday morning, Mayor Michelle Wu announced additional efforts to tackle a long-standing crisis of homelessness and drug use in the area, home to several shelters and centers for addiction treatment.

Unlike previous sweeps at Mass. and Cass, a team of city employees, public health workers, police officers and members of the Newmarket Business Association worked together to clear 20 tents near the intersection and move people away from Southampton Street to Atkinson Street, in an effort to avoid heavy traffic on the road.

“There has been an ongoing effort every single day to prevent the deeply fortified rows of entrenched encampments from reemerging in the city, while centering the people at the heart of this crisis and the services that are necessary,” Wu said at a press conference Thursday.

At the same time last year, the city counted 90 tents in the area, Wu said, demonstrating a 70% reduction in encampments. The number of individuals without housing in the area is now 173, down from 262 at this time last year, according to Wu.

“The number of individuals gathering in the area has gone down, although it is still a large number,” she said. “The number of tents that are there have gone down, although we still see them popping up every day and work to take them down every day.”

This progress, Wu said, demonstrates the effectiveness of ongoing efforts in the area that began in earnest after a sweep of hundreds of tents last January. Through a needle exchange program with the group Access, Harm Reduction, Overdose Prevention and Education (AHOPE), the city has collected nearly three times the amount of syringes it has given out since January, according to Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission.

“HIV, viral hepatitis and other bloodborne pathogens pose a serious threat to the health and safety of people who use drugs, as well as others,” Ojikotu said. “If not addressed, these infections could create a larger public health crisis than the one we're dealing with currently. Harm reduction tools mitigate this risk ... and decades of research and evidence support its efficacy.”

Protesters and police officers surround Mayor Michelle Wu's press conference Thursday at Clifford Park, October 20, 2022
Tori Bedford GBH News

Wu also announced a planned renovation of Clifford Park, the nearby site of a baseball field and playground where multiple reports of used needles, trash and other issues led residents to bring out yellow caution tape last month and unofficially close the park themselves.

Members of the Boston Parks Department and the Newmarket Business Association conduct five sweeps every day to clean Clifford Park, according to Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ryan Woods. The city is working on a “complete renovation and redesign” of the park, and cleaning efforts will be increased in the area.

“As a city, we have a responsibility to care for those living with substance use disorders and mental health challenges, to connect them to services that they need and deserve,” Wu told a small crowd gathered at Clifford Park. “At the same time, we have a responsibility to address the impacts that these challenges have on our communities, our local businesses, our residents, and our kids. We must mitigate the public health risks to families, young people and residents of all ages who deserve parks, playgrounds, streets and sidewalks that are safe and clean in every part of Boston.”

Before Wu could go into detail, one protester yelled out, “What about the kids at recess who can’t play outside?” Others began chanting “shame on Wu!” while holding signs that read “Wu doesn’t care.”

Protesters were joined by City Councilors Erin Murphy and Frank Baker, who recently renewed their call for a hearing about what can be done to increase safety at Clifford Park.

After being shouted down at the park, Wu continued the news conference from a private room at the Parks Department Headquarters, joined by a number of city leaders and Newmarket Business Association president Sue Sullivan, who has fielded concerns from residents and business owners in the area for years.

“If you talk to businesses down here, if you talk to residents, a lot of people will tell you that it's still bad, and things are bad, we’ve still got people on the street, and they’re not wrong,” Sullivan said. “But they are wrong if anybody says that there's not progress being made. They're wrong, and they've got very short memories.”

Right after the closure of the Long Island shelter in 2014, “there were hundreds of people on the [Mass. Ave.] Connector, and falling into the street,” Sullivan said. “Even last year… we don’t have what we had then.”

Wu said the city was able to move 72 people into what she descirbed as permanent supportive housing since the sweep last January. Her administration is in “constant conversation” with the state and other municipalities, she said, in an effort to increase the housing stock from 200 units to “the thousands we need.” A partnership with shelter provider Pine Street Inn is working to create 500 additional units in the next five years, Wu said.

“We are in great need. Being able to have more permanent housing would speed up the pipeline and remove the barriers that are keeping folks in shelter and in low threshold housing,” Wu said. “But we can’t do this alone.”