Updated Dec. 12 at 11:03 a.m.

Last year, hundreds of people living in tents along the intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue faced a traumatizing nightly choice: to freeze outside or risk theft, COVID-19 exposure or abuse at a nearby shelter.

At the same time, residents in the area felt unsafe in their homes and neglected by city officials, as crime rates increased and previous efforts to solve the crisis offered only hopelessness.

Mayor Michelle Wu — from her very first day in office — promised to transform the troubled stretch known as Mass. and Cass, a crossroads in the heart of Boston marked by a concentration of homelessness, substance use disorder, mental health issues, poverty and crime.

One year into her tenure, Wu faces criticism from all sides: state officials, residents and business owners are calling for a tougher crackdown on crime, while public health experts say more resources are needed for treatment and housing.

Some of Wu’s critics argue that her stated mission to “lead with public health, not criminalization” went too far — with too much money spent on the unhoused and not enough on policing.

But data obtained by GBH News shows the Wu administration is continuing to pump more resources into an already years-long surge of police overtime at Mass. and Cass.

In the first 10 months of Wu’s tenure, up through August 2022, Boston police logged more than $4 million in overtime payments in the area, according to police payroll records.

Between 2021 and August 2022, the city spent around $8 million on police overtime, payroll data show — nearly double the $4.3 million spent in the previous two years combined.

What overtime money buys

Overtime spending at Mass. and Cass has risen every year since 2019, and is on track to increase again by the end of 2022: The city’s budget for the current fiscal year, which ends next June, sets aside $3.7 million for police overtime at Mass. and Cass.

Police overtime accounts for around half of this year’s budget for city spending on all services at Mass. and Cass, excluding state and federal grants, according to a budget breakdown provided by the city. Millions more in state and federal funds are slated for low-threshold housing and other public health services.

Wu defended the increased police spending as an element of “an entire ecosystem of services” designed to tackle every aspect at once.

“The public safety response is an integral part of how we ensure that the area is safe,” Wu told GBH News last month in an interview in her City Hall office. “We can’t have a situation like we’ve seen in the past where we’re treating people as if they just need to be brushed under a rug. We also can’t have a situation where we’re looking the other way on potential violence.”

Encampments at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, or Mass and Cass, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021.
Tori Bedford GBH News

During a city-sanctioned sweep on Jan. 12, Boston police officers logged just over $17,000 in overtime payments in one day.

Since then, Wu has increased the police presence to include “24/7 operations,” additional street outreach officers and fixed patrols. The majority of the overtime hours are reported as recurring eight-hour daily shifts.

Wu said the current contract between the city and its biggest police union prohibits rearranging officers’ regular shifts to reduce overtime opportunities, a sticking point in her ongoing contract negotiations with the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association.

“A lot of where our resources go and which units are staffed in which ways is really determined by that underlying legal document,” Wu said, adding that with mandatory overtime, “you kind of get this tripling of the resources needed.”

For overtime shifts, officers made 1.5 times their standard hourly rate at an average of $66 per hour, depending on rank and seniority. Some officers make as much as $86 per hour, according to the union’s contract with the city.

Boston Patrolmen’s Association president Larry Calderone blamed city leadership for a staffing shortage that he says necessitates overtime pay for officers working regular shifts at Mass. and Cass.

“We’re there because the mayor hasn’t done her job and hired bodies,” Calderone said. “Our officers are not the problem, and neither is the money that we’re being forced to make.”

IMG_8710 (2).jpg
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu speaks to members of the city's public health department following a street clearing at the corner of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue on Jan. 12, 2022.
Tori Bedford GBH News

An active and visible police presence “makes a big difference” in reducing crime and preventing new encampments, Wu says, but the system is “still missing some pieces,” particularly getting assistance to people once they are in custody.

“If they are arrested ... there’s not a guarantee for adequate food or medical treatment, and certainly not for those with substance use disorder,” Wu said. “Without that ability to ensure that people are safe while there is necessary enforcement happening, we see further breakdowns in the system."

Arrests in the area have increased by 71% overall as of November since the same time last year, according to the Boston Police Department. Violent crime has seen a 13% increase from the same time last year. But homicides dropped from six last year to zero this year.

Since this time last year, police reported 166 drug-related arrests at Mass. and Cass, according to Boston Police Lieutenant Peter Messina, the department’s point person for the area. This year, three people have been arrested for sex trafficking, 16 for “sex for pay” and 45 for soliciting sex. In the same period, 80 people have been identified as “victims of the commercial sex trade” and were connected with services, he said.

“It is often very complex because there are individuals who are in active substance use who are also then dealing drugs at various levels, and they need treatment as well as accountability,” Wu said. “It is a symptom of our broken systems.”

Mass and Cass 2021
A Boston police officer oversees the clearing of an encampment near Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in January of 2021.
Photo by Tori Bedford

What ‘a lot of spending’ buys

As the weather grows colder, waitlists for services remain full and resources are stretched thin, some question whether the rapidly growing cost of police overtime could be better spent on other resources.

“They’re stealing money from the whole city,” said Lynn, who moved into sober housing last winter after nearly a year outside on Mass. and Cass, and asked to be identified by her middle name to protect her privacy. “What they’re doing is literally ... nothing. They just sit in their cars. They’re the ones who should be getting arrested for robbery.”

Last month, the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Work published a series of recommendations for Mass. and Cass, including a call to further fund crisis response programs outside of police departments.

“There’s a lot of spending happening, and it doesn’t look like accountability,” said Eva Tine, a Mass. and Cass case worker who leads an advocacy group with the association. “There’s evidence that shows us how to address these issues. I don’t understand why we keep investing in the same flawed solutions that never work.”

Tine pointed to research that links increased policing with a higher rate of overdose deaths, a lower efficacy rate for substance use treatment and barriers to overdose prevention resources in homeless communities.

“With involvement in the criminal justice system, the risk of overdose significantly increases,” Tine said.

Wu says her emphasis on public safety has come with an unprecedented increase in services focused around harm reduction, a strategy focusing on mitigating the dangers of living outside and using drugs.

Harm reduction supplies offered at the Atkinson St. engagement center at Mass. and Cass. November 23, 2022
Tori Bedford GBH News

“We’re trying to do everything from a really data-based approach because it’s really easy to get caught up in different terms or rhetoric or even politics to some degree,” Wu said. “Our teams have been on the ground every single day, basically 24 hours a day, with people who are deeply misunderstood by so many.”

Police overtime eclipses all over city-funded programs at Mass. and Cass, with remaining funds divided among a host of social services.

The next biggest line item is just under $2 million for the Engagement Center on Atkinson Street, which provides services including clean bathrooms, medical care and drug safety supplies like clean needles and naloxone, the antidote for opioid overdoses, to more than 300 people per day.

City-funded programs at Mass. and Cass also include half a million dollars to station EMTs nearby so they can respond to emergencies on the ground. Smaller sums go to programs for syringe exchange ($63,000 from the city) and pairing mental health clinicians with officers on calls “that require a mental health clinician and not necessarily a police response” ($68,000).

Federal funding funnelled through the city includes $21 million for low-threshold housing, to be used by the end of 2023, according to the breakdown provided by the city. Millions more in federal pandemic relief funds have been allocated to the city’s public health commission, with $8 million budgeted for services in the area over the next four years.

With roughly half of the city-sourced spending wrapped up in police overtime, Wu has called on the state to increase grant funding for housing and other services at Mass. and Cass.

“My frustration and impatience comes entirely because we still have 150 people out in the cold on our waitlist,” Wu said. “This is a state that has resources where if we wanted to make housing available, the state could snap their fingers and make it happen.”

Gov. Charlie Baker told GBH News that the state has spent over $40 million on programming associated with Mass. and Cass, including harm reduction, outreach programs, clinical treatment services and housing for nearly 500 people at six new low-threshold sites since January. Of those, 183 are currently living at the low-threshold sites and 83 have moved into permanent housing.

“We’ve added hundreds and hundreds of low-threshold beds outside the city of Boston, and I think that’s all positive,” Baker said last month. “But one thing we can’t do much about are some of the issues around dealers. That’s a city responsibility. And as long as you have dealers who believe they can do their business in an open-air market in downtown Boston, it's going to be hard for us to get as far as we need to go to deal with this.”

In October, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders urged Wu to focus on “criminal investigations and community policing efforts,” adding that “more work must be done by the city of Boston” to tackle area crime.

Governor-elect Maura Healey, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito and Governor Charlie Baker at a panel on the opioid epidemic at A New Way recovery center in Quincy, Nov. 29, 2022
Tori Bedford GBH News

Gov.-elect Maura Healey told GBH News she’s eager to “continue to collaborate” with the city of Boston on how to best invest “resources and attention from a number of different realms,” including opioid settlement funds distributed to the state.

Healey said she wouldn’t stand in the way of supervised consumption sites, which provide clean drug supplies and a place for people to use drugs within the view of trained medical professionals — a service the outgoing governor staunchly opposed.

“I think it’s up to each community, each city or town to evaluate whether that’s something that they want to pursue,” Healey said. “I’ve been very supportive of funding for harm reduction, for any kind of recovery and prevention, and certainly for harm reduction.”

‘We all want the same thing’

Not everyone supports harm reduction strategies.

While attempting to present data on public health services at Mass. and Cass last October, Wu was booed out of her own press conference by residents who said they were frustrated with their long-disenfranchised neighborhood serving as the city’s epicenter of services for people experiencing homelessness.

At a City Council hearing earlier this month, City Council President Ed Flynn — a former probation officer — criticized the city’s approach, calling for an increase in policing instead.

“What is happening is not working, and I’m upset about the lack of police presence in the city of Boston,” Flynn said.

“There seems to be a tremendous amount of emphasis on harm reduction,” added City Councilor Michael Flaherty. “You view it as harm reduction. I think when you pass out crack pipes and meth pipes, that’s enabling.”

Harm reduction “is not just about the exchange of syringes,” Boston Public Health Commission head Dr. Bisola Ojikutu countered during the hearing. “It really is a spectrum of strategies that decrease these life-threatening impacts of drug use.”

It also helps stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other infectious diseases, which “can be life threatening and cost our health system a lot of money,” Ojikutu said.

“This is a strategy that works,” Ojikotu said.

"The solution that we're applying looks like part of the problem to them."
Rich Baker, Victory Programs program director

It has been difficult to navigate the opposing views of supporters and critics of harm reduction, says Rich Baker, who leads a harm-reduction initiative at Victory Programs, a grant-funded nonprofit at Mass. and Cass.

“People feel as though the work that we’re doing isn’t solving the problem because the problem looks different to them than it looks to us,” Rich Baker said. “The solution that we’re applying looks like part of the problem to them.”

The goal of harm reduction, Rich Baker says, is to meet people where they are. But that’s challenging in a neighborhood scarred by years of neglect, trauma and broken trust.

“We all want the same thing. We don’t want to see this level of trauma and desperation out on the streets, and that’s what we’re trying to solve,” Rich Baker said. “But you don’t get there by pushing people into programs that they’re not ready for, or that they don’t ever want to be in. And when you criminalize things and push people into the margins, they don’t just go away.”

The city will continue to call for additional resources from state and national partners to “help expand across the entire state,” Wu said, while using a data-backed approach to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

“Over these months, we have really been arriving at an understanding of just what balance is needed from each of these elements, health, public safety, outreach, and community partners,” she said. “I think we’re getting there, and that will help us make our budget moving forward into the next year. The goal is to keep fine-tuning every day.”

Correction: This story was updated to correct a misattributed quote from City Councilor Michael Flaherty and clarify Rich Baker’s role at Victory Programs.

To produce this story, GBH News partnered with Boston University’s Justice Media Computational Journalism co-Lab, a collaboration between the Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences’ BU Spark! program, the College of Communication and the BU Hub Cross-College Challenge. Contributing students were Walker Armstrong, Eunyeong Park, Lily Kepner and Matthew Batacan, with assistance from faculty members Brooke Williams and Langdon White.