The Boston city council on Wednesday approved an ordinance to clear homeless encampments from the area around Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue, or Mass. and Cass, dispatching additional police officers to enforce a ban on tents around the city. The initial sweep will begin Monday, according to the city’s timeline.
Mayor Michelle Wu filed the proposed ordinance in late August, responding to increasing public safety concerns at the intersection known for a concentration of people struggling with homelessness and substance use disorder.
In a 9-3 vote with one abstention, councilors approved the amended ordinance that requires the city to notify residents about transportation to shelter, removes restrictions on what belongings can be stored by the city and changed the penalty for those who refuse to move their tents from a fine to a verbal warning.
The city plans to add 14 officers, three sergeants and one captain to the area, deployments estimated to cost about $439,000 over the next month. Additional private security teams hired by the Boston Public Health Commission will receive $2.1 million in federal funding over the course of next year, according to the city.
Some councilors — including those who voted in favor of the ordinance — expressed skepticism about the city's ability to shelter people affected by the enforcement and the potential impact on nearby areas.
“I don’t think this is ultimately what’s going to be the solution,” said Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, who voted in favor. “But can it be part of what’s getting us there? I believe so.”
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who voted against the measure, emphasized the plan’s lack of long-term transitional housing and treatment beds.
“Missing in this conversation is what actually leads to long-term success … [the state] has to invest in long-term care beds,” Arroyo said.
The decision is important now as the weather begins to cool and the city is legally required to provide available alternative shelter in order to take down an encampment.
“Every year the city, working with our nonprofit partners, brings on additional shelter beds for the colder months,” Neil Doherty, chief of staff of the mayor's office of intergovernmental relations, said in a statement. “It can be assumed that some of these beds will be used for individuals residing in tents.”
Those currently living in the area will be given the option to move their belongings into a storage program paid for with $186,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. The city did not provide a cost estimate for a new temporary shelter, slated to open this week with space for up to 30 people.
Arroyo said that with the state’s shelter system already at its breaking point, the city did not provide an adequate definition of alternative shelter. During a working session in the council last week, city leaders said that floor space in shelters without available showers can be considered an available alternate shelter.
“Unless we do a secondary effort from the state and from the city to find more actual beds, that's not going to be sustainable,” Arroyo said.
The city says work is underway to secure some 106 beds of additional shelter space, though cost estimates and final contracts are still up in the air.
Councilor Frank Baker, who represents the area around Mass. and Cass, also voted against the measure, partly because it supports shelters available to people actively using drugs.
“We should be talking about treatment first,” Baker said. “If we spent the money on long-term beds at the beginning of COVID … we would be able to actually go into this systematically.”
Councilors Ed Flynn, Erin Murphy and Tania Fernandes Anderson, who all voted in favor, emphasized the public health need to remove tents, while calling on city leaders to provide transparency around next steps.
“The tents need to come down,” Murphy said. “But the people of Boston deserve an explanation of what happens next.”
Anderson said she’s concerned about the impact on surrounding districts like hers.
“The aftermath is going to adversely impact District 7, considering that the police department — whether or not they have the resources or capacity — has gone on record stating that they were not able to sustain or contain the situation as is today,” she said.
In last week’s council working session, Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox said the ordinance would enable officers to conduct arrests without the risk of violating people’s rights against unlawful search and seizure.
“We're down there doing a lot. We are arresting a lot of people. We're doing all kinds of drug investigations, but the fact is, we have to do it in a constitutional way,” Cox said.
Arroyo also raised concerns about enforcement at encampments outside of the city’s jurisdiction, including one in his district at the Stony Brook Reservation, land owned by the state.
“Other folks have had [encampments] show up in different places and locations,” he said. “It is unclear how this state will work in tandem with the city to do this process.”
He referenced sweeps of Mass. and Cass conducted by previous mayoral administrations, which started in 2019 and have carried through into the Wu administration.
“The fact that we are still here talking about it should tell you just how unsuccessful those attempts have been,” Arroyo said.
Arroyo argued that research into similar sweeps across the country shows a harmful impact, citing an April study by the American Medical Association that found a nearly 24% increase in deaths as a result of involuntary displacement.
“There's no study or test case that anyone can hold up and say that the clearing of encampments has actually been successful,” he said.
Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said in a statement Wednesday that her organization “will be watching to ensure that people’s rights are not violated in the execution and enforcement of this ordinance.”
“Attempts to criminalize homelessness and sweep people out of sight consistently fail to solve the public health and safety challenges unfolding in areas such as Mass. and Cass,” she said.
The city began outreach work earlier this month and posted written notices to residents of existing encampments last week. Offers to move people into shelters will begin Thursday, and an overflow space on Massachusetts Avenue will open on Sunday. Encampment clearing is scheduled to start Monday and end Wednesday.