Wu reports progress in removing encampments at Mass. and Cass

Coordinated Response Team Director Tania Del Rio and Mayor Michelle Wu gave an update Nov. 1, 2023 on Boston's efforts to connect more than 80 people who had been living unshletered at Mass. and Cass to shelter and services. Screenshot/SHNS

Since Monday, a city effort has reduced the number of makeshift encampments at Boston's intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard from 50-plus to 14 as of Wednesday morning and Mayor Michelle Wu said nearly all of the unhoused people who had been living on the street there are now connected to shelter or housing.

In both a live interview on "Java with Jimmy" and a morning press conference, Wu laid out the latest changes at Mass. and Cass, the epicenter of the region's substance use disorder, mental health, and unsheltered homelessness crises. Wu and the city's Coordinated Response Team Director Tania Del Rio spoke to reporters on Atkinson Street, where the city has been busy since Monday clearing out encampments and connecting people staying there to services and shelter.

"As you can see, tents continue to come down when individuals are moving into their placements and packing up their belongings and then accessing that [city] transportation. Once the last tent does come down, we will make sure that the street is cleaned and that there's some more of the services just to kind of ensure that this area is how it should be," Wu said. "But that won't be the end of our efforts by any means."

Of the roughly 80 people without housing who had been living at Mass. and Cass, Wu said, 52 had already moved into a shelter unit as of Wednesday morning and another 25 people are just waiting to pack up and make the move to confirmed shelter of some kind.

"There's a lot of miscellaneous needs that people need to fulfill before they complete that placement," Del Rio said. "We will be providing storage, transportation, or whatever it is else that people need; whether it be basic needs, or whatever it is. People do have a variety of things that we're helping them with."

In addition to the 77 people who have either moved into shelter or have shelter arranged, Wu said another nine people have already identified housing or plan to reunify with family or friends, and seven others will get a final shelter placement once the city's triage team knows more about availability.

Del Rio said the estimate as of Tuesday was that there were still seven people in need of a placement and that the city was working with at least a few holdouts. No one had yet "full out declined" a placement offer from the city, she said.

"Outreach workers are back out retriaging whoever's present in the encampment at this point, making sure that they're provided a shelter, or a destination, before we close the street and we close the encampment today," Del Rio said.

The Boston City Council last week approved an ordinance that will allow police to remove tents and tarps throughout the city, with a specific focus on Mass. and Cass and nearby Atkinson Street. Wu proposed the directive in August, saying that the tents shelter illegal activity such as drug dealing and human trafficking, as public health concerns and violence grew in the area this summer.

The mayor said that about 200 people regularly congregate in the Mass. and Cass area, but that the "majority have housing ... but they're there for community or to feed substance use or prey on those who are in active substance use." The most recent estimate of unhoused people at Mass. and Cass was about 80 people, she said.

Wu said the city has no firm timeline for clearing Atkinson Street -- "There's not a time where if something isn't totally wrapped up, then all...everything's gonna get knocked down. Our plan is to complete the moves that are scheduled," she said -- but also emphasized that the city's work to address homelessness, drug addiction, and quality of life concerns is not limited to Mass. and Cass.

Mobile outreach teams that have been busy at Mass. and Cass are already fanning out citywide "to provide the safety and support in any neighborhood of Boston that needs it," Wu said. She said several mobile response teams are already assigned to different areas slightly outside the Mass. and Cass area to be available in the coming days.

Wu said on "Java with Jimmy" that the mobile outreach teams will be focused on Clifford Park, Ziegler Street, Newmarket Square, Southampton Street, Moakley Park, Andrew Square, and South End/Harrison, in addition to citywide outreach teams.

"This is a challenge, a series of challenges all overlapping that no city is able to just say, 'OK, we're done and moving on.' It will take a tremendous amount of sustained effort, it will take continued outreach and adjusting our own processes and staffing and programs along the way," Wu said. "We've made progress at every phase and today will be hopefully the next step that we're taking, a big one for the city but it will take sustained effort."

The mayor added, "And we will expect to see other tents pop up in different parts of the city that we will look to connect people as quickly as possible and then take down those tents. But there is no magic wand to being able to say, 'Now the city is in a bubble and and we've moved on.'"

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