By Jessica Stevens, Youmna Sukkar, Jack Thornton, Rin Velasco and Xinran Wang
Boston University News Service
For years, the intersection between Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard — “Mass. and Cass” for short — has been a refuge to a growing homeless population situated between Boston’s South End and Roxbury neighborhoods and the epicenter of the city’s opioid epidemic.
Despite repeated forced law enforcement-led “cleanups” of the area, the city has grappled with a permanent solution to clean up the sidewalks and the complexities it represented.
Boston’s ground zero of complex social problems has inspired a disparaging narrative, dubbed “Methadone Mile” or “Recovery Road.” It’s one of Boston’s most unsafe intersections, with an average of two traffic-related injuries a month. The rate of substance abuse disorder has increased exponentially across Massachusetts and Boston itself but notably at the intersection.
Mass. and Cass is a humanitarian crisis that has troubled policymakers and found itself at the heart of the upcoming mayoral election. Between legislation, relocation, and policing, officials have spent years navigating how to solve Boston’s public health crisis.
The catalyst that began the Mass. and Cass crisis was the closure of the Long Island Bridge in 2014, which connected Long Island to the Commonwealth mainland and functioned as an area of refuge for unhoused individuals before its destruction.
On Oct. 8, 2014, former mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation condemned the Long Island Bridge. According to the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, hundreds of homeless people were displaced with only three hours’ notice, forced to move into the inland cities and leave their makeshift homes behind.
Demolition of the bridge began in January 2015. Many former inhabitants of the Long Island Bridge possessed substance abuse disorders and, left without a community or a familiar area, required support and treatment. The Southampton Street Shelter opened later that same month near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
The displaced population needed a place to live, sleep and recover and began setting up tents and congregating at the intersection of Mass. and Cass. Seeing the effect of his decision to destroy the bridge, a new vow to rebuild the Long Island Bridge was announced by Mayor Walsh in his second inaugural speech on Jan. 1, 2018.
Soon after, a multi-night police raid dubbed “Operation Clean Sweep” near Newmarket Square in Boston resulted in 34 arrests and over 100 people being displaced from the Mass. and Cass area in August 2019. The crackdown led to outrage from a series of human rights organizations confronting the state. Notably, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit against the City of Boston seeking “disclosure about the planning and execution of Operation Clean Sweep” due to a lack of transparency and violation of the law on Sept. 24, 2019.
Mayor Walsh consequently issued an updated plan to tackle the opioid epidemic and homelessness crisis, known as “The Melnea Cass/ Mass Ave 2.0 strategic plan: A strategic plan for Newmarket Square and neighboring communities” on Oct. 4, 2020. The plan included the creation of a 24-member Mass. and Cass Task Force to propose solutions for the number of people coming to the area seeking substance use treatment and shelter.
After effective reform failed to occur under Walsh’s leadership, Acting Mayor Kim Janey criticized the city’s Mass. and Cass Task Force on Aug. 18, 2021, saying it needed a “revamp.”
Two months later, Janey declared drug addiction and homelessness a “public health crisis” in an executive order. It established a coordinated plan to remove the tents and encampments from Mass. and Cass and offer shelter to those unhoused and currently occupying the area on Oct. 19, 2021.
Backlash from social justice groups like the ACLU of Massachusetts and the Material Aid and Advocacy Program soon followed, with MAAP decrying the order as criminalizing homelessness in the city of Boston and the ACLU echoing public health ideals from medical officials.
The Mass. and Cass removal of tents began on Oct. 25, 2021. Mass. and Cass inhabitants received notices from city workers that they must disperse from the area and bins to pack up and move their belongings.
By electing either Michelle Wu or Annissa Essaibi George on Nov. 2, 2021, Bostonians will decide who can best solve the crisis at Mass and Cass.
Where Boston’s Mayoral candidates stand on Mass. and Cass
With an emphasis on accountability, clarity, and proactivity, candidate and Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu pledges to invest in recovery infrastructure urgently; as winter approaches, she has emphasized the importance of quickly connecting resources to individuals.
“We need leadership, and we need action here before it gets cold outside,” Wu said at the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts forum. “That includes outreach so that everyone who’s on the street is connected to services.”
Wu has publicly backed Janey’s recent declaration of a Public Health Emergency; however, she believes the current policy response has failed and that the process should be transparent.
According to her citywide plan, the mayoral hopeful wants to publicize how resources are being used and the results they produce, including “the number of overdoses, reversals, and fatalities; the frequency, size and scope of police response; and the number of individuals who have secured housing and recovery services.”
Wu remains disappointed with the current state of the Mass. and Cass intersection, deeming the situation to be “completely unacceptable.” To keep her administration accountable and facilitate city coordination, she will designate a “cabinet-level chief of Mass. and Cass” to monitor the issues of housing and mental health.
“The pandemic showed us just what Boston is capable of,” Wu said in a Zoom interview with Boston.com. “Within weeks, we had stood up a separate COVID hospital and quarantining spaces. … That is the kind of coordination and minute-by-minute information that we need to have about those residents who seek shelter and treatment.”
Mass. and Cass is a pillar in Wu’s campaign; She is determined to resolve the public health crisis through her compassionate care, urgent action, accountability pledge, and condemnation of a misguided policy response. As mayor, Wu will reform the current structures and bring restorative justice to one of Boston’s most vulnerable populations by efficiently meeting their needs.
Annissa Essaibi George
Candidate and At-Large City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George wants immediate action, vowing in the last televised debate on Oct. 25 that efforts will begin on “day one under her administration.”
In her updated plan to address the humanitarian crisis, Essaibi George will declare a Public Health Emergency Zone (PHE Zone) within a 1-mile radius of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
According to her campaign, the immediate plan also includes a $30 million grant in federal funding, the appointment of a “Mass. and Cass czar” within the Boston Public Health Commission and the implementation of “Public Health Surge” agencies in the area to catalyze recovery.
Essaibi George has stated that she applauds innovation when tackling the Mass. and Cass crisis but wants to look at it through a public health lens rather than a criminalization lens.
She does not support Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins’ readying of a facility at the South Bay Correctional Center for Involuntary Commitment, stating in the last televised debate that “locking up people who are not well or sick is not the answer to this crisis.”
Despite a commitment to urgency, Essaibi George will ensure the sustainability and longevity of her plan through an established four-step solution:
- Invest in harm reduction strategies. This plan would expand the number of needle sites for safe needle disposal and create women-specific and gender-inclusive programs to combat human trafficking.
- Increase mental and behavioral health resources. This plan would increase the number of Boston Emergency Services Teams (BEST) to join first responders during mental health emergencies.
- Create more housing. This plan would keep the 500 beds used from the COVID-19 pandemic to increase services for recovery and see further negotiations with the state to use the Shattuck Hospital campus in the future.
- Long Island bridge and recovery campus. On Day One of being mayor, Essaibi George pledges to begin actualizing plans to reopen Long Island bridge and “build out [historically] problematic components” related to the bridge, including the provisions of job opportunities, food access, and ongoing mental health services.
The Essaibi George campaign has already inspired current policy, most recently taking credit for acting mayor Janey’s declaration of a “public health emergency.” The hopeful mayor is willing to fight the legal fight over the Long Island bridge to provide harm reduction services and ensure the safety of those residing and suffering in the Mass. and Cass area.
The legality and ethics of Mass. and Cass policy
Despite city officials stressing that nobody will be forced to relocate without being offered alternate shelter, Allison McBride, strategic operations director at Northeastern University’s Health in Justice Action Lab, said tents are preferable to the city-run shelters for many homeless people in the area.
“A lot of people don’t want to live in the shelters; there’s a lot of rules and regulations,” McBride said. “People are confused as to why they would want to live in tents, but it’s because there aren’t enough beds in those shelters, and there’s a lack of autonomy.”
McBride also voiced concerns that the plan unveiled by acting mayor Janey on Oct. 19 and currently being enacted is “inhumane” and will not meaningfully differ from past citywide efforts to deal with the Mass. and Cass crisis.
“In a sense, what they’re doing now is criminalizing addiction and criminalizing being unhoused,” McBride said. “It’s going to be interesting to see if they’re going to learn anything else from Operation Clean Sweep or if they’re going to repeat the same mistakes.”
The coordinated effort to remove the homeless population from the Mass. and Cass area under Janey in Operation Clean Sweep was argued both immoral and unethical. After the assault of a corrections officer in the area, the Boston Police Department enacted the operation that same day and the following day, with a total of 34 arrests in the Mass. and Cass area between Aug. 1 and Aug. 2, 2019.
“Clearly, no one was listening during [the creation of Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s current plan] and during Operation Clean Sweep,” McBride said. “If they listen to the community, listen to the people being affected, or at least listen to the people helping them, they would realize these solutions are flimsy.”
What comes next?
The opiate and substance abuse crisis enveloping Mass. and Cass is not just a local problem or a citywide problem but it’s indicative of an addiction epidemic reverberating around the state of Massachusetts.
In 2019, the year of Operation Clean Sweep, Massachusetts averaged 28.9 opioid-related overdose deaths per 100,000 residents — almost twice the United States’ national count of opioid-related overdose deaths that same year, which was 15.5 per 100,000 residents, per Boston Indicators based on data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Though national counts are not yet available for 2020, the state’s casualty rate increased in 2020 to 30 opioid-related overdose deaths per 100,000 residents.
Paul Beninger, Associate Professor of Public Health at Tufts University, blames the health crisis at Mass. and Cass on the lack of housing, absence of medical care, the COVID-19 pandemic, and food insecurity — all of which have collided over the last eight years.
“The solution is not going to be near-term,” Beninger said. “It’s going to be long-term.”
One of the solutions includes “The Mass. and Cass Master Plan,” established by MASS Design Group, a nonprofit architectural firm based in Boston, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and Boston Architectural College (BAC) in 2019.
A written report by a group of BAC students states that the project aims to “bridge communities together through intentional spatial occupation, rather than create a ‘subcommunity’ of unhoused individuals.”
The report suggests building public restrooms and showers, providing free food and distributing vaccines, among other services.
“A lot of what we saw as design solutions were actually to remove things: to take away bus stops and bus seats,” said Patricia Gruits, Senior Principal and Managing Director at MASS Design Group. “We don’t solve problems by deprivation; we solve them by providing abundance.”
South End Roxbury Partnership co-founder Domingos DaRosa said the current availability and conditions of health resources in the area are abysmal and not adequate for the residents’ needs.
“We need to be able to have the services on demand,” DaRosa said. “You can’t spend three to four hours trying to find a bed for someone who needs it right now.”
The mayor’s office does not have the power to solve the problems in Mass. and Cass, DaRosa said, calling on Governor Charlie Baker to take direct, state-wide action.
The people of Boston will make history with Tuesday’s election, electing both the first woman and person of color as mayor. It will be up to the victor to work with Gov. Baker and the state legislature to fix the larger issues found at the intersection between Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, issues that can be found across the Commonwealth.
“We need all cities and towns, not just Boston, to speak up,” DaRosa said.
Editor’s note, 11/4/21: A previous version of this article featured formatting that appeared to conflate quotes from MASS Design Group’s Patricia Gruits and a BAC student report. For clarity, the paragraphs have been amended.