On November 1 Boston city workers began evicting unhoused residents from an encampment in an area called “Mass and Cass,” as WBUR reported. The location, on the corner of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue, adjacent to Boston Medical Center and two methadone clinics, is also known pejoratively as “Methadone Mile.” For years, the neighborhood’s visible crises of homelessness, mental health and drug-related harms have drawn attention from politicians, media and housed residents.
City workers reportedly notified unhoused residents in the week prior that they would have to leave, and the city said that 80 people were moved to housing options or other facilities. On November 1, workers removed around 14 tents and discarded many objects, while promising to hold some items in storage and trying to persuade remaining residents to go elsewhere. Boston Police did not directly participate. But they set up a command center down the road, and are now increasing patrols in other neighborhoods, in an effort to prevent displaced residents setting up new camps.
City Council President Ed Flynn said Boston must have “a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to the public safety issues.”
November 1 was the day a new city ordinance took effect, authorizing police to remove tents and other objects from public property, if “individuals are offered shelter and transportation to services, as well as storage for personal belongings.” Mayor Michelle Wu (D) proposed the ordinance in August, and the City Council approved it in October.
City Council President Ed Flynn told WBUR that Boston must have “a zero-tolerance policy moving forward when it comes to the public safety that occurred partially due to the tents and encampments in the area—including violence, drug trafficking, and the exploitation of women.”
Mayor Wu’s office declined to comment to Filter, pointing instead to the November 2 press conference discussing the operations. Wu has said that the city will prioritize housing, and mental health or substance use disorder treatment, for impacted people.
But with winter temperatures approaching, evidence indicates that Boston will not be able to meet all such needs. According to city figures published in June, Boston’s unhoused population increased by over 17 percent from 2022-2023, up to over 5,200 individuals. The number of unhoused single adults living on the streets grew the fastest, with 169 individuals counted, while numbers in emergency shelters and transitional housing increased by smaller margins.
The Mass and Cass clearance also came not long after the city shut down one relevant facility: At the former Roundhouse Hotel, Boston Medical Center previously offered low-barrier substance use disorder. Those services ended in July due to a lack of funding. Sixty transitional housing beds in the same building also closed in June.
Boston and Massachusetts are meanwhile experiencing an increase in arrivals of migrant families, many of whom are being housed in emergency shelters. Massachusetts Governor Laura Healey (D) has said the state lacks enough shelter capacity to house all of the arriving migrants, and warned that some people will have to be placed on a waitlist.
Two years ago, in November 2021, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts sued the city to stop it carrying out earlier plans to clear encampments at Mass and Cass. It alleged the city was violating people’s constitutional rights, including those of people with disabilities who didn’t have shelter that met their needs. But a Suffolk Superior Court judge declined to issue a restraining order.
After the new ordinance passed, the ACLU said it would be monitoring operations, and warned that the city “must ensure that people’s property is safeguarded, and that available temporary housing includes realistic options for the people who will be displaced from their only living situation and cannot sleep in congregate settings due to disability or family circumstances.”
In August, researchers at Boston University published a study based on their interviews with people in and around Mass and Cass. They concluded that for people experiencing homelessness and substance use disorder, the city did not have adequate shelter and services. They recommended expanding low-barrier housing options, repealing abstinence requirements that exclude people, and embedding harm reduction and other services in such facilities.
“Substance use is a piece of someone’s overall life—it’s not something you can treat or try and address in isolation from broader circumstances.”
“Almost every single person had done treatment programs,” said Ranjani Paradise, one of the researchers. “Some people had done multiple programs. I think sometimes there’s a public perception that there isn’t a motivation or desire to engage in treatment or to move toward recovery … Sometimes, people would go to treatment, but without a place to live when they’re done, they end up right back where they started. The situation is a lot more complex and nuanced than maybe people realize. Substance use is a piece of someone’s overall life—it’s not something you can treat or try and address in isolation from broader circumstances.”
Massachusetts has seen record high opioid-involved overdose deaths in recent years, with 2,357 confirmed or suspected deaths in 2022, a 2.5 percent increase from 2021. In Boston opioid-involved deaths are rising faster than in the rest of the state.
The issue of drug use and overdose has been central to public and political outcry over Mass and Cass—just like in San Francisco’s Tenderloin and Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. Yet crackdowns and camp clearances, in the absence of adequate housing and services, inflict new harms and move problems elsewhere.
For years, harm reduction advocates in Boston and across Massachusetts have been calling for safe consumption sites, also known as overdose prevention centers, which are proven to reduce drug-related deaths. Legislation has been proposed in the Massachusetts legislature to allow cities and towns to create pilot sites, but lawmakers haven’t moved it forward. A new poll found that 70 percent of Massachusetts voters support allowing municipalities to authorize these sites.