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City seeks housing for Mass and Cass homeless

Plans include locations at Roundhouse, Shattuck

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
City seeks housing for Mass and Cass homeless
City officials are planning to provide rooms for as many as 60 people currently experiencing homelessness in the Roundhouse Hotel on Massachusetts Avenue near Melnea Cass Boulevard. BANNER PHOTO

The administration of Mayor Michelle Wu is planning to move people now living in tents and on the streets in the Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue area into temporary housing in sites across the city.

The plan, first outlined in a Zoom meeting with community stakeholders last week, would include beds at the Roundhouse hotel on Massachusetts Avenue and temporary shelters in the parking lot of the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital at the Mattapan edge of Franklin Park.

City officials are also looking at locations in other neighborhoods, including West Roxbury, according to officials who were briefed last Wednesday.

While the mayor’s press office would not make a city official available to outline the city’s plans for housing homeless people and people suffering from addiction, officials and neighborhood residents who attended last week’s briefing said the city is seeking to decentralize the concentration of services currently offered in the “Mass and Cass” area.

But business leaders in the Newmarket area and elected officials who sat in on a Monday Zoom meeting said the city hasn’t gone far enough in moving people from the area.

District 3 City Councilor Frank Baker spoke against the city’s planned use of the Roundhouse, questioning how the city’s plans to house 60 people and provide services for more there would decentralize services.

“A two-year lease, to me, means it’s going to be a program that will be there in 10 years,” he said. “That’s what I have the hardest time coming to grips with. In the mayor’s comments, it sounds like she’s doubling down.”

Baker suggested the city move more people to the Shattuck shelter, a sentiment echoed by at-large Councilor Erin Murphy.

“Why can’t we use the Shattuck, in its vastness, to handle this?” Baker said.

Wu, in the Zoom meeting, stressed that the city’s current plans are short-term solutions and said that more people could be moved to the Shattuck in the future.

“I think the medium- and long-term solutions [are] about where would the programs like we are proposing at the Roundhouse move after this — whether it’s Shattuck, Long Island or other sites around the city,” she said.

The city’s push to decentralize services has come largely in response to pressure from businesses in the Newmarket area and abutters living in Roxbury and the South End who during Monday’s meeting complained of drug dealing, car break-ins, sex trafficking, indecent exposure and other crimes. The proliferation of needles in Clifford Park forced the Boston Bengals Pop Warner football league to abandon the site and merge with the Brookline/Jamaica Plain Patriots. Discarded needles and human feces have turned up in schoolyards and playgrounds.

“When are we going to talk about the impact of this unmanaged crisis on the community?” asked Yahaira Lopez, a leader of the South End-Roxbury Community Partnership. “What about our children? What about our safety? What about our schools?”

Wu pledged the city would take quick, decisive action to transform the Mass and Cass area.

“The plan is to ensure that we are taking a big, different approach to shifting the dynamic and to moving a citywide plan that will include housing, supports, treatment,” she said. “The Roundhouse is one piece of that, and we are working in many neighborhoods at the same time to deliver these kinds of opportunities, so that we will this winter get to a point where there will not be an encampment at Mass Ave. and Melnea Cass Boulevard.”

While activists and elected officials have called for decentralization of the addiction services that have in the last 10 years drawn a large population to the Mass and Cass area, some Roxbury residents are concerned that the population will shift their way.

“I don’t want to see anything further impact Nubian Square,” said Robert George, head of the Roxbury Main Streets organization. “I don’t want us to go back to where we were a year ago, when we had people who were homeless and with mental health issues congregating in Nubian Square.”

George said it took a concerted effort involving police, city outreach workers and clergy to move the population from the commercial district.

“It had got to the point where most of the business owners were coming in early in the morning, waking up people sleeping in their doorways and hosing down and sweeping human waste from in front of their stores,” he said.

Other than the Roundhouse Hotel and the Shattuck, the city hasn’t publicly identified any other site.

“The question is, where will the rest of these units go?” said Lorraine Payne Wheeler, who heads the neighborhood group Roxbury Path Forward.

Payne Wheeler noted that Roxbury already has a higher percentage of affordable housing units than any other neighborhoods and the highest concentration of sober homes and other group care facilities.

District 7 City Councilor-elect Tania Fernandes Anderson said she is concerned that the city’s move to provide free housing may draw more people struggling with addiction from outside of Boston to the city.

“I don’t have the answers as to how they’ll manage that,” she said.

State Rep. Jon Santiago, who secured $5 million for housing and $1.5 million in substance abuse treatment in federal ARPA funds, said that many of the cities and towns in the region are unwilling to provide services to people struggling with addiction.

“It’s not just an issue of resources,” he said. “It’s an issue of political will.”

Elected officials willing to provide housing and services for people struggling with addiction could very well face the same pushback that Boston city officials are facing from South End and Roxbury residents. While former acting Mayor Kim Janey and Wu have both pushed for a regional response to the crisis, other mayors and city managers have not been receptive.

The state’s commitment to the problem so far has focused on the Shattuck hospital, which city officials say will be used as a transitional shelter, with as many as 30 residents at a time staying for up to 60 days while outreach workers help them find long-term housing and treatment solutions.

But Santiago noted the highest concentration of beds and services are so far at the Roundhouse and Boston Medical Center, a strategy he said will continue to place an undue burden on local residents.

“I just don’t think the location should continue to be Mass and Cass,” he said.

Mass and Cass, Roundhouse, Shattuck