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Concern grows over Mass & Cass crime

Many fear warm weather will bring more activity

Anna Lamb

As temperatures warm up across the city, city councilors and neighbors alike have raised concerns over increasing violence and growing numbers of homeless living on the streets in the area known as Mass and Cass.

Residents are worried that the summer months will only exacerbate the issue. According to the Boston Police Department, both arrests and calls for service are up significantly from last year. In a meeting held with advocates from the South End-Newmarket-Roxbury Working Group on Addiction, Recovery, and Homelessness last week, BPD Lieutenant Peter Messina outlined statistics for residents, including highlighting the fact that despite tent removal policies being enacted by Mayor Michelle Wu, between 150 and 200 people remain in the area on a regular basis.

Messina, who heads up the outreach unit in the area for BPD, took the opportunity to highlight that with the large population has come spikes in crimes such as assaults and robberies. According to his presentation, violent crimes, including rape and assault, are up 26%, while total arrests have increased 77%.

“With the increase in crime, there’s been a drastic increase in the amount of individuals arrested out there,” Messina said at the meeting Thursday.

Messina also made it a point to say that recidivism is rampant on Mass and Cass, with arrestees being back on the street engaging in criminal behavior sometimes all in the same day.

In January, Wu instituted a new policy that temporarily cleared the streets of the encampments that have since been seen being rebuilt around the block. Her policy included access to low-threshold housing for those who wanted it, which has been met with mixed reviews. Some living in transitional housing, like on the grounds of the old Shattuck hospital have found pathways to recovery, while at sites closer to Mass and Cass, such as the Roundhouse Hotel, neighbors say drug abuse and crime have taken over.

Local business owner Jerry DiPierro said Thursday, “We’re getting a lot of activity around the Roundhouse.”

According to a recent report in the Boston Globe, nearly two dozen people who have taken advantage of transitional housing options have moved on to secure more permanent living options, including 11 from the Shattuck. However, that number is just a drop in the bucket of the hundreds removed from the area and those who have since returned.

Neighbors from the South End-Newmarket-Roxbury Working Group have since called for drastic action to be taken to improve the situation. That includes implementing harder restrictions, like an end date for use of the Roundhouse and even closure of the engagement center that provides bathrooms, showers, food and referral services for those looking to get off the street.

The center has run into safety problems in recent months — including having to close briefly last month due to a stabbing incident. Because of safety concerns, the engagement center moved to a “limited basis” operation.

Working group members are not the only ones who are looking to curb the population abusing drugs in the area by limiting resources. In a budget hearing Wednesday with the Boston Public Health Commission, City Councilor Frank Baker, who represents the Dorchester side of the area, repeatedly urged BPHC Director Dr. Bisola Ojikutu to reconsider the city’s current approach to the crisis.

Baker accused the city of pushing the end date of the Roundhouse program, saying that continuing to cycle through low-threshold tenants encourages those looking for a bed to flock to the area. Neighborhood advocates and politicians have long argued that removing services from Mass and Cass would discourage addicts from outside of Boston moving into the area.

“It looks like they’re down there now because we’re handing out rooms,” Baker said. He added, “To me, [this] signals that the talk around decentralizing services is just that — just talk.”

In response, Ojikutu said that Wu’s office, in conjunction with BPHC, plans to release a new warm-weather plan outlining data and next steps to address the ongoing crisis.

“Decentralization is the focal point of this plan. The long-term, even the midterm, is about moving people out of that area …The details of that, I’m going to leave to you getting to read the plan,” Ojikutu said.

She added that in the meantime, harm reduction and clinical care are vital in caring for those struggling, and places like the Roundhouse and the Engagement Center need to be supported and supplemented to deliver that care.

“We need to find some alternate day spaces. Where those are located is not known yet,” she said. 

Ojikutu gave a small preview of the data the city is working with — telling Baker and the other councilors that within the last fiscal year, the Recovery Services Bureau has referred more than 1,800 people to treatment and started hundreds on opioid use disorder medication.

“You’ll have this information and see that this works,” she said.