Community meeting

Ongoing concerns about Mass. and Cass were aired at a community meeting

Residents and business owners said they have already seen an increase in trespassing and loitering and outdoor drug use, while businesses have reported new damage to their properties. Many have already strolled outside the Roundhouse on Massachusetts Avenue, where dozens of people who were living in tents have been moved to transitional housing.

“I don’t think you have complete control of the area,” said Sue Sullivan, head of the Newmarket Business Association, which represents businesses in a place where one of the encampments was. “If you don’t have this clinic under full control, there will just be people walking in and out in the immediate area.”

Steve Fox, leader of the South End Forum, an umbrella organization for community groups in the region, said: “We just don’t want to make this worse…we need to make sure we have the environment under control, before it gets out of control.

Thursday’s meeting was organized, via Zoom, by the Addictions, Recovery and Homelessness Task Force, a coalition of community leaders from the South End, Newmarket Square and Roxbury who for years have concerned about the growing epidemic of substance abuse and homelessness in the area, near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, known as Mass. and Cass.

Two weeks ago, city teams emptied dozens of tents in the area and moved more than 150 homeless people into transitional housing, in what they called a housing and health-focused approach to get people off the streets and on the way to long-term recovery.

The city’s transitional housing includes what is known as low-threshold housing, which accommodates people still struggling with substance abuse. The goal is to move them quickly to safe housing, to help them transition to long-term stability.

City officials said Thursday that more than 40 people have already moved into low-threshold units at the vacant former Roundhouse Hotel and up to 60 people could live there soon.

Neighborhood residents who are critical of the use of the Roundhouse – for housing and for the clinic and care center – say the plan fails to address the root causes of societal problems in Mass. and Cass, including the open-air drug trade that preys on those who come to the area for help. They fear that people will continue to come looking for services but also drugs, especially as spring arrives. Past attempts to clear tents before have failed, they said, and people keep coming back.

Those critics urged Robert Koenig of the Boston Medical Center, which runs the health centers there, to delay the opening so they can work with city officials and police to draft a public safety plan.

Monica Bharel, one of Mayor Michelle Wu’s top public health advisers who coordinates Boston’s efforts to address Mass. and Cass, said the city continues to develop strategies to help those in need, while providing protections and insurance for business owners. The care clinic is part of that plan, she said.

Bharel said she acknowledged concerns that people would return to the area in greater numbers when the hot weather arrives, but she said cleaning tents was the first step in efforts to deal with the immediate crisis.

“What we’re trying to do here is something different, because past efforts there haven’t worked, and they’ve failed individuals there and they’ve failed communities there.” she declared.

Bharel said the area had been “transformed” since the tents were cleared, but added that city officials were meeting daily to address residents’ concerns about the return of the tents, to respond to reports of discarded needles, litter or human excrement in the streets.

“That kind of planning, organizing, will continue into the spring, into the summer,” she said.

Milton J. Valencia can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617.