A disgruntled Boston City Council today approved a measure that will make it easier for police to sweep Mass and Cass and remove tents, with several councilors saying they doubt the measure will mean a long-term fix.
The proposal, if signed by Mayor Wu, would let police immediately remove tents on property owned by the city; currently, they have to announce sweeps 48 hours in advance. People living in the parks would have to be offered transportation to "low threshold" housing and a place to store their belongings. One change from Wu's original proposal is the elimination of fines for repeat offenders - who would instead get verbal warnings.
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo (Hyde Park, Mattapan, Roslindale), who chaired the committee that reviewed the proposal, voted against it. Arroyo said there is no evidence that sweeps anywhere in the country have helped in the least and that all they do is move the problem somewhere else. He added that "problem" is the wrong word to use, because it dehumanizes the people involved, by making them "problems to be solved rather than people who deserve care."
He noted the measure would limit police action to property owned by the city and said that potentially leaves large gaps in Boston, such as the state-owned Stony Brook Reservation on the West Roxbury/Hyde Park/Rolindale line, which he said is beginning to see a homeless encampment.
Arroyo was joined in voting no by Councilor Frank Baker (Dorchester), who said the measure is a giant mistake, not because it dehumanizes people, but because it emphasizes getting the swept people into "low threshold" housing first. "It's got to be treatment first and then the carrot at the end would be housing," he said, adding that if the city had spent money on treatment beds instead of what he called a failed plan to house people in in the Roundhouse hotel, the situation might not be quite so dire.
Council President Ed Flynn said he supported the basic idea, because the tents have to go.
"They've been up long enough," he said. "We should never have this situation in the city of Boston again where people are living in tents." And while they're at it, police need to sweep drug users out of playgrounds so kids can be free to play again. "Our parks are not for the homeless community to use drugs," he said.
But Flynn doubted the measure would work long term because so many addicts from across New England and even the rest of the country keep flowing into Boston. "Boston can't sustain that level of services for people in need" from other places. He said the state and city need to do more to build long-term detox and treatment beds.
Councilor Ruthzee Louijuene (at large), said she supported the portions of the new measure that call for getting people into housing, because "people need shelter," but she agreed that more attention needs to be paid to long-term treatment and that the measure is not a silver bullet on its own, not when "companies made billions of dollars in profit by ensuring we had an opioid epidemic all across this country."
Councilor Erin Murphy (at large), as she has done frequently of late, tore into the Wu administration for what she said is withholding information from the council and the public about its next steps, which she said has made "a tragic situation" even worse.
Councilor Julia Mejia (at large) did not express an opinion on the measure directly, but urged the city to continue to give space to a coalition of local churches that has been holding Sunda worship services at Mass and Cass, saying the valuable work they do could outweigh any church-and-state issues and would be a recognition of "the humanity of this decision we are about to make."
Councilors Breadon, Coletta, Durkan, Fernandes Anderson, Flahery, Flynn, Louijeune, Murphy and Worrell voted yes. Councilors Arroyo, Baker and Lara voted no. Councilor Mejia voted present.