Boston Mayor Michelle Wu filed an ordinance proposal that both criminalizes public camping and provides homeless individuals with temporary shelter and property storage. She did this to shut down the encampment known as “Mass and Cass” or “Meth Mile.” It’s not clear yet if the ordinance will be approved and enforced, but Wu’s proposal signals a shift away from progressive homelessness policy. By recognizing that homeless encampments are inhumane and dangerous—both for everyday citizens and encampment residents—Wu has courageously departed from the progressive playbook. Politicians in similar cities across the country should do the same.
Bleeding-heart politicians have failed to clean up homeless encampments, believing that it’s cruel to remove individuals struggling with mental illness, addiction, and financial precarity from their make-shift housing. This compassionate impulse, however, perpetuates perilous living conditions and disconnects individuals from the vital addiction and mental health services they need.
Contrary to the public messaging of many progressive politicians, most homeless encampments are more like open-air drug markets than campsites. Violence and human trafficking are endemic to these communities, and Mass and Cass is a perfect example.
Boston’s encampment saw one shooting, ten stabbings, and innumerable drug transactions in a single month. Human trafficking has also become an issue, and Mayor Wu’s administration took a firm stance against it: “These are things that we will no longer tolerate.”
Located directly across from Boston Medical Center where many of the City’s homeless receive addiction-related services, the clinic has become a hub of drug activity: Individuals enter the hospital to receive services only to exit and see their dealer waiting across the street. As Boston Police Commissioner Michael A. Cox recognizes, the chaos of Mass and Cass shields dealers from law enforcement: “Removing the cloak of tents, tarps and other make-shift structures will lessen the appeal to those coming to prey upon individuals in need of services and enhance our ability to enforce the laws.”
In addition to safety concerns, encampments like Mass and Cass present serious health hazards. The lack of access to running water, toilets, and food storage introduces contamination and pollution. Closed quarters and shared drug paraphernalia allow disease to spread rapidly, and the propane tanks used for warmth and cooking frequently cause destructive fires.
By allowing encampments like Mass and Cass to remain, cities take on an unnecessary expense. In 2019, cities across the country spent between $3,393,000 and $8,557,000 annually on mitigating the effects of their city’s encampments. Meanwhile, existing temporary shelters and services remain under-accessed.
Proponents of legal public camping suggest that “shelters are not a viable solution to homelessness” because they can result in the separation of family members and pets from their owners. Many shelters also prohibit drug and alcohol use, forcing addicted individuals into withdrawal without sufficient medical support on-site.
Yet history has shown that removing encampments saves lives. When Los Angeles cleaned up Skid Row, homeless deaths dropped by 50%, and when it suspended the camping ban in 2014, homeless deaths tripled to 1,400 a year.
Since a significant percentage of ‘service resistant’ individuals would not accept shelter beds if offered them, it’s clear they require addiction and mental health-related services. A 2021 survey shows that nearly every person living at Mass and Cass suffers from addiction or a mental health condition, conditions that remain largely unaddressed in the encampment.
This is where anti-camping legislation like Boston’s proposed ordinance can help get service-resistant individuals off the street and connected to temporary housing and care. But Boston must do more than announce the ordinance; it must enforce it. Now, Governor Healey has allocated $1 million in funds towards this end, but it remains to be seen whether real enforcement will follow.
Truly compassionate homelessness policy recognizes that allowing individuals to reside in encampments is more cruel than kind. Boston has a duty to help its vulnerable citizens, and now with Mayor Wu’s action, maybe it can.
Jill Jacobson is a law student at Boston College Law School and a contributor at Young Voices.
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