Mayor Michelle Wu on May 24 provided updates on the City of Boston’s next steps to address the intersection of unsheltered homelessness and substance use crises, centered in the area surrounding Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. The City of Boston has developed a comprehensive Warm Weather Plan to address immediate public safety and public health needs during the spring and summer months.
Additionally, Mayor Wu shared the long-term strategic direction that the City of Boston is advancing to improve systems of care for unsheltered individuals impacted by substance use disorder. This strategic outlook outlines initiatives to decentralize services and strengthen the continuum of care, in part through shelter redesign. Through these initiatives, Mayor Wu seeks to reimagine how the City and regional partners assist individuals, services, and community, leading with a public health approach and supported by public safety.
Mayor Wu made this announcement at Boston City Hall with Dr. Monica Bharel; Superintendent of Street Operations Mike Brohel, Department of Public Works; Commissioner John Dempsey, Boston Fire Department; Chief Sheila Dillon, Mayor’s Office of Housing; Chief James Hooley, Boston Emergency Medical Services; Lt. Peter Messina, Boston Police Department Street Outreach Unit; and Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, Executive Director of the Boston Public Health Commission.
“As the weather warms, we are taking concrete steps to ensure safety and health. Boston is creating a continuum of care for individuals experiencing homelessness and substance use disorder with pathways from living on the streets to permanent housing,” said Mayor Michelle Wu. “I’m grateful to all of our partners in public health and public safety working collaboratively to lower barriers and increase access to services while ensuring safe and healthy streets.”
Between November and January, Mayor Wu charged the City to conduct a public health-led emergency response to transition individuals living in the encampment in the Mass and Cass area to low-threshold transitional housing and shelter sites. This effort included working with partners to create and staff six low-threshold housing and shelter sites for over 145 individuals leading up to January 12, 2022, after which no encampments were allowed in the City. This effort transitioned individuals from the street to supportive, transitional housing. Guests at these sites are connected to behavioral health and medical care, as well as housing navigation. The Warm Weather Plan and longer term Strategic Outlook continue this work to support unsheltered residents.
Warm Weather Plan
The Mass/Cass neighborhood offers many critical services to individuals facing homelessness, addiction, and mental health challenges. During warmer months, more individuals spend time outside in the area, increasing needs related to public health, public safety, and quality of life. To meet the increased need, Boston’s Coordinated Response Team developed the Warm Weather Plan to enhance the City’s multi-departmental, collaborative strategies for supporting both individuals accessing services and the surrounding community through safe and healthy streets. The main goals of the plan are to improve public safety; enhance health and cleanliness; reduce overcrowding; and prevent encampments from forming. This will be achieved through 11 steps:
1. Promote public safety through the Boston Police Department and Boston Public Health Commission Public Safety
2. Increase presence of joint public health and public safety outreach teams
3. Prevent encampments
4. Increase street cleaning
5. Promote safe environment for accessing services at Engagement Center
6. Increase parking enforcement
7. Make the neighborhood more beautiful and more walkable
8. Increase outreach
9. Open new day centers outside of the neighborhood
10. Provide transportation and referrals to day centers outside of the neighborhood
11. Strengthen supportive services at low-threshold shelter and housing sites
Strategic Direction for Longer Term Response
Additionally, Mayor Wu shared updates on longer term approaches to decentralizing and improving homelessness and substance use services by establishing low-threshold housing and shelter and treatment services in other parts of the city.
The plan outlines strategies to expand public health outreach to be proactive, to run 24/7, and to serve the city equitably. Through both city and community-led teams, the goal is to maintain encampment response supported by intentional engagement. This will connect unsheltered individuals to available housing and recovery services, and maintain clean and safe streets.
Service navigation works to make available resources more accessible, including at shelters and day-time spaces. The City will expand access to on-site triage services for unsheltered individuals by opening more drop-in hours at locations throughout Boston to connect them with recovery and treatment resources. The City will also expand low-threshold daytime spaces throughout Boston and maintain an updated online map of resources across Boston.
Shelter Redesign and Low-Threshold Housing Options
Shelter redesign and low-threshold housing options lower barriers for people who have traditionally been unable to access housing and shelter options. The City will work with the State to maintain the six low-threshold housing sites that were established in January, while working to create permanent locations. Additionally, the City is working to redesign shelter space. This will make these spaces more supportive through upgrading the physical space, lowering barriers to entry, and enhancing on-site recovery and behavioral health services. Shelter redesign will allow more people experiencing homelessness to access recovery and treatment services in shelter settings.
Unsheltered individuals impacted by substance use disorder often also face acute medical and mental health challenges. The City will work to develop new permanent supportive housing dedicated to individuals with histories of homelessness and substance use disorder. Additionally, the City will work with service, state, and municipal partners to increase the model of wraparound services and housing supports. There are 800 units of permanent supportive housing in the City’s pipeline, 300 of which are in construction. The City will continue to identify more opportunities for permanent supportive housing.
Decentralized harm reduction/treatment and high opportunity sites
The City is working to decentralize services, including creating a citywide network of harm reduction services by collaborating with community health centers, hospitals, and social service providers. This will increase the locations and options where individuals can access treatment and services, including at community health centers. Additionally, the City will continue to work with partners to explore expanding services through recovery campuses in other parts of Boston. Boston will continue working with partners at the State level to reimagine the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital campus with a focus on acute treatment services and low-threshold transitional housing and shelter. As reflected in our capital budget, the City will continue repairing and stabilizing the existing buildings on Long Island and review the possibilities for that site. These efforts require partnership across the state and the region as the City seeks to expand access to temporary and permanent supportive housing.
Recovery services are important for the continuum of care for individuals in recovery. The City will continue the wrap-around support on the street including the BPHC Recovery Services street team, nurses, mental health clinicians, and recovery professionals. Additionally, the City is partnering with businesses to create low-threshold job opportunities to help unsheltered individuals impacted by substance use disorder earn income and increase job readiness. Finally, the City aims to create job and life skills training for newly housed individuals.
Behavioral Health Workforce
The City of Boston recognizes the need for supporting and growing a diverse behavioral health workforce to expand access to care. The City aims to train shelter, recovery, and housing workforce in harm reduction to improve care quality and health outcomes for individuals with substance use disorder. This initiative would equip providers across the City with the tools and skills to better serve individuals navigating addiction.
More details on the Long-term Strategic Outlook can be found at boston.gov/sites/default/files/file/2022/05/Strategic%20Outlook.pdf.
In developing these strategies, the City convened over 20 stakeholder meetings, meeting with over 250 individuals, including community members with lived experience, clinical partners, neighborhood associations, community health centers, shelter and housing partners, faith-based organizations, outreach teams, Boston’s State delegation, Boston City Council, outreach teams, and justice partners. The City also engaged with best practices from cities around the country and maintained an intentional focus on neighborhoods facing disproportionate impact from substance use disorder and racial/ethnic disparities in health care access. As the City works to develop best steps to address the crisis, engagement sessions with community and stakeholder groups will continue.
More details on the City’s response can be found at boston.gov/departments/recovery-services/mass-and-cass-showing-whats-possible.