Suffolk Sheriff Tompkins proposes to convert the empty detention center into temporary accommodation for people living in tents by Mass. and Cass

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“We would create an environment so that you don’t feel like you’re in a prison,” Tompkins said.

But make no mistake, he is about housing and treating people against their will. Tompkins leaves it up to Boston Police to decide who should be arrested and Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins to determine who should be prosecuted. But anyone who can go to this treatment center has to go through the criminal justice system.

Given the humanitarian crisis unfolding just outside his compound, Tompkins believes leaders need to get creative. His idea is modeled on a program started in 2018 by Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi, who is acclaimed by some for helping more than 2,200 men struggling with addictions. (There are also reviews.) Managed separately from the county jail, the Stonybrook Stabilization & Treatment Center provides approximately 150 beds for people who have been civilly indicted for drug or alcohol abuse. The doors are not locked, correctional officers do not work there, and people in treatment are called clients.

“People who are not tough and quick criminals should not be held in an institution,” Tompkins admitted, but “these are the conversations that need to be held.”

Tompkins, who continues to refine the proposal with city and state officials, said he was seeking state funding to set up the treatment center. He pitched the idea to the Secretary of State for Health, Marylou Sudders, and according to the sheriff, Sudders “was not against it”. Sudders declined to comment, but it is clear that the Baker administration is embroiled in the crisis and has discussions with officials in Boston about how best to work together.

No one said it would be easy to unravel the overflowing mess of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, where homelessness and the opioid crisis have led to the sprouting of nearly 200 tents in a besieged industrial district. People openly inject drugs, human feces and garbage stains the streets, and break-ins in nearby businesses have become extremely common.

But every proposed solution seems mired in controversy, be it NIMBYism or politics, and sometimes a bit of both. The latest salute came from Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo after Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey recently signed an agreement with a hotel in Revere to use 30 rooms to create transitional housing for some of the people living in the tents. Boston estimates that at least 60 percent of its homeless come from outside city limits.

Another sensible way to take the pressure off Mass. and Cass is to restore the salvage services that were offered on Long Island until 2014, when the bridge to the island was deemed unsafe. The cost of a new bridge would be enormous, its construction would take many years, and the town of Quincy – through which vehicles would have to pass to access the span – has taken legal action to prevent this from happening.

So instead of having this debate, let’s start transporting people to Long Island.

Quincy supports the idea and has offered to help pay for it. The same goes for Suffolk Construction Manager John Fish, whose Roxbury headquarters are in Newmarket Square, near the encampment. Fish told me that he and philanthropist Jack Connors met Janey over the summer and offered to raise $ 2 million to bring ferry service to Long Island. The idea is not without precedent: For years, Connors has run Camp Harbor View, a free camp for students from Boston to Long Island. After the bridge was demolished, the campers came by boat.

And if Boston needs help reactivating health services on Long Island, Fish said, he is ready to use his influence as chairman of the board of Brigham and Women’s to encourage other hospital systems to to help.

“We have to lower our swords politically,” he said. “With the resources we have, why can’t we get this down as soon as possible? “

A tent city on the scale of Mass. and Cass is new to Boston, but camps have become a must on the west coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Seattle. These cities all have soaring housing costs. Boston had managed to push back a burgeoning tent community, but the pandemic then struck, injuring the most economically vulnerable and limiting access to drug treatment.

The closure of the camp is a subject that few elected officials are ready to discuss publicly, for fear of being perceived as insensitive. But it’s a conversation they need to start having with the community, says Dr JudyAnn Bigby, Governor Deval Patrick’s health secretary, as they organize short-term alternative shelter and develop a longer-term strategy. term to put people on the right track. employment and permanent housing.

Waiting to act, she warned, could have unintended consequences as political pressure builds for a confrontational intervention. A 2019 police-led sweep against Mass. and Cass, following an assault on a Suffolk prison officer, drew fire for allegedly violating human rights.

“We don’t want what happened in other towns, where the town just came in and bulldozed the encampment and took all the tents and people’s possessions,” Bigby said. “What they have to say is, ‘We’re closing this. We’re going to take you and your stuff to Site X, and that’s a temporary fix. ‘ “

Visit the epicenter of the encampment along Atkinson, Topeka and Southampton streets, and you will feel tragedy can strike at any time. It’s easy to imagine a delivery truck accidentally breaking into a tent or running over a pedestrian. Then think about what might happen during the winter if people – some of them under the influence of various substances use propane to warm up in a tent.

Michele Wakin, professor of sociology and coordinator of the Center for Urban Poverty at Bridgewater State University, has spent time studying the camps in California. She believes problems in Boston and elsewhere could get worse before they get better, now that people have lost additional unemployment benefits and the moratorium on evictions has been lifted in most communities.

“Tent cities are a life for no one. It’s not safe, it’s not hygienic, ”she said. “It is not a humane solution to housing.

Wakin said the government has largely failed to break the cycle of poverty, homelessness and drug addiction because there are too many conditions attached to the help people need. We are much more understanding of people who want to get sober and sober than those who avoid treatment.

“We as a society must first overcome attempts to fix them,” she said. “It is a fundamental question of human rights. We need to remove morality from the problem. “

We must also eliminate politics from potential solutions. Prisoner advocates have filed a lawsuit to end involuntary treatment programs in prison, such as the one implemented by Cocchi in Hampden County. They argue that health care providers should provide such services.

Cocchi said he has the track record to prove law enforcement can play a role in helping people recover from addiction: Clients at his Stonybrook treatment center stay on average for about 55 days.

“People are starting to see the sheriff’s office as more than a jail,” Cocchi said. “Bricks and mortars don’t dictate the quality of programs. “

He started the innovative program because he had the space and felt compelled to do something after hearing from so many parents who have lost children to drug overdoses. They would say to him, “I wish I could have had him in prison. He would still be alive.

Rollins, in a statement responding to questions about the application and Tompkins’ proposal, made it clear that his office is focused on the situation in Newmarket and has a dedicated deputy prosecutor to monitor and prosecute serious crimes there. -low. At the same time, his office continues to let the public health system deal with low-level offenders motivated by addiction, mental illness, poverty and homelessness. His reasoning is that they need treatment and services, not jail. She anticipates that her office will call for those with warrants to be detained, to focus on prosecuting the violent and destructive individuals who prey on the region’s vulnerable population.

“No single initiative will fully address the multiple and interconnected public health and public safety issues facing Newmarket Square,” said Rollins. “My office, however, is committed to using evidence-based, evidence-based and collaborative approaches to reduce and prevent serious and violent crime in this area. We need a level of urgency from all of our partners and we need solutions, not excuses. “

Let’s all go with our eyes wide open, knowing that there will be no one answer to a multi-faceted problem. We will need “all of the above” – a hotel in Revere, ferries to Long Island, the conversion of a detention center – and more. We must resolve to work together and end our ‘no policy’.

We are a region awash in wealth and ideas, but sometimes none of it comes down to street level. How great can a city be if it allows something so horrible to go on?


Shirley Leung is a business columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]


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