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Boston continues intensive effort to clear Mass. and Cass homeless encampments

Nearly three dozen people have moved out of the crime-ridden area since early Monday, as outreach workers ramp up efforts to clear it out

A worker dragged a tarp that was the floor of a tent as the removal of the Mass. and Cass encampment continued.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Miguel Pagan has no love for the dangerous stretch of pavement near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard where he has lived off and on for the past decade. He was shot through his arm and chest, stabbed twice, and witnessed dozens of overdoses — some fatal, he said.

But early Monday, with a deadline looming, Pagan decided it was time to move out of the crime-ridden area known as Mass. and Cass. The day marked the beginning of an intensive, three-day effort to dismantle the scores of tents and other ramshackle structures in the area, which have become a haven for addicts and sex traffickers, and so dangerous that several outreach groups working with the city have pulled their teams.


Outreach workers presented Pagan, 63, who is addicted to heroin, with a way out: a room in a halfway house near downtown.

“I did some serious soul-searching and asked myself, ‘Do I really want to die out here?’ ” Pagan said Tuesday as he helped clean debris from the site. “I saw too much sorrow and too much pain to stay.”

Starting Monday, teams of outreach workers with the city and nonprofit groups have been fanning out through Mass. and Cass to prepare people living there for being removed. They are trying to nudge the area’s 80 to 90 tent inhabitants toward shelters and treatment centers, as well as connect them with area relatives who might be willing to take them in.

So far, scores of people at the site have taken them up on the offer. As of Tuesday afternoon, 35 people living in the Mass and Cass area had relocated to safer housing in the Greater Boston area, while 21 had accepted offers but were still packing their belongings or arranging transportation, officials said. Citing worsening violence and other conditions, city officials had given the residents until Wednesday to vacate the area.


On Tuesday afternoon, a Boston police officer stood along Atkinson Street and yelled, “The drug store is officially closed” at passing pedestrians and people descending on the street from outside the area. “You’re gonna have to get your drugs someplace else from here on,” said the officer, who declined to share his name.

Many of the tents along Atkinson Street have become hotbeds of criminality, including sex trafficking and sales of illicit drugs like fentanyl. Concerns over violence at the encampment peaked in late summer. There was a string of assaults, including multiple stabbings and one person beaten with a baseball bat, according to police.

The chaos at Mass. and Cass has vexed city officials for years and has been among Mayor Michelle Wu’s steepest challenges since she took office nearly two years ago. The presence of the open-air drug market, where people often inject heroin and fentanyl within sight of passing traffic, has also hung like a dark cloud over the city.

Wu visited the area both Monday and early Tuesday, where she talked to outreach workers and police. “At its core, what we are talking about is health, safety, comfort, and dignity,” Wu said at a press event last week. “No one in the city of Boston should be living in a tent on the street, especially as the temperatures fall, with no running water, no heat, the transmission of illnesses. . . . We cannot let that stand.”


City officials said that they are not taking a heavy-handed approach, and that they will not force anyone to move without being provided space at an emergency shelter. Under an ordinance approved by the City Council last week, tents would be removed from streets or sidewalks only after the occupants were offered shelter, transportation to shelter, and the opportunity to store their personal belongings. Previously, authorities were required to give 48-hour notice before removing tents, except during street cleaning.

Tent by tent, teams of outreach workers approached inhabitants Tuesday and offered them shelter beds and treatment options. Those who accepted could pack all their belongings in plastic bins, which a crew of workers then moved to a nearby storage site. What people didn’t take — including tarps, clothing, and furniture — was tossed into garbage bins and hauled away. Cleanup crews used lawn rakes to sweep away the garbage, including hundreds of used and discarded needles.

The Police Department maintained a heavy presence, with more than two dozen officers on site, though they largely stood by and watched as people moved their belongings.

“It’s gone really smoothly,” said Tania Del Rio, whom Wu appointed to coordinate the city’s response to the homeless encampments. “I’m happy seeing the collaboration between all of our teams . . . and I can sleep better at night knowing that [the people who moved to shelter] are safe.”

Even so, it remains unclear how the city and the police will handle the 50-plus people who remain at the site, including many who are deep in the throes of addiction and less inclined to leave. Even if they can be cajoled into shelter, say outreach workers, it’s possible they will return or seek out another site to buy or sell drugs. In 2019, under former mayor Martin J. Walsh, police swept the area around Mass. and Cass, arresting dozens and ordering homeless people to leave.


Kirsten Laundry, 49, a heroin user, walked along Atkinson Street on Tuesday, looking for the faces of people she knew from staying at Mass. and Cass for more than two years. Her main worry, she said, was that the dismantling of the camp would cause her fellow users to scatter, and she would no longer have ready access to heroin. “I need to go where the people are going,” she said. “Even if they kick me out, that doesn’t mean I won’t be here next week or a month from now.”

As for Pagan, he is looking forward to returning to a life he hasn’t had for years — with basics such as a hot shower each day and the chance to go shopping for new clothes.

“It’s no way to live, out here,” he said, gesturing toward a row of threadbare tents. “At 2 a.m., you’re shaking. You’re cold. You’re hungry. And people are urinating outside. I’m just filled with joy that people finally have a place to go.”


Chris Serres can be reached at Follow him @ChrisSerres.