BOSTON (CBS) - City officials declared addiction and homelessness a public health emergency on Tuesday, and Acting Mayor Kim Janey announced an Executive Order to combat a tent city that has popped up at the heart of the crisis in Boston.
In recent weeks, dozens of tents have lined the area around Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Ave, known as "Mass and Cass" and "Methadone Mile", near where the South End and Roxbury meet.
The area has long been the site of open drug dealing and addiction. The city says it generates two dump trucks worth of waste a day and health officials routinely respond to four to five overdoses daily.
Janey says the situation there has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, with increased violence, sexual exploitation, and even human trafficking.
"To be clear, tents are not appropriate for housing. They lack clean water and hygiene facilities," she said Tuesday.
Her executive order establishes a central coordinating team made of city and state officials who will identify treatment options. According to the order, no one will be forced to leave a tent unless they have been offered another specific shelter option. There are roughly 170 open shelter beds in the city right now.
"Unsheltered individuals deserve respect and dignity, that they have a property interest in their belongings, and that we must offer people treatment and shelter and proper notice to remove their items," Janey said.
If people repeatedly refuse to leave their tents, they may be charged with disorderly conduct. For anyone who poses a serious threat of harm to themselves or others, the Boston Police may petition to involuntarily commit them as a last resort.
"It's about time," said Yahaira Lopez, cofounder of the South End Roxbury Community Partnership, a group that brings awareness to the situation in the area.
"What's outlandish is that it took multiple stabbings, multiple murders, multiple overdoses to make this a sense of urgency," Lopez said.
Mass and Cass has become a flashpoint in Boston's mayoral race. The two candidates say most of those staying there are not even from Boston. But Revere's mayor recently expressed "immense frustration" over Boston's plan to move some of the homeless into his city.
"If folks are looking for a magic moment, where 'poof' everything is gone - that is not how addiction works," Janey said. "It requires ongoing outreach to individuals. It requires work between the city, the state and other partners to make sure there are alternatives."
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