Boston doesn’t care about homeless people

Logo of the Boston Public Health Commission.

On Monday, Nov. 1, at 8 a.m., the City of Boston reached its deadline to remove the encampments stationed at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, fulfilling a provision included within the executive order Kim Janey ordered last month, as reported by WGBH. 

While Janey’s executive order is intended to treat the humanitarian crisis at Mass and Cass as a public health emergency, Janey’s executive order still notes that “individuals who refuse to remove tents on public property may be considered disorderly and subject to enforcement of existing laws." Janey has also indicated, “enforcement may also be used as a last resort.” 

Within Janey’s provision to “implement procedures and social service interventions to address public health crisis created by tents or temporary shelters,” the executive order states, “as stated in existing laws, coupled with the Public Health Emergency, tents and temporary shelters will no longer be allowed on the public ways in the City of Boston.” 

Even though this executive order is intended to tackle homelessness from a public health perspective, the prohibition of tents and temporary shelters in public spaces is emblematic of the continual enforcement of oppressive city ordinances that make it almost impossible for homeless people to perform basic human functions. Janey’s executive order is made even more egregious as she is using the rhetoric of humanitarianism to promote this misguided policy solution that removes homeless people from spaces they have an inherent right to inhabit. 

According to Boston’s police data, in 2019, 1,375 homeless people were arrested, and this accounts for almost a quarter of the city’s total homeless population of 6,203 residents, per the city’s annual homeless census conducted in January 2020. Even more surprising was that between Jan. 1, 2016, and February 2020, homeless people were arrested close to 6,000 times, according to the Boston Globe.

In light of these staggering statistics, Janey’s executive order thus becomes even more inhumane because the prohibition of tents in public spaces, and the possibility for police to become involved, will only further displace a population that is finding it increasingly more difficult to simply exist. This will prolong the housing insecurity that homeless people are relegated to frequently experiencing. Additionally, the enforcement that is allowed within this executive order encourages law enforcement to incarcerate homeless people if they make the decision not to evacuate the encampment. This may remove homeless people from the street, but simultaneously entrenches the homelessness they’re experiencing because, according to an article by the Prison Policy Initiative: “arresting and incarcerating people experiencing homelessness makes it harder for them to secure housing, jobs, and public assistance by saddling them with a criminal record and fines and fees that are impossible for them to pay. It only serves to fuel the revolving door between prisons and homeless shelters.” 

What the City of Boston fails to consider in its “solution” to resolve the humanitarian crisis and treat the people on Mass and Cass as individuals, is that the shelters offered to the people on Mass and Cass fail to accommodate them in a variety of ways, according to WBUR. As Cassie Hurd, affiliated with the Material Aid and Advocacy Program, explained, people often reject relocating to area shelters because they prohibit partners, are only allowed to stay the night tonight, or because individuals have been banned from them. 

Jose, a resident who has lived on Mass and Cass for five years, justifies his rejection of shelters as adequate temporary housing, stating, “I don’t want to go back to jail, and shelters are jail. People working there don’t know how to treat addicts, and people here don't treat us like human beings. Treat me like an animal, I’ll do what an animal does.” 

Shelters are an inadequate choice for temporary housing, as this institution that is charged with providing non-judgemental assistance extends the dehumanization that homeless people regularly encounter, and evades public scrutiny of its subhuman treatment of the homeless community through framing this rejection as a personal choice. The conditions that are allowed to persist in shelters are an institutional failing, thus shelters are just as complicit in protracting homelessness as much as the mental health and substance abuse issues that affect this population. 

This is to say nothing of a city that cannot provide sufficient affordable housing for its homeless residents but can build new condos to accommodate the gentrifiers who can continually afford to live in the exorbitantly priced real estate market they’ve created. 

Mass and Cass is not Iraq and Afghanistan. 

So why are we applying the same lessons from a 20-year quagmire to a humanitarian crisis? Much like in Iraq and Afghanistan, “humanitarian counterinsurgency” will not work in this instance, because any solution that slowly erodes a person’s freedom as a prerequisite for obtaining housing and substance abuse treatment will only keep them further behind bars, both literally and metaphorically. What is truly needed is the development of affordable housing for the residents who most need it, in tandem with substance abuse treatment that is scientifically proven to function. That is how Boston will demonstrate that it cares about the homeless people it perpetually evicts from its premises. 

Sources utilized for this article:

https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2021/02/10/homelessness/

https://www.boston.gov/news/executive-order-outlines-strategy-address-public-health-and-encampments-boston

https://www.wgbh.org/news/local-news/2021/11/01/i-have-no-place-to-go-hundreds-leave-mass-and-cass-as-city-clears-tents

https://www.wbur.org/news/2021/10/28/mass-and-cass-tent-removal-homelessness

https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/06/28/metro/homeless-boston-beyond-laws-can-criminalize-life-itself/

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