Aug 31, 2023
Boston City Council won't vote on Mass and Cass tent ban until October
Ignoring the mayor’s pleas to “take swift and urgent action,” the Boston City Council likely won’t vote on an ordinance that would give police the authority to clear out homeless encampments in the
Ignoring the mayor’s pleas to “take swift and urgent action,” the Boston City Council likely won’t vote on an ordinance that would give police the authority to clear out homeless encampments in the Mass and Cass zone until October.
The ordinance, filed by Mayor Michelle Wu as part of her new three-tiered plan for tackling crime in the troubled area, was referred to the Council’s committee on government operations with little discussion at the body’s Wednesday meeting.
City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who chairs the government operations committee, said he’s targeting the last week of September or first week of October for a hearing, which typically occurs before the Council votes on a policy matter.
“One of the things that could happen is at the hearing there could be issues about legality that are identified, or ways in which we can strengthen or loosen certain aspects of the ordinance,” Arroyo said. “A hearing is making the case for it or against.”
Based on what comes out of that hearing, he said, the Council may opt to go straight to a vote at its next meeting, or hold an additional working session to tweak the language of the ordinance.
Whether a hearing was needed was the subject of a brief disagreement between two city councilors at the Wednesday meeting. Councilor Michael Flaherty pushed for an immediate vote on the ordinance, which was filed by Wu on Monday.
“I don’t know about anyone in this room, but I’ve seen enough of the tents,” Flaherty said. “I think it’s time to take them down.”
Councilor Frank Baker promptly objected, however, stating, “We have to have discussion.”
Flaherty withdrew his motion for a vote, stating that he called for it, barring any objection.
City Council President Ed Flynn cut off any further discussion, saying, “The time for question and debate is at a public hearing.”
Arroyo told reporters after the meeting that other councilors he’s spoken to had been in favor of holding a hearing, prior to taking a vote on the mayor’s proposed ordinance. The measure would allow police to take down tents and tarps, provided that individuals are offered shelter and transportation to services.
“We are creating a new law with new criminal penalties, and so with something like that, I don’t think you rush into it,” Arroyo said.
Boston Police, as the enforcement authority, “are empowered to make an arrest” when a violation occurs, per the ordinance, which also lays out the potential for a $25 fine that would be incurred with each offense.
It also eliminates the need for police to give a 48-hour heads up before removing tents, a requirement that Police Commissioner Michael Cox has said is “not realistic,” given that the tents are being used to support the open-air drug market the area has become known for.
Wu has said the number of people seeking shelter at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard is much smaller than the crowds using tents and tarps to shield violence, drug and human trafficking.
Arroyo declined to state his position on the matter, but did say that he had concerns about the constitutionality of an ordinance that would clear out encampments, which critics say is tantamount to criminalizing homelessness.
The American Civil Liberties Union has threatened or filed lawsuits against other large cities that have taken action to clear out homeless encampments. In San Francisco, a similar approach to what Boston’s mayor is proposing was struck down by the courts and is currently in the appellate system, Arroyo said.
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