Aug 17, 2023
Wu’s Mass. and Cass tent ordinance is little more than a feel
Only in Boston and only under Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration would it take a new city ordinance to remove the tents at Mass. and Cass that have provided a shield for drug dealing and sex
Only in Boston and only under Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration would it take a new city ordinance to remove the tents at Mass. and Cass that have provided a shield for drug dealing and sex trafficking. And it’s an ordinance that is simply too precious in the way it proposes to deal with the encampment.
The city has a boatload of legal remedies already on the books that could be used to force the removal of the tents in the open-air drug market area of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. After all, Wu managed to have them cleared before — back in January 2022. But city officials now insist current city law isn’t “robust” enough.
Or is this more about politics than policy?
Of course, City Council buy-in for Wu’s broader plan would be nice — especially from this council, which can’t seem to agree on much of anything. But at what cost? Passage of an ordinance that at best seeks to micromanage dissolution of the encampment and at worst has the potential to extend it indefinitely and perhaps even push it to other neighborhoods?
The proposed ordinance submitted to the council Monday states: “It is unlawful for any person to camp or maintain a Campsite or Camp Materials in or on any public property or in the public right-of-way, including but not limited to any street, sidewalk, school or public park, unless specifically authorized or during a Period when Shelter is Unavailable.”
During those periods, defined as “times when no emergency shelter space exists,” the police and Inspectional Services are “authorized to promulgate any additional restrictions relative to the time, place, and manner for camping and density of Campsites.” Oh, that should come as a relief to those already concerned about the gatherings of the unhoused in front of the main branch of the Boston Public Library or at the Government Center T stop.
The ordinance also details the City Storage Program for the tents and other property removed with them. The program includes a “feedback system,” including a form for filing a claim for “reimbursement for lost property.”
In fact, the ordinance is less about giving police and public officials authority they already have than offering up a feel-good bill of rights for tent dwellers.
“The Ordinance will establish a prohibition against unsanctioned use of tents, tarps, and similar temporary structures on public property and in the public way which have been shielding much of the dangerous activity in the area and undermining the ability of providers to safely and effectively deliver services,” Wu said in her letter conveying the bill to the council.
Of course, as one real estate lawyer pointed out, the city zoning code already does that. “You can’t live on the sidewalk because you don’t own it,” he explained. “It’s that fundamental. It’s the occupation of a public way.”
Just ask the owners of those North End restaurants that couldn’t set up an outdoor patio this summer how fundamental that is.
And then, of course, there are public nuisance laws designed to protect “public safety, health, comfort, convenience.” Ask the folks who have businesses in the Newmarket Square area or even the health care workers attempting to deliver services to those in the encampment whether the tents have become a public safety and public health menace.
Those with long memories may also recall the tent city set up in Dewey Square by Occupy Boston. When what started as a political movement turned into a public health and safety hazard, a superior court judge found no First Amendment right to occupy a public park for months. The Menino administration served the protesters with an eviction notice and razed the tent city two days later.
There was no “let us store your tent and here’s a claim check.”
To its credit, the Wu administration is moving heaven and earth to find alternatives — short- and long-term — for those who can be coaxed into accepting some kind of shelter and services en route to treatment. However, as Wu’s ordinance states, those campsites “shield drug trafficking, human trafficking, weapons, fire hazards, violence and criminal activity.”
And that begs the question: Why have the encampments been allowed to grow and to fester? If the city isn’t going to enforce existing laws that could have been used to raze them long ago, what good is one more ordinance?
Rachelle G. Cohen is a Globe opinion writer. She can be reached at [email protected].