Operation Clean Sweep, is the City of Boston’s ongoing police action that began as a nighttime raid resulting in 34 arrests and the displacement of over 100 unhoused community members. Mayor Walsh has continued and formalized these actions in his Melnea Cass / Mass Ave 2.0 Plan, which relies on ineffective and inhumane police and public works strategies such as encampment sweeps and move along orders instead of public health solutions. The plan criminalizes community members experiencing homelessness, poverty, mental illness, and substance use disorder.
Today is day 474 of Operation Clean Sweep. Demand the City of Boston stop the sweeps and end criminalization of unhoused community members and instead invest in evidence based solutions to by providing virtual testimony, submitting written public comment online; calling and emailing city councilors, and tweeting during the hearing today, Tuesday November 17th.
You can view the information from the dropdown menu below in a this google doc.
Operation Clean Sweep began on August 1, 2019 with a multi-night police raid that resulted in 34 people being arrested through stops that civil liberties advocates, defense attorneys and constitutional law professors have stated are unconstitutional. Over 100 people experiencing homelessness, and/or substance use disorder as well as people who use drugs were displaced from their community in the Mass / Cass neighborhood. On October 4, 2019 Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh codified these actions in Melnea Cass / Mass Ave 2.0: A strategic plan for Newmarket Square and neighboring communities. There was no documented 1.0 plan released to the public.
The approach, goals, and objectives of the plan are neither evidence-based nor informed by the lived experience and expertise of unhoused residents of the Melnea Cass / Mass Ave 2.0 and/or community members who use drugs or have a substance use disorder. The plan relies on ineffective and inhumane police and public works activities instead of public health solutions. 2.0 pursues a variety of criminalization and coercion strategies, and is cruel and counterproductive. Similar coordinated plans that heavily involve the police and policing have been proven to be ineffective in other cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Melnea Cass / Mass Ave 2.0 is in direct opposition to the demands the Boston Users Union made at their September 28, 2019 March on the Mile, actively ignoring the self identified needs and evidence-based solutions presented by the community members most impacted by Operation Clean Sweep and this plan.
PRIORITIZING "PUBLIC SAFETY" OVER PUBLIC HEALTH
The Melnea Cass / Mass Ave 2.0 Plan focuses on reducing the perceived threats of public safety to “South End residents” - meaning people who are housed, while increasing criminalization and surveillance of people who live unhoused in the area. 1 in 8 people who are arrested in the City of Boston are homeless. All throughout, the plan relies on the historically futile, counterproductive role of law enforcement in what should be a comprehensive public health plan.
Many of the activities throughout this plan take a “therapeutic policing” and punitive / coercive care approach, further embedding the police in outreach and recovery services, in place of public health professionals and trained peers. This relationship and reliance on police is no less harmful or counterproductive than the overt display of force and punishment unhoused people encountered at the beginning of Operation Clean Sweep, with unhoused people experiencing constant police surveillance, harassment, coercion into treatment or services, and arrest - with law enforcement taking on the role of both punitive police officer and “provider”. However, it’s more palatable to the general public, especially when framed as the offering of services and support.
Though not included in the initial plan, the progress report notes an expansion of Section 35, the involuntary commitment of a person with substance use disorder for up to the 90 days (oftentimes in a jail, as 2 of the 3 facilities in Massachusetts for men are in Department of Corrections facilities), through the Boston Police Mobile Street Unit and Boston Police Outreach. Mayor Walsh and city leadership have emphasized the desire to further expand this ineffective and inhumane practice even though the state’s own mandated evaluation of overdose data has found that people who were involuntarily committed were more than twice as likely to experience a fatal overdose as those who completed voluntary treatment.
The Boston Police and Boston Emergency Response Team (B.E.S.T.) partnership has been expanded, with 15 additional clinicians to co-respond to calls relating to mental health, domestic violence, and substance use. Partnering with law enforcement goes against evidence based best practices for working with people experiencing homelessness and people in crisis. We must remove law enforcement from what should be community directed and run public health efforts.
Through the creation of “fixed posts” and increased deployment of the Citywide Bicycle Unit, this plan employs regular police presence to surveil unhoused community members in the area. This includes
particular focus on areas designed by the Drug Control Unit targeting persons responsible for distributing drugs. The plan puts people who sell or distribute drugs and people who use drugs into two distinct categories, when in reality many people do both. Recently, the Boston Police reported this work resulted in the arrest of 7 people alleged to have been distributing drugs, the issuing of more than 10 warrants, and the coercion of 25 people who were allegedly purchasing drugs into treatment who will be summoned to district court for possession. A Report by the Drug Policy Alliance notes the arrests of these community members is unlikely to make drugs less available, reduce substance use, or increase safety for the broader community or people who use drugs.
COMPLAINT ORIENTED POLICING
City leadership and Boston Police have also continued to rely heavily on complaint oriented policing, which enlists housed community members, neighborhood groups, business owners and business improvement districts (BIDs) as partners in the policing and criminalization of unhoused community members. These civilian police partners are encouraged to call 311 or 911 to make “quality of life” reports for virtually any behavior exhibited by their unhoused neighbors, including existing in public (whether in encampments or on the street), and for public health challenges such as sharps cleanup. They can then check on the progress of their reports via app and now the Melnea Cass / Mass Ave 2.0 Dashboard. Likely by design, the City of Boston’s strong recommendation of using this system of reporting, though ineffective, contributes to the expansion of police and police surveillance in the area to meet the reported “demand”.
Much of the response to these reports consists of unnecessary consistent punitive interactions with law enforcement, removal of encampments and moving unhoused people from one block to another, ineffective treatment, or jail. Oftentimes these calls did not need a response; could have been handled within a neighborhood context, through the expansion of harm reduction services, implementation of more public sharps containers and bathrooms; the establishment of Safe Consumption Sites; and through other non-violent communication methods.
The strategy of "redirecting encampments" is a rebranding of the clumsily named "Operation Clean Sweep" (implicitly treating people like dirt). Encampment sweeps are inhumane, unnecessary, and actively cause harm by removing people from their communities, belongings, and systems of care that are necessary for survival.
People who sleep unsheltered are often referred to as “service resistant” when in actuality shelters may not be safe, meet their needs, be stable enough, or even available to them. Some reasons unsheltered community members in the Melnea Cass / Mass Ave area have shared for not accessing shelter include lack of stability in night-to-night shelters, inability to access shelter with their partner, mistreatment by staff, being barred without access to meaningful restorative justice process, warehouse / jail / institutional environment, inability to bring in all of their belongings, inability to come and go, and inability to bring in their in harm reduction supplies. Living in community with other unhoused people in an encampment provides community members with greater safety than sleeping alone, and more stability, privacy, and autonomy than people experience in congregate emergency shelters.
When the City of Boston evicts an encampment they remove the little stability and safety an unhoused community member has created for themselves. Their immediate community and safety net is broken up and people’s belongings including vital documents, necessary medications, survival supplies, and objects of sentimental value are often lost or destroyed.
By removing encampments the City of Boston pushes people to less safe places, farther into communities where they may be further criminalized, to the detriment of both their physical and mental health. The forced moving of people from one place to another places them at increased risk for overdose by removing them from their current community, where they have access to syringe service programs, naloxone, harm reduction resources, outpatient treatment centers and primary care, practice peer-to-peer harm reduction, and use the limited resources available to them to reduce overdose deaths. Medical providers and outreach workers have shared challenges in locating community members on the streets to distribute medicine or notify them they had been granted access to shelter, rehab, or even housing because they had been relocated during a sweep or moved along by police. Some unhoused community members have shared they have started using or increased their use of stimulants, most notably methamphetamine, to avoid being woken up by law enforcement and swept or moved along.
In Swept Away, the National Coalition for the Homeless reported that in case studies of 6 cities across the United States the removal of encampments resulted in little more than moving people around, with few people accessing shelter or services when made available as these evictions can further erode the trust between people experiencing homelessness and the system allegedly set up to assist them.
OBSERVATIONS FROM A RECENT ENCAMPMENT SWEEP IN BOSTON
At the request of encampment residents, two members of MAAP leadership went to the planned removal of an encampment on the corner of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Washington Streets over the summer. We observed, provided support, and brought basic supplies: cold water, food, and large bags for people to pack some of their belongings. We talked with people, some who we knew; MAAP participants and people we’d met doing encampment outreach; and others we were meeting for the first time. We helped people take down their tents and pack up the belongings they could carry with them. After the trash trucks arrived we continued helping three young Black men fold up their tents and shuffle their belongings to a nearby bus stop. A homeless outreach officer shouted about there being no “I” in TEAM, for people to “move along”, and that they would “take care” of anything people didn’t want to take with them. While there, the Boston Police offered no tangible support - noting community members had been offered options (night-to-night shelter) in the days leading up to this removal. The young men wanted to keep their belongings, and the city ‘taking care’ of them meant they would be tossed in the trash truck. They couldn’t carry everything and had no idea where they’d “move along” to since there were already cruisers stationed in the nearby park. Before we parted ways, one said, “I was forced out of my home, but never before have I been forced out of my community”.
It is no coincidence that these were Black men from Roxbury. The United States’ affordable housing and homelessness crises disproportionately impacts our Black and Brown communities. In Boston, Black people make up 47% of the homeless population, but only 25% of the overall population. It is also no coincidence that 3 of these 4 men had experienced incarceration. We know there is a connection between having been incarcerated and experiencing homelessness. A 2018 national study by the Prison Policy Initiative put numbers to the experiences of people we know: formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public. The Boston Police referred to this as a “service day”. Boston Public Works shared and then deleted photos of people’s belongings being thrown into trash trucks, calling this a cleanup of “litter” and “debris”.
HARASSMENT & OTHER MEANS OF "MOVING PEOPLE ALONG"
Through police order, many times in response to reports from housed community members or the business improvement district, unhoused people are forced to shuffle around and out of the Melnea Cass / Mass Ave area, with no safe place to simply exist in public. Boston Police cruisers crawl next to unhoused people gathered on the sidewalk with the officer alternating between running the siren and giving move along orders via megaphone. Curiously not an activity of Melnea Cass / Mass Ave 2.0, this has become Boston Police’s daily method of moving people along when daytime services close.
Beautification, including the creation of welcoming spaces across the neighborhood and “ensuring that public open spaces are clean, safe and welcoming”, is central to the plan. Counter to these goals has been the installation of hostile architecture in the area; fences that have been erected along Mass Avenue, Melnea Cass Avenue, and Washington Street that block unhoused community members from accessing public green spaces. Historically, beautification has been code for gentrification and displacement, and with activities like daily 5am street cleaning by a DPW water truck and the addition of street lights in Newmarket Square it would seem that displacing unhoused people from the area is the greater goal.
DECONCENTRATION / DECENTRALIZATION
The City of Boston consistently reports that the people living unhoused in the area are not from Boston. While many of the people experiencing homelessness, and/or substance use disorder as well as people who use drugs in the area are from Boston, others have come to Boston for our “world class” healthcare and services, just as many housed people do. We assert unhoused people living in the Melnea Cass / Mass Ave area live in Boston, are members of our community and should be able to remain here. Services should not be moved away from the Melnea Cass / Mass Ave area, which provides services in a central location. Community-run resources should be implemented across the City of Boston and State of MA so people can have access to shelter, harm reduction programs, substance use disorder treatment, and support in their community of origin if it is safe for them, and they choose to do so.
IMPACT AND URGENCY OF COVID-19
Early in COVID-19, people experiencing homelessness had to choose between two bad options: staying in crowded congregate shelters where COVID rates would soar or surviving a global pandemic outside. As the streets became quieter -- unhoused people became hypervisible to housed community members and the police. We know this hypervisibility can be intensified for Black and Brown residents living unhoused. People experienced increased harassment, criminalization, and coerced treatment.
The expansion of the outdoor area of the BPHC Engagement Center and the implementation of temporary comfort stations allowed community members to meet some of their basic bodily needs, and practice basic hygiene but overwhelmingly people have been denied the dignity of meeting their basic bodily needs in private and practicing proper public health measures.
As pandemic rates are increasing and winter is upon us, the City of Boston must follow HUD best practices and work as quickly as possible to offer COVID-19 negative unhoused community members non-congregate shelter options in hotels and dorms. Per CDC guidance, those who choose to not access shelter must not be swept from their encampments.
EVIDENCE BASED SOLUTIONS
We call on Mayor Walsh to release Melnea Mass / Mass Ave 3.0, a plan that would remove police from what should be a public health response and instead include evidence based solutions to homelessness & overdose crisis: housing, healthcare, and harm reduction. Resources should be community-based and outside of the criminal legal system.
To address persistent structural racism resources should first be directed to organizations run by and for Black community members as repeatedly expressed in the demands of and documented in the People’s Budget presented by Families for Justice as Healing.
STOP THE SWEEPS & END THE CRIMINALIZATION OF HOMELESSNESS
End the strategy of “redirecting encampments”, removing people from their communities, belongings, and systems of care that are necessary for their survival. Provide encampments with essential public services, like public toilets, hygiene facilities, sharps and trash collection; and fund necessary support and services from trusted community-based providers identified by encampment residents.
End the City’s practice of criminalizing unhoused community members - stop the harassment, surveillance,
move along orders, arrests, and other practices that criminalize people for openly surviving and living in poverty. Actualize the City’s commitment to reduce the stigma of homelessness by affirming the rights of people who are unhoused by supporting the proposed State of MA Homeless Bill of Rights.
AFFORDABLE AND ACCESSIBLE HOUSING
There is an extreme lack of truly affordable and accessible housing in the City of Boston. Community members experiencing homelessness and/or with a substance use disorder have substantial and often complex barriers to the limited continuum of housing solutions -- including housing-first models. The City of Boston must expand the pilot City Rental Voucher Program to create low-threshold housing solutions to meet the needs of those who need it, meaning that it must meet the needs of those earning less than 35% of Area Median Income (AMI), allow for a variety of family configurations, provide adequate support that focuses on collaborative solutions, and includes policies that acknowledge addiction as a chronic relapsing disease and are oriented towards keeping people housed. Additionally, housed people receiving subsidies should never have to face the choice of calling for help in the face of an overdose or losing their housing.
SAFE CONSUMPTION SITES
Safe Consumption Sites (SCSs) are a proven harm reduction strategy. Government-sanctioned SCSs have existed for over 30 years. Today, there are over 120 SCSs around the world, though none in the US. There has never been an overdose death at SCS. Extensive peer-reviewed research shows that SCSs address multiple public health concerns and result in fewer overdose deaths and hospitalizations, decreased spread of HIV and hepatitis C, and increased participation in primary healthcare and addiction treatment services. For community members concerned with “quality of life” issues, SCSs are shown to reduce public drug use, stray needles and litter, and low-level “crimes” (often now decriminalized under best-practice policy) related to drug use. This plan is glaringly incomplete and woefully inadequate without the inclusion of at least one safe consumption space in the area.
EXPAND HARM REDUCTION PROGRAMS
We call on the City to immediately increase the hours of operation and expand its syringe service program AHOPE (access to syringe exchange, sterile supplies, naloxone, HIV/HCV/STI testing; health education and navigation). Although 2.0 calls for eliminating the overdoses in the area, it fails to appropriately plan to distribute harm reduction services & supplies to people who use drugs through trusted channels in the Melnea Cass / Mass Ave area. Instead, 2.0 leans on failed channels including law enforcement who have even less trust in the community since Operation Clean Sweep started over a year ago.
IMPLEMENT HARM REDUCTION STRATEGIES IN EXISTING PROGRAMS & IN PUBLIC
We urge the City to integrate harm reduction policies at City shelters, most notably immediately removing the ban of syringes and harm reduction supplies. This policy forces people to choose between accessing shelter and practicing harm reduction, and can have dire consequences especially in the midst of a pandemic with winter approaching. Add additional public syringe disposal kiosks to give people who use drugs the opportunity to properly dispose of used equipment.
End Section 35 and Expand Voluntary Substance Use Treatment and Recovery Services
The City of Boston, and the state of MA, needs to end the ineffective and inhumane practice of coerced treatment and instead invest in the expansion of a continuum of voluntary treatment and recovery services. Resources should be accessible, affordable, community-based, and outside of the criminal legal system.
It has been 6 years since Mayor Walsh evacuated Long Island on 4 hours notice with no contingency plan in place. Reopen Long Island immediately to provide desperately needed access to long-term recovery beds for community members who seek them.
MEET BASIC MATERIAL NEEDS
2.0 has failed to fully meet the need for running water, drinking water, and bathrooms, all of which are necessary to meet the health, hygiene, and dignity of people living unsheltered in the area. This especially true as COVID-19 has reduced access to existing spaces. Additionally important is the need for space for people’s belongings so they can safely store items of importance (e.g. housing paperwork, winter jackets, medication). The community’s needs should be met in a dignified, low-threshold, 24-hour permanent space.
COMPREHENSIVE AND INCLUSIVE NEEDS ASSESSMENT
A carefully conducted needs assessment must be conducted to identify and track both qualitative and quantitative measures that centered the voices, experiences, expertise, and self-identified needs of people using drugs, with substance use disorder, and experiencing homelessness in the identified area and citywide.
Critical Resistance Definition of Policing:
Policing is a social relationship made up of a set of practices that are empowered by the state to enforce law and social control through the use of force. Reinforcing the oppressive social and economic relationships that have been central to the US throughout its history, the roots of policing in the United States are closely linked the capture of escaped slaves, and the enforcement of Black Codes. Similarly, police forces have been used to keep new immigrants “in line” and to prevent the poor and working classes from making demands. As social conditions change, how policing is used to target poor people, people of color, immigrants, and others who do not conform on the street or in their homes also shifts. The choices policing requires about which people to target, what to target them for, and when to arrest and book them play a major role in who ultimately gets imprisoned.
DATA / RESOURCES
United Nations Human Rights Council Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context
THE CITY OF BOSTON'S MELNEA CASS / MASS AVE 2.0 PLAn & PROGRESS TO DATE: overview
Changing The Narrative, a project of Northeastern University Health in Justice Action Lab, is an excellent resource that provides accurate, humane, and scientifically grounded information regarding drugs, people who use drugs, drug use, and substance use disorder.