The intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard (commonly referred to as Mass and Cass) in Boston has become a large homeless encampment in recent years, with an ever increasing number of homeless individuals residing in the area. Although many Boston residents would like to see a reduction in the number of people living in the area, there are differing motivations. Notably, many, including acting Mayor Kim Janey, see the area as a growing problem that must be dealt with rather than approaching the area with empathy and a desire to help individuals obtain the services and support they need.
In response to the growing encampment, Janey released a new executive order that addresses homelessness in Boston. Janey released a new plan to remove the homeless encampments near the intersection of Mass and Cass that have held a growing population of unhoused people. She has proposed offering shelter for those residing in tents in the area, or, upon refusal of these services, forcibly removing individuals. She claims to be prioritizing the health and safety of those living within the tents while also citing “clear and clean streets and walkways” and a focus on crime prevention. Her two differing messages of safety argue that the encampments create unsafe conditions for those living there yet simultaneously are a threat to non-homeless individuals as well.
Her statements of keeping the unhoused safe are veiled attempts to prioritize the comfort of non-homeless individuals and to criminalize homelessness. Janey acts as if the new executive order will result in connecting unhoused individuals with services and shelter when in reality, it gives them no choice over their own lives and forces them out of the area to maintain cleanliness. Cassie Hurd, the director of the Material Aid and Advocacy Program, stated that the executive order is “coercion of unhoused people and people who use drugs... It's the disappearing of unhoused people by any means necessary under the guise of public safety and public health.”
Instead of addressing the various causes of homelessness, Janey’s executive order follows in the footsteps of homelessness policy nationwide by only addressing visible homelessness. This reinforces the idea that homelessness is only an issue worth addressing due to the inconvenience it causes to non-homeless individuals, rather than a question of justice. Janey’s new approach to the Mass and Cass intersection does not give unhoused individuals the security they need to gain access to a stable job and housing but instead is a temporary fix that keeps them out of sight.
Although homeless shelters are seemingly a practical solution to homelessness that will lead to decreasing numbers of people without secure housing, the reality is that they often fail to provide the stability necessary to create tangible change. Shelters only provide a place to sleep and not a permanent address, which can be a necessity to obtain employment. In addition, as individuals must enter the shelter at a given time during the evening to maintain their spot, it can be even more difficult to find a job that can accommodate this. Finding employment is a vital step to obtaining secure housing, but shelters, although providing a necessary service, can also prevent an individual from being able to take this step.
Janey’s executive order fails to consider what leads to encampments such as the ones at Mass and Cass. Instead, she has merely criminalized individuals for being without a home. Out of Reach, a national report concerning wages and housing costs revealed that the 29-year streak of a significant gap between renters’ wages and cost of housing has continued. Typical Massachusetts renters earn $13.09 below the hourly wage needed to afford a modest rental home. This glaring disparity between wages and housing costs demonstrates the urgent need for an increased minimum wage. Without the ability to afford rent, more and more individuals will become homeless.
To properly address what contributes to an individual becoming homeless and giving unhoused individuals the tools they need to succeed, the housing-first approach must be implemented within Boston. Housing-first provides permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness and gives them the option of participating in supportive services. By providing housing as a foundation, people are unburdened by the need for shelter and can focus on finding employment and stability in their lives.
Permanent housing is also cost-effective as individuals are less likely to seek out emergency services such as hospitals and shelters or end up being incarcerated. One study found that over two years, there are an average savings of $31,545 per person housed through a housing-first approach. Additionally, housing first programs are more cost-effective than shelters as $23,000 less is spent per individual through housing first than shelter programs.
Kim Janey, and subsequent Boston mayors, must focus more on rectifying the contributing factors of homelessness than prioritizing the comfort of housed individuals and decreasing visible homelessness. Instead of forcibly removing those experiencing homelessness from the Mass and Cass intersection, and other areas, Boston should implement the housing-first approach and decrease the gap between wages and rent.