Boston advances plan to move homeless addicts into jail once used for ICE detainees amid progressive pushback

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Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker held his second meeting in two weeks centered on addressing Boston’s homelessness problem as the local sheriff still pushes a proposal to use a jail once used to house ICE detainees to shelter vagrant addicts living around the city’s “Methadone Mile.”  

Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins is forging ahead with plans to transform the currently unused South Bay jail’s “building eight” into a place where addicts can begin recovery. His proposal had received pushback from Democratic U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley and other liberal activists last month. 

“What’s your plan?” Tompkins said Tuesday, according to the Boston Herald, challenging his opponents. “Until they come up with something, I’m going to keep moving ahead with mine.”

Pressley, a member of the left progressive “Squad” whose congressional district covers the Methadone Mile, has opposed Tompkins’ plan because police and law enforcement would be identifying drug addicts to remove from the streets and District Attorney Rachael Rollins would decide whom to prosecute. 

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Pressley said in a statement in September that Tompkins has proposed “criminalization” of drug users through “involuntary commitment to repurposed prison facilities,” the Boston Globe reported. The proposal would use several empty floors once used to house immigration detainees in the building adjacent to the South Bay House of Correction.

But Tompkins maintained that his plan would help connect addicts with vital addiction and mental health services, posing the question, “Would you rather have people dying on the street?”

Billy, who has been experiencing homelessness for seven years, sits with a sign reading "What Would Jesus Do?" amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in Boston, April 15, 2020. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder(

Billy, who has been experiencing homelessness for seven years, sits with a sign reading “What Would Jesus Do?” amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in Boston, April 15, 2020. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder(
(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Baker, a Republican, convened a roundtable Tuesday with Tompkins and other players from the city, state, district attorney’s office, attorney general’s office and the courts to discuss the dangerous open-air drug market that has grown in the South End’s Newmarket area known as Mass and Cass or Methadone Mile. It was the second roundtable led by the governor in two weeks, and Tompkins said discussions included how to get people living on the streets into recovery programs or other housing. 

That could mean addicts moving into the South Bay jail, Lemuel Shattuck Hospital or other facilities. 

Hours after the roundtable, Tompkins attended another meeting Tuesday centered on addressing Boston’s homelessness population: a public forum hosted by an alliance of civic organizations led by Steve Fox of South End Forum and Sue Sullivan of the Newmarket Business Association. 

“We’ve been playing at the margins in terms of this crisis,” Fox said at the meeting. 

Such public forums have resumed since the city-run Mass and Cass Task Force, which was started in 2019, came to a dysfunctional halt, as its members cited lack of leadership from acting Mayor Kim Janey and City Hall in how to curb open-air drug dealing, the Boston Herald reported. 

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City Councilor Frank Baker and former state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, now of Suffolk Construction, both favored moving homeless addicts into the Nashua Street jail and have one of the hospitals downtown manage their treatment, instead of the South Bay building option. 

But Tompkins cited logistical issues, as there’s also concern at Nashua Street to keep incarcerated individuals separate from the incoming homeless population. The unused South Bay building is also closer to Methadone Mile. Signaling favor to the South Bay proposal, state Rep. Liz Miranda stressed, “We have to do something immediately.”

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