The ACLU and a private law firm have sued the city of Boston over its current program to remove tents and their occupants from Mass and Cass, saying that despite what Acting Mayor Kim Janey claims, many of the displaced people are not being put in housing or treatment programs and their property seized and destroyed, in violation of their rights against cruel and unusual punishment and for due process.
In a suit filed in Suffolk Superior Court on behalf of three specific people, the group and the firm of WilmerHale ask a judge to order an immediate end to the current sweep until the city shows it has "viable alternative housing options" for the people who now sleep in tents at the heart of Methadone Mile - and not just cots in overnight homeless shelters with no treatment for people with addiction or who suffer from conditions that could be exacerbated by "congregate" care like that, such as people with PTSD.
The City's ongoing displacement actions - which are driving unhoused persons from Mass & Cass - fail to address the immediate and urgent needs of unsheltered residents, and put the health and safety of an already vulnerable population at even greater risk. What is more, the City's tactics are fundamentally unlawful. Specifically, the City explicitly threatens criminal sanctions for noncompliance with displacement without any meaningful or individualized process to ensure that those people driven from Mass & Cass actually have access to available housing arrangements or shelter that can reasonably accommodate their needs. The City's actions therefore violate the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 26 of the Declaration of Rights under the Massachusetts Constitution, as well as federal and state disability discrimination laws.
Additionally, in the course of removing these persons from their only shelter, the City is unlawfully seizing and destroying their personal belongings in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, and federal and state due process protections.
The suit describes the three plaintiffs, including:
Plaintiff Ronald ("Ronnie") Geddes is experiencing homelessness in part because of the ongoing collateral consequences of having a criminal history and because he lost his job because of the COVID-19 global health pandemic. He has bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), related in part to having been sexually abused as a child. He is in recovery for substance use disorder - for which he receives a regular course of methadone treatment. Over the course of the past year or so, he has resided at Mass & Cass, in a tent with his possessions neatly arranged.
The suit continues:
Marginalized and shunned by mainstream society and with nowhere else to go, Plaintiffs and those similarly situated have encamped at Mass & Cass. As of last week, the encampment consisted of approximately 150 tents and an estimated 350 people. Plaintiffs and those similarly situated encamp in the area because they cannot stay in most homeless shelters and, in some cases, receive health care, such as substance use treatment. There is a well-documented lack of affordable housing in Boston and available shelter space is limited. On any given night, the City may not have sufficient shelter space to adequately house its homeless or unsheltered population. Moreover, and just as importantly, congregate shelters are not viable options for many people, including because of their individual medical and family needs.
Congregate shelters not only generally require abstinence and prohibit the possession of controlled substances and harm reduction items - thereby effectively banning individuals suffering with active substance use disorder - but the congregate nature of such shelters is also often inconsistent with the needs of people with other physical and mental health disabilities as well.
For example, as noted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD can cause a person to be startled by loud noises, to have difficulty sleeping, and to fear crowds because they feel dangerous.
These symptoms can render a congregate shelter non-viable for people with diagnosed PTSD like Ronnie Geddes and AC, whose PTSD is frequently activated when in close quarters with others.