UPDATE: This case was dismissed voluntarily and without prejudice in May, 2022.
In November 2021, the ACLU of Massachusetts and law firm WilmerHale filed a lawsuit to protect the constitutional rights and safety of people living unhoused in the area of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue in Boston. The lawsuit seeks to stop the City of Boston from continuing to drive people out of the “Mass. and Cass” area without first identifying viable alternative housing options for them.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of three people experiencing homelessness, as well as a class of similarly situated people who are or were very recently residing at Mass. and Cass, follows recent large-scale evictions that have left people without even a tent to call home. In spite of City officials’ suggestions that housing would be provided, the plaintiffs and others were driven out—under threat of arrest—with no viable housing options. Much of their personal property was summarily destroyed, leaving them without access to clothing and even vital papers such as their identification. According to the complaint, this plan and practice violates both the Eighth Amendment and federal and state disability discrimination laws.
The City has repeatedly suggested that impacted people will be provided real shelter alternatives before being displaced. Yet, there is no process in place to evaluate people’s barriers to congregate shelters—including physical or mental disabilities, underlying medical issues that make people more vulnerable to serious COVID infection, harm reduction needs, and family or partner situations—and to identify current available options that address those barriers. This failure to adjust housing suggestions based on individual needs forces people out and leaves them with nowhere safe to sleep.
The ACLU joined medical providers, addiction specialists, and public health experts to call for a health-centered approach to the intersecting crises at Mass. and Cass. Such an approach includes expanding emergency non-congregate shelter options, increasing targeted voluntary treatment offerings, and protecting civil rights and human dignity in encampments.
After hearing on November 9, 2021, a Single Justice ordered the case transferred to the Superior Court for further proceedings, including a decision on the request for a temporary restraining order. A hearing on that request was held on November 17, 2021, and the Superior Court declined to issue a restraining order, while making clear that the Defendants’ conduct in implementing any further removals would influence future decisions in the case.
At the November 17 hearing, the City represented to the Court that—notwithstanding the language of the Executive Order—unhoused people in Boston were free to erect tents anywhere in the City to protect themselves from the elements without risk of arrest unless and until they receive 48 hours notice that they must leave that particular location and the 48 hours has passed.
Media Update: Audio Recording of Nov. 9, 2021 Status Conference (Gaziano, J.)