Dr. Monica Bharel was tapped to help the city of Boston respond to the humanitarian crisis at Mass. and Cass, an area located on the south side of Boston that saw a large homeless encampment spring up last year.
Bharel spoke exclusively to NBC10 Boston medical reporter Kristy Lee about the city's effort to clear the tents and what the city is doing to meet the needs of the people that live there.
"Before I took this position, a lot of people told me it's an impossible task," said Bharel.
The area just south of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue was littered with tents last October. It was a place where homelessness, drug addiction and mental health converged.
Outgoing Mayor Kim Janey declared the area known as "Mass. and Cass" a public health crisis.
"The plan is that we need to have access to treatment without barriers and need to have low threshold housing for every single person," said Boston Mayor Michelle Wu at a press conference in November.
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One of Wu’s first actions as incoming mayor was appointing Dr. Monica Bharel, the former Massachusetts Department of Public Health commissioner, to a senior level advisor position to address what Wu called a humanitarian crisis.
"When I was going tent to tent, I mean, looking inside those tents, the living conditions, you wouldn't believe it. It's shocking that that's how people were staying in Boston," said Bharel.
In the coming months, the city used a systematic approach led by public health to move 177 people out of the tents and into six different programs to help meet their housing needs.
"So it wasn't about clearing the tents, it wasn't about, you know, moving things. It was about who are the people inside the tents and really understanding what their needs are," said Bharel.
Southampton Street is now cleared of tents and replaced by fencing, but with winter coming to an end, a big question is whether we will see tents pop up again on these sidewalks with the return of warmer weather.
Bharel said they want to make sure that people continue to feel that they have opportunities for places they can stay.
She added that they're working with the residents to see what their next step is. For some of them, it's reunification with family. For others, she said, it's getting them into a treatment program or finding permanent, supportive housing
Before Bharel was DPH commissioner, she was chief medical officer for the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program.
One of the recommendations from her former program to help the area was to include safe consumption spaces. NBC10 Boston asked Bharel if that was an option the city was looking at.
"Safe consumption sites are evidence-based, and we're looking at all options and trying to look at what the next best step will be," said Bharel.
Some of those next steps include trying to decentralize services in the city. It includes assessing the viability of Long Island and potentially bringing more wraparound services to the Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain.
"We went from looking at something that was impossible to making it possible," said Bharel. "And we're seeing the results when we talk to individuals. We're seeing that these programs are working for them and they're feeling a sense of hope and a sense of purpose that they can now continue from here."