Mayor Bill Carpenter of Brockton received a call late at night on June 17 from the city’s fire chief. First responders had just extinguished a fire in the tent-filled homeless encampment not far from downtown. Fires in Tent City have become frequent in recent months, but this blaze was adjacent to about 20 tanks of propane. An explosion could have injured or killed first responders and Tent City residents alike.
A plan was developed that weekend. On June 27, Tent City would be torn down due to its increasingly dangerous conditions. City officials, in conjunction with Father Bill’s & Mainspring, Brockton’s homeless shelter, spent about a week on outreach and relocation attempts. Then, after all but nine of the inhabitants had left, the city cleared the encampment of the last of its inhabitants.
Few of the former residents were directly relocated. John Yazwinski, president and CEO of Father Bill’s & Mainspring, said only five came into the shelter and two began substance abuse treatment programs. A few accepted the city’s offer to send them elsewhere in the region, with some homeless youth returning to their families. The rest, Yazwinski presumes, merely moved to different locations in Brockton.
Mayor Carpenter’s chief of staff, Bob Buckley, estimated that around 70 people were living in Tent City before the events of June. However, Yazwinski, whose organization worked in the encampment weekly, estimated that only about 30 to 40 people had been living there long term in recent months.
The 30 to 31 acres of land that housed Tent City is owned by CSX Railroad and is located just a short walk from City Hall. The forested area was inhabited by some of the city’s homeless people for decades.
Buckley said that in the last six months, Tent City has become markedly more dangerous. Drug dealing, prostitution and fires have all increased, he said. The cleanup crew found numerous discarded hypodermic needles at the site. Businesses and Brockton residents near Tent City frequently complained of vandalization and disturbances.
Yazwinski said, “We can absolutely understand the dilemma that the city was under. Public safety needs to be the first priority for first responders, for people in the neighborhood and for people that were [in Tent City].”
However, he believes the majority of the people causing problems in Tent City were not long-term residents but people who stayed there for short periods of time. Yazwinski thinks the opiate crisis drove some outsiders to use Tent City as a hub for criminality, rather than the community it was for many years.
“It was a neighborhood, and they cared about each other and took care of each other,” Yazwinski said.
He said now that the most important step is to work on long-term strategies to get people off the streets, stressing the necessity of state funding and praising the city for its recent improvements in communication with homelessness advocates.