WSANA ‘Desperate’ for a Solution, Gives Tacit Approval to Engagement ‘Tent’

By Seth Daniel

While the name has changed several times during the rollout (from The Tent, to the Low-Threshold Center to the current Engagement Center), Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA) members said they are desperate for something to relieve the sharp edge generated by so many addicts and homeless individuals that continue to flood the charming neighborhood at record numbers.

WSANA President George Stergios said after the Tuesday meeting that the neighborhood is “desperate” and “fed up,” and while it might not relish the idea, it’s willing to try something.

“I think no one is excited about it, but neighbors here are desperate to give them something to try to get them off the streets,” he said. “I don’t think it’s ever been as worse as it is now out there. With this, there is a sense that they’re doing something that could help. We are wondering that if it’s successful, will it bring more people here. That’s always the concern with anything they try. If it works out, will addicts on the Boston Common decide to come over to the South End.”

The Boston Public Health Commission, Mayor Martin Walsh and Jen Tracey of the Office of Recovery Services have been rolling out ‘The Tent,’ as it’s popularly referred to because it looks like a temporary tent, over the last month publicly and are touting it as an Engagement Center that would provide a place for individuals now on the street to go during the day. While there is no guarantee the addicts so often camped out on the sidewalk or the Mass/Cass grassy knoll would used the Tent, many officials are optimistic that the lure of services, snacks, water, bathrooms and less regulation than the shelters (which are open in the day, but require screening before entry) would bring people in off the streets.

The idea is to begin the Center in August and is located on Southhampton Street. It would be a six-month pilot that could be scrapped afterward if it proves unsuccessful or intrusive. The Center would be active only in the daytime hours, and would close in conjunction with the opening of the shelters for the night.

Newmarket Business Association has also given approval to the idea.

Mayor Martin Walsh said it’s one of several innovative ideas the City wants to try so they can address the situation.

“In Boston, we are working hard everyday to increase access to recovery services and develop innovative solutions to address this national epidemic,” he said. “Through a new six-month pilot program, we will open an engagement center during the day for individuals suffering from substance use disorders, where people can go to engage in an array of services and amenities. It is our hope that this space will contribute to the City’s larger continuum of treatment, and create a first step in the engagement that opens the door to harm reduction, treatment, recovery and support.”

Councilor Frank Baker told WSANA on Tuesday that while he isn’t supportive of some of the new ideas, including the Safe Injection Facility idea, he does support the Tent.

“They’re not going to let you shoot up or deal drugs in there and we need some ideas,” he said. “I think it could pay off. It’s a six-month pilot, so if it’s not doing anything, show us the numbers and we’ll have a chance to end it. I think it will pay dividends.”

Baker added that the City Budget has included 11 new full-time employees to staff the Tent and work in the Sharps team removing discarded needles.

The BPHC and Tracey have said the idea for the Tent came after meeting with the community, the police and other stakeholders. It’s meant primarily to get folks off the street, but also to become engaged in recovery programs.

The Tent would be located at 112 Southampton Street behind the the Shelter and would be for men and women. It is a place to get away from the foot traffic of the street, and there will be coffee, snacks, bathrooms and professional staff available. Street workers will be directing those on the streets in the area to the Tent.

BPHC officials said after looking for several areas to locate the space, they decided on the proposed location because it already exists, is low-cost to start up and has an entrance off the main road. It’s also close enough to the heart of the problem on the streets that individuals can be easily guided over to the facility by police or outreach workers.

They plan to revisit the idea with the community after the first of the year.

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