Dedicating more City employees to the South End and spreading out needle exchange services are two key elements in a new plan to address the opioid epidemic at Mass/Cass, a plan previewed on Tuesday by Health Chief Marty Martinez to the South End Forum Opiate Working Group.
The synopsis of the plan given to the Working Group was very well received by many neighbors and providers.
The Mass/Cass 2.0 has been in the works for about six weeks, championed by Mayor Martin Walsh in response to a spiraling problem for vulnerable addicted populations and neighbors in the Worcester Square and Newmarket areas. It was perhaps the worst summer for quality of life in a string of bad summers, and the mayor had focused heavily on coming up with a new plan that would align services, departments and bring more resources to the situation.
The full, 15-page plan is scheduled to come out in full today, Oct. 3. It was crafted, Martinez said, with virtually every City department at the table, and with Mayor Walsh in attendance many times as well.
“There’s no silver bullet for any of this work,” said Martinez. “You’re not going to open up this plan and see this big shiny thing we haven’t done before. It will be a clear pathway and have three clear goals that include Public Health, Public Safety and Quality of Life.”
An irony in the 2.0 plan is that there was never any 1.0 plan, but rather many City and private agencies coming together separately, and in recent times collaboratively, to try to combat the problem. One of the key parts of the plan internally in City Hall is to align all of the departments – including Police, Fire, EMS, DPW, Public Health and Recovery Services. That effort will also include working with the state and private providers to make sure there is not overlap, and to understand all of the services that are present on the corridor.
Beyond that, for residents, a key part of the plan will be to station “boots on the ground.”
That will include the Police bike unit being dedicated to the South End, more police at fixed posts (in cruisers and walking a beat), more dedicated street outreach workers, a dedicated seven-day-a-week EMS Squad 80 crew and more dedicated DPW personnel to the area.
“In each goal, not only are they talking resources, but also they are talking about dedicated resources,” said Martinez. “We were always pulling resources and trying to adjust operations to address these issues. Now, we’re talking about 21-plus City employees that are boots on the ground in this area. They may have been in the area before, but they were not dedicated like they will be now.”
Dep. Chief Michael Stratton from the Boston Police said he has received several more dedicated officers for his addiction and homelessness unit, and they have increased their productivity exponentially in the last two weeks.
Popular among those at the Working Group was the announcement that the City will immediately begin to de-centralize the AHOPE needle exchange service on Albany Street.
“We are currently working right now to locate three different sites outside the neighborhood for needle exchange,” he said. “We have work to do, but we’re in conversations with partners and with the state…We need to make sure people have access to that service in other neighborhoods.”
They will also be adding more low-threshold centers for people to go to in the day and night. That, he said, would not include establishing more Engagement Centers such as exists on Southampton Street in Newmarket. It will include working with other existing providers to leverage existing services so that places are available at a low-threshold (meaning people don’t have to be searched or get rid of things like syringes).
“We’re not looking to create Engagement Centers in other neighborhoods,” he said. “We would have trouble with that. We’re trying to open up existing capacity at places where these services exist. We need decentralization of services and that’s important and we’re working toward that.”
A key piece of the plan is also to use metrics and statistics to measure the work that is being done. Every time a person is put into recovery, that will be logged in, and every engagement on the street will be tracked. All of that and more will be kept on a new public website and dashboard that will act as a central board for City departments and for the public.
Without keeping metrics of what they’re doing, he said, there would be no way to figure out if what is being done is effective.
“We’re not going to keep doing things just because we’ve always done them even if they don’t work,” he said. “Everything will be measured and the data analyzed.”
Many neighbors in the audience were pleased, as were some City officials, including State Rep. Jon Santiago and Councilors Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu.
“I’m as close to being wowed as I can be,” said Bob Minnocci, of the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Council (WSANA).
WSANA President George Stergios said he was pleased with the plan, but felt like it was five years too late.
“I’m very glad to hear about all of this, especially decentralization,” he said. “The boots on the ground though comes five or six year too late. When they centralized the needle exchange in 2014, they should have had boots on the ground. If we had it then, we wouldn’t have the anarchy we have there now.”
Forum Moderator Steve Fox said it was an exciting roll-out and one that the Working Group played a big part in over the past five years.
“In the five years this Working Group has been in existence, this is one of the more exciting times because it means we have the opportunity to finally address a lot of issues we have been really serious about,” he said. The City plans to roll out the plan on Thursday and Friday to the public.