Boston tends to be on the front of the curve for solving many issues when it comes to social problems, and with the release of the comprehensive new plan to battle the opioid epidemic at Mass/Cass, some are worrying that the City might be too good.
For some time Toni Crothall and Jonathan Alves, of the Blackstone/Franklin Square Neighborhood Association, have worried aloud that a comprehensive new investment will bring more people seeking services, and won’t provide an incentive for surrounding municipalities to step up with their own services.
“The surge is already happening; we’ve already experienced that,” said Alves. “It was manageable five years ago. You saw a little bit of this problem and then each summer it was more and more and more. Users will tell you – and I talk to them regularly – that they are directed to come here. They are told, ‘Go to Boston.’ We can be the leader and we can be the overflow, but we can’t be the only place. We just aren’t big enough to do it alone.”
Crothall said she has seen so many times in Franklin Square how the situation is spreading across the South End, and many of the people she engages come from outside the city. She even knows of one person that purposely came from California to seek out the services provided in the South End. It has become well known, she said, but that’s what worries her.
If the South End and the City become so good at what they do, there may be no need for others to do anything.
“I don’t think we can get to the end of this opiate crisis by placing everyone in one area where they can be preyed upon,” she said. “Make no mistake, there is no shortage of empathy in this neighborhood and all of us want to see them get well. You can see the hopelessness every day.
“It shouldn’t be political anymore,” she added. “No one need to stick their neck out to say this is a problem we all need to solve. That’s why it should be Gov. Charlie Baker who says we are going to solve this together – the whole state – and we don’t have a choice in the matter. That way no one is in some political discourse when they try to step up to solve this.”
There is some precedent for the idea of a surge.
Last year, when trying to create new resources to house chronically and other homeless populations, the City reported that just as they made progress, a surge of new people came into the city. The net gain seemed as if the City had done nothing, even though they had become historically good at helping the homeless get off the streets.
During the rollout of Mass/Cass 2.0, the City estimated they have spent $64 million in fighting the epidemic since 2014. That compared to other communities that have spent very little and in some cases have many residents show up for services in Boston. Mayor Martin Walsh has said a number of times that more than 60 percent of the people in the homeless shelters report an address outside of Boston.
Health Chief Marty Martinez said that is a hard problem to address. They don’t want an influx, but they also want to treat the problem that’s there and not turn anyone away.
“I think that’s a hard thing to answer,” he said. “Our goal is to not say, ‘Hey if you need treatment come to Melnea Cass and Mass Ave.’ That’s never been in our message. Our message has been you have service providers, resources and folks that will help you get well. If you need that, let us help you get that. We’re trying to address the issue that’s already there, not waving a flag and saying to people if you have these issues, you should come to this area. But, it doesn’t mean that when people come to this area and are sick and need help, that we don’t want to help them. We’re trying to make sure we improve the issues that exist while making sure people get access to what they need.”
Housing Chief Sheila Dillon said they won’t send people away from outside, but the will work with other municipalities to encourage them to have services.
“We’re not going to put everyone on a bus or tell people they have to leave,” she said. “But we also want to work with other leaders to make sure there are options in other cities and towns.”
Alves said the City is often the first at doing innovative things, and he said there are a lot of things in the 2.0 plan that are good. However, he said it’s time to scale that outside of Boston.
“We’re the first with many things,” he said. “We do a lot of things right, but this model that we’ve developed in Boston has to be deployed to the rest of the state because we are just overburdened.”
South End Forum Opiate Working Group Likely to Continue in 2.0
With the Mass/Cass 2.0 plan released by the City last week, there is a call for a 24-person Task Force led by the City that would meeting monthly. The Task Force would work on issues and get input from the community members, according to the City. For many in the South End, it sounded much like the existing South End Forum Opiate Working Group. That group has met for the past five years and has tackled many of the issues addressed in the 2.0 plan. In fact, a number of the solutions were hammered out in those monthly meetings. Health Chief Marty Martinez said he didn’t envision the Working Group dissolving at the hands of the Task Force. “That’s a community working ground in the South End,” he said. “This is a City-led task force. I assume the working group will continue in the South End, but this will be a City-wide effort that will probably also include members from that working group.”