WSANA gets update on needle-buyback pilot

During the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association’s Feb. 23 meeting, which was held virtually, Steve Fox, moderator of the South End Forum, provided information on the needle-buyback pilot program now underway in the South End and Newmarket.

The Community Syringe Redemption Program, which launched Dec. 14 and “has a month left to go,” Fox said, is funded by RIZE Massachusetts, an independent nonprofit working to end the state’s opioid epidemic. 

Every weekday morning during the pilot’s hours of 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., a van is parked on Atkinson Street and serves as the base of operations. Individuals, who must enroll with the program upon their first visit, said Fox, then fan out around the areas of Clifford Park, Newmarket and Orchard Gardens to collect discarded syringes. They are paid 20 cents each per needle, Fox said, and there’s maximum daily payout of $10 to each participant. (Safeguards are also in place, Fox added, to ensure that participants don’t simply sell back syringes distributed free of charge at the nearby AHOPE needle distribution center.)

Once the needles are collected at the van, they are sterilized at an “OCEA-approved temperature,” Fox said, and then they’re shredded as “non-hazardous household waste.” This method of shredding the syringes on site in the van, said Fox, is, to the best of his knowledge, the only of its kind in the U.S.

Since its inception, 422 individuals have participated in the program, Fox said, and together, they have collected around 101,000 needles.

Additionally, 400 needles were typically left on the street in the target area each day before the launch of the pilot program, Fox said, but since then, that number has dwindled to 20 needles each day.

The cost to operate the van is around $21,000 a month, which is funded by RIZE, said Fox, and if the program were to expand, they’d “be looking at a similar cost.”

Besides serving as a needle-collection site, the van also distributes masks and Narcan, as well as fentanyl strips, said Fox, to help determine how much of that drug is still on the street.

“The way forward would be to make this a public-private partnership,” Fox said. “This has been so successful we can’t let it go.”

Despite the pilot program’s apparent success, WSANA Vice President Desi Murphy pointed out that AHOPE is still collecting 10,000 to 12,000 used needles each day, and that fewer needles are typically left on the street during cold weather. “Nevertheless, I’m very happy with it,” he said of the pilot.

In another matter, Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, discussed her organization’s efforts to create a business improvement district (BID) covering Newmarket and stretching into the South End.

A BID, said Sullivan, is an area “where commercial property owners in particular area decide that no matter what city or town does, more needs to be done” by pitching in to pay for additional services. For Newmarket, this could mean improved safety and security, as well as clean streets, she said.

Today, there are 2,000 BIDs nationwide, with 86 in New York City alone, Sullivan said, but Massachusetts currently only has nine, with Central Square in Cambridge being the last one established to date.

The annual cost to operate the Newmarket BID is estimated at $3.5 million, according to Sullivan, who has arrived at a formula to calculate payments from individual business owners, as well as from landlords of rental properties and, to a lesser extent, from nonprofits.

The Newmarket Business Association already has $100,000 in its budget to launch this initiative, said Sullivan, and its offices would be transformed into the Newmarket BID’s business office.

If established, the Newmarket BID would roll its additional services out in three phases due to cost, Sullivan said, and its initiatives would include shuttle service running every 15 minutes from 5 am to midnight, from Broadway, Andrew Square and Mass Avenue stops on the T’s Orange Line; the hiring of eight to 10 people for street cleanup on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and a two two-man patrol cars offering rapid response and assistance, 24/7.

The Newmarket BID would also pay the wages for four to six additional outreach workers, said Sullivan, “because while the city has outreach workers out there, frankly it’s not enough.”

Moreover, the city would be stakeholders in this program in two ways – by sign memorandum saying no city services would be decreased, Sullivan said, and by paying into the street-cleaning expenses, since they own a lot of land in the district.

The Newmarket BID has already garnered 400 signatures in support of the effort.

“I’ll have the [necessary] signatures in the next month or so,” she said, “so I need to button things up soon.”

While there is overall support for the proposal, Murphy of WSANA advised Sullivan to talk further with the South End Business Association to settle on the Newmarket BID’s boundaries, which is currently a matter of dispute.

During the meeting’s final agenda item, Mike Nelson, a member of the city’s Mass/Cass 2.0 Task Force, provided an update on the efforts to open public restrooms in that neighborhood.

Councilor Frank Baker has voiced his support for brining a mobile-bathroom pilot program to the neighborhood, said Nelson, although its would-be location, its hours of operation and its eventual stewards remain uncertain at this time.

“Councilor Baker wants Public Works to be in charge of it,” Nelson said. “I’m sure Public Works wants nothing to do with it. We’re not privy to those conversations.”

Nelson added, “I don’t think there’s any money in the budget. The fact of the matter is they don’t have a location…and they’re trying to figure out how to staff them.”

This initiative has been “slow-moving,” said Nelson, who expressed concern that if it not implemented by the spring or summer, it would exasperate the neighborhood’s public defection problem, just as it did last year. 

To measure the proposed program’s efficacy, Nelson suggested looking at the number of 3-1-1 calls regarding public defecation.

Nelson also suggested that restrooms could be moved from place to place so not to become a “permanent fixture” in any one location while keeping the public apprised of its schedule.

Murphy of WSANA said while those in attendance were generally in support of the idea, concerns still need to be addressed regarding the proposed restroom’s location, staffing and hours of operation, among other unanswered questions.

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