The director of the city’s Coordinated Response Team for the Mass. and Cass Crisis was on hand for the Wednesday, Nov. 2, meeting of Chester Square Neighbors, which was held virtually.
Tania del Rio, who has been in the position since June and asked to appear at a CSN monthly meeting, said the response to the ongoing public health crisis at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, known as “Mass. and Cass,” is a joint effort comprising 12 city departments in “constant collaboration” with outreach and safety organizations, including the Newmarket BID (Business Improvement District), the Pine Street Inn, Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), Ware Security, New England Security, and the Boston Medical Center, among others.
Components of this coordinated response include harm reduction, public safety, housing, and street cleaning, she said.
“We’ re making a point of making ourselves accessible and want to make sure the neighborhood is updated as much as possible,” said del Rio, who added that she spends around 90 precent of her working hours at the intersection of Mass. and Cass, where she “directs traffic, so to speak.”
A $6.9 million investment in substance abuse services will help subsidize two low-threshold day spaces – the Boston Living Center in Back Bay and the Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury; increase street outreach in Nubian Square and East Boston; and expand work opportunities for people experiencing substance abuse, said del Rio.
Unlike a traditional shelter situation, low-threshold spaces offer a harm-reduction approach with lower barriers for admission, particularly in regard to substance use.
The low-threshold response comes in response to the proliferation of fentanyl, said del Rio, which has a shorter “high” than the typical eight hours from heroin use, or as opposed to the long-lasting effects of alcohol, which was originally the most common substance abused in shelters.
“Low-threshold is a good model for people to leave a crisis situation and step into treatment and a more-stable situation,” said del Rio, who added that the 200 units of low-threshold housing created in the city were just about equal to the number of people living at Mass. and Cass on Jan. 12 of this year, when the city dismantled encampments in the area. (More than 70 people have been permanently housed in less than a year, she said.)
The low-threshold housing was created via one-time ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding, said del Rio, while the city is “now working hard to find permanent funding for these units.” There is currently a wait list in the city for low-threshold units, she added.
“Outreach strategies” must also be improved, she said, including changing how shelters are typically run to make them more like low-threshold beds.
The city is also providing regular van service from Mass. and Cass to six day-shelter spaces that offer food, showers, and a place of respite, as well as assistance with housing and additional support, said del Rio.
Looking ahead to winter, del Rio said the city would likely create more indoor space, as it did with the Misting Center over the summer, which could perhaps come via increasing the capacity of the Engagement Center at 24 Atkinson St.
The Engagement Center is accepting clothing donations for those at Mass. and Cass, she added, with gloves, hats, clean underwear, and coats all in particularly high demand.
Arrests have increased from last year by about 81 percent at Mass. and Cass, but as del Rio said, “Law enforcement is a key part of the answer, but it will not solve everything.” She added that those arrested at Mass. and Cass are often back on the streets in just a couple of days.
Despite the prevalent drug use at Mass. and Cass, fewer fatal overdoes are reported there than at private homes throughout the city, where drug users are at a higher risk of not being seen during an overdose incident when Narcan could be administered to them to revere the effects, said del Rio.
If someone sees someone in need of outreach or support, or if they see a discarded syringe, del Rio encourages them to notify the city by calling 3-1-1 but advises residents to call 9-1-1 in the event of an emergency.
As for her “vision for the city,” del Rio said she hopes Boston can reach a level where anyone who is interested in treatment can access it quickly and easily, and where the city can also “close the housing gaps.”
For more information on the city’s response to the ongoing public health crisis at Mass. and Cass, including the latest data, visit www.boston.gov/masscass.
In another matter, CSN members in attendance voted unanimously to help with the Mass. Ave. Coalition’s continuing holiday decorating in the neighborhood, and to match individual donations up a total of $250 towards this effort.