By Seth Daniel
Several City officials appeared at the South End Forum on Tuesday night, June 6, to unveil a pilot low-threshold day center in a space on Southampton Street, a fabric structure that would have fewer restrictions than the shelters and would hopefully get some of the homeless and addicted off the Mass/Cass streets once the summer months hit.
Jen Tracey of the Office of Recovery Services told the Forum that the plan is just being rolled out publicly, though it has been talked about in the neighborhood rather extensively over the last month. The idea is to use a space that’s already available, she said, behind the Southampton Shelter in a fabric structure that was used as the cafeteria when Southampton was being constructed a few years ago. “In the last eight months we’ve been working with the Task Force here, we’ve heard from residents, businesses and community groups that there aren’t enough places for these folks to go during the day,” said Tracey. “We’ve been looking for space for them to go where they can be hydrated, be engaged but really get off the congestion in the Albany and (Mass/Cass) area. This is a pilot we’re we have identified space. It’s a very low-threshold service and it will be evaluated as we go on. We would bring information back to this group to see if we’re making an impact.”
She said the program would start out with accommodating about 30 people at 112 Southampton St. in the tent-like structure behind the Shelter. She said they would offer water, bathrooms, light refreshments, but showers and meals are not yet in the plan. It would be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and would then work with the Shelters in order to move people from one place to another.
There would be engagement as well with recovery and human services, and it would all be supervised – with a security plan still being conceived.
However, she stressed that it wasn’t a baby step towards a safe injection site, as has been rumored around the neighborhood in light of discussions about safe injection sites at the State House and the Massachusetts Medical Society.
“We won’t be building anything,” she said. “We have to make it welcoming and do some structural changes but we don’t have a lot to do. It’s a fabric structure. It’s not a tent…I want to be very clear this is not a safe injection site. It’s too distinct interventions.”
The idea was conceived after the boom in addicts, homeless and loiterers grew exponentially last summer in the area – after having grown more and more in an area that has historically been prone to such things. Last summer’s surge, plus the heat wave and drought, led to many addicts on the street becoming dehydrated and passing out. Neighbors found people using the bathroom on their property more than they already did.
Police struggled with the situation as during the day there was nowhere with a low-threshold to take those hanging out in the area.
One note of distinction is that both the Woods-Mullen Shelter and the Southampton Shelter are open all day long and available for people to go to. However, there are certain restrictions put on those entering that seems to keep a lot of loiterers away and on the street.
Much of it has to do with drug activity outside and security protocols at the shelter, but some more legitimate concerns are that the shelters are divided by the sexes – so couples have to leave one another to go inside.
The new day center would allow both sexes.
Barry Bock of Health Care for the Homeless said they have been giving input on the idea, as they realize something has to be done to get folks off the sidewalk, particularly in front of their building on Albany Street.
“We’ve had to hie three security officers so our staff can get in the building,” he said. “We’ve taken this police like approach, but there might be an alternative.”
Jim Greene, of the Department of Neighborhood Development, said there is a similar day center at St. Francis House downtown that attracts about 100 people a day.
“There are still homeless people downtown and also on the Boston Common,” he said. “However, that’s 75-100 people that are inside and not on the street.”
Councilor Frank Baker, who attended the Forum, said he has heard from his constituents for many years about people using the bathroom on their steps or their gardens. There was simply nowhere for them to go, and he said he supports the plan as a way to find folks a place to be in the day.
“I think the low-threshold is a good concept,” he said. “We’ve had so many complaints from people about these folks using their doorsteps as a bathroom. This would alleviate a lot of that we hope.”
There was no date for starting the day center announced, but it was believed that, after getting community input, the City would like to start it around July 1.
Forum Moderator Steve Fox said one very important aspect of the idea is that it is temporary. He said the South End is tapped out on services, and if this is successful, it should be located somewhere else.
“We going to have to have the same conversation again about location, location, location,” he said. “With this pilot going forward, it’s because the space is there. If it’s successful, we need to talk about having a bus service to take them to another location.”