Engagement Center Seen As Early Success for Organizers

By Seth Daniel

Whether it’s charging a phone, using the computer, having morning coffee with a partner, or even curling up with a book, the Engagement Center at Southampton Shelter – known around the neighborhood as the Tent – has proven to attract and help people get off of the streets during the daytime, City officials said on Friday afternoon during a media open house.

Devin Larkin, director of the Bureau of Recovery at the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC), joined several City officials to brief the media on how the Tent has been operating after three weeks. With the program being a pilot to help those dealing with addiction and homelessness stay off the street during the day, few knew what to expect. Having been repurposed from what was a former cafeteria for Southampton Men’s Shelter, the Tent was designed by the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and consists of a hodge-podge of activities and conveniences – as well as recovery services and medical services.

So far, Larkin said word has spread through the population that frequently takes up space on the street in the Mass/Cass area about the low-barrier Tent, and they’re responding.

The most they’ve had at one time is 52 people and 100 is the maximum capacity. In one day, they had 300 visits.

“News has spread by word of mouth and we are seeing people respond,” said Larkin. “You see people cramped and congested on the sidewalk. The sidewalk wasn’t meant for that. People on the street and in the neighborhood want folks to have to go during the day. They don’t want to drink their morning coffee on the sidewalk. They would rather have a place to go that is safe and comfortable. So far, it’s been very successful. People are coming in and we have a suggestion box. The feedback has been good.”

The Tent is a low-barrier space, meaning that the staff does not check people’s possessions as is done at the Shelters, which are open in the day. Unlike the shelters, no one asks someone to remove things or leave things behind. Instead, they can come and go, but the area is highly supervised and the BPHC Police are next door at the Shelter if needed.

“It’s free flowing,” said Larkin. “They are doing the things you would do every day if you were housed. They charge their phone, some use the art supplies, they read books, and a lot use the computers for job and housing applications. A lot of people use the phone too. It’s hard to be successful without these things. You can’t get a job or an application if no one can call you back. People coming here are a lot of the same faces we’ve seen a lot in the area. That is a way we have gauged the success.”

Outside the Tent is a courtyard with Port-a-Johns masked by climbing flowers, solving one major problem in the neighborhood – that being public urination and public defecation. There are also picnic tables on turf grass.

Inside is a unique setup that kind of resembles a library.

The open space has a work area on the left-hand side with meeting tables, computer terminals, a phone and other office supplies. On the right-hand side is a television and socializing area, complete with large cell phone charging outlets. In the front is a staff work station, and a coffee and water station.

In the back of the space is a quiet area containing books donated by the Boston Public Library.

“The books have been a real hit,” said Larkin. “They are very popular. We even let people take them at the end of the day to the shelter, and only ask that they bring them back.”

Visitors, she said, come from Pine Street Inn, Woods-Mullin Shelter, Southampton Shelter, Pilgrim in Dorchester, some are couch surfing with friends and need a day refuge, while others are living on the streets.

The Engagement Center is open Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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