WSANA, President Wu Spar Over Safe Injection Sites

By Seth Daniel

Council President Michelle Wu confirmed that she is in favor of Safe Injection Sites (SIFs), but is not in favor of any particular site – though she stopped short of completely ruling out putting one in the South End.

SIFs are supervised locations where intravenous drug users can legally use illegal drugs under the supervision of clinical staff. They are illegal in the United States, but a movement in the medical community recently has pushed to examine them as part of the solution to the epidemic in Massachusetts.

The discussion came at a meeting of the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA) on Tuesday, where Wu and Councilor Annissa Essaibi George appeared for a conversation that quickly turned to priority number one in WSANA – the opiate epidemic.

Most in the neighborhood, including WSANA officials and South End Forum Moderator Steve Fox, have been against SIFs and believe that there is an eventual push to locate one in the Mass/Cass area.

That conversation around SIFs quickly surfaced during Wu’s commentary to the Association.

She said she is in favor of the idea of SIFs, but considers the location of such facilities a totally different discussion.

“Am I opposed to it – no,” she said. “That is a philosophical thing and is a separate conversation than the siting of it. The conditions here are not sustainable for residents living here.”

When pushed further, she said again, “Philosophically, do I think we should oppose (them) – no. We’re still a long way off in terms of federal and state law changes. The siting question will be important after that.”

Many WSANA members continue to be concerned about the views of SIFs and the idea to locate one near Boston Medical Center (BMC), in what is unpopularly known as Methadone Mile and more popularly known as Recovery Road. Whatever the name for the area, it has been swamped with addiction and homelessness issues for multiple years, and residents are worried that a SIF could really exacerbate the problem.

“Some of us have panicked on this because we know it eventually is coming to Massachusetts,” said Vice President Bob Minnocci. “We know the people pushing it like Boston Health Care for the Homeless, who are good people and do good work, are going to push to get it near BMC to get it close to the population that they think needs it.”

He and others pushed Wu to commit to not supporting any SIF within one mile of BMC. She said she couldn’t do that, though she could probably reach that position in time.

“No,” she said. “It’s not something I can commit to now. I would be more likely to eventually end up at that position, but not before knowing what it would be like. I feel it would be irresponsible to have that position now. I will commit to continuing to not turn a blind eye to this area. We are making plans to walk the area and that’s because I want to see it firsthand and not just hear about it from others.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Councilor Essaibi George said she is fully against SIFs and against siting anything like it in the South End. As the co-chair of the Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health and Recovery, she said she arrived at that position long ago.

“SIFs have been functioning a long time and have not made a dent in the problem,” she said. “I don’t think we need to regurgitate old ideas and have them not work here. We need to be new and innovative. I am opposed to them and I think they just normalize drug use…Notwithstanding it’s against state and federal law right now.”

There is no doubt that the past summer’s situation on the Mass/Cass Corridor, which was arguably the worst situation for addiction and homelessness there in the last three years. At the WSANA meeting, the problem has become a frequent topic as residents have become quasi-experts on treatment initiatives and have also worn thin on their sympathies as the City and state struggle to keep up with the growing quality-of-life issues.

President George Stergios said he believes SIFs would cause a new community of users to develop and stay in order to use the SIF multiple times in a day.

“They won’t shoot up and go home and shoot up and go home,” he said. “They’re not going to do that. That’s a lot to ask of anyone…I think once you’ve exhausted all options, maybe that’s something you do. I just don’t think we’ve exhausted all the options. Let’s do the proven things first, especially in this area where we can’t stand any more of the experimentation.”

Neighbor Peter Sanborn lives right in the heart of the problem on Harrison Avenue. He said he believes the elected officials are concentrating too much on helping those on the streets, and not enough on the neighborhood.

“I live at the epicenter of this problem and it’s intolerable,” he said. “The elected officials are approaching this from a wrong perspective. Other agencies are going to be the proponents for the people suffering from addiction. It’s your responsibility as an elected official to make the neighborhood and those affected by this the first priority.”

On a separate note, Essaibi George said her committee is ready to flex its muscles at the State House, and Wu said she backs that up as well – saying the Council needs to have more follow up on Beacon Hill for matters affecting the City.

Essaibi George said she is convinced that part of the solution is to dilute the problem, making sure the suburban towns – she often cited Shrewsbury – are paying their fair share. According to statistics at the City’s homeless shelters, more than 50 percent of those coming to the area are from outside of Boston.

She said her Committee is getting ready to receive state data from the methadone clinics in the area that will tell where every client is coming from. With that, she said they have a very strong case for new initiatives.

“Those numbers will really help us back up that message at the State House,” she said. “Maybe what we can do is say to Shrewsbury that they sent 11 people in a calendar year to get services in Boston, and maybe they need to reimburse us for the costs of those 11 people. That’s one idea.”

In the end, those at WSANA on Tuesday night were in need of action. Many said there needs to be a huge response to the issue if it’s going to be solved. There is a continually growing frustration that such a response may not come.

“We need to get everyone together on the same page for something really big,” said Robert George. “When we have wars, we all get together. This is killing more people than some of the wars we’ve been in.”

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