A mobile van offering a needle exchange, addiction services, and other harm reduction programs has quietly taken up residence in the Fens over the past several months, shocking and frustrating some neighbors and bringing praises from other neighbors, as the community continues to struggle with the migration of the opioid epidemic to the Fenway from other parts of the city.
The CareZONE van is a program funded by the Kraft Center for Community Health and launched about two years ago. It has been in a pilot phase since then operating in the West End and Dudley Square, according to its website. However, it doesn’t mention expanding to the Fenway and it isn’t certain if there were approvals from the overall neighborhood or the City to allow the van to come.
One Fenway resident for more than a decade was shocked when she and others discovered the van operating in the Fens about a month ago. That coincided with them finding many more needles than usual in the parkland where they have walked for years.
“What they’ve done is created a little ecosystem here where everything is provided for them and I don’t see a lot of personal responsibility,” said the neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous. “They have found an ideal place here. They live in the reeds, which has been happening for some time, and the van comes to provide them services. For the first time since I moved here, I am afraid. I never was remotely scared to walk around before. With the increased activity now, I’m afraid to walk my dog at 7 p.m… You had your typical problems before, but nothing like what I’ve seen in the last six months to a year.”
However, others have a different take.
The CareZONE van has proven to be an aid to the community, according to Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services Fenway-Kenmore Liaison Yissel Guerrero and Pine Street Inn Director of Outreach Mike Andrick. At a Neighborhood Improvement Committee meeting on Jan. 17, Guerrero said that in working with Massachusetts General Hospital, they were able to put Fenway on the list for the CareZONE van.
She said they noticed the van was “able to have an impact over the summer” and they will “continue to work with them.”
Andrick said that through the work of the CareZONE van, in addition to the work of the D4 police, the Pine Street Inn, and the weather, the area around the Fens by the Victory Gardens is no longer active.
Elizabeth Bertolozzi, president of the Fenway Garden Society, said that she’s seen the van around the area of the Victory Gardens. She said that she and Vice President Rick Richter met Jim Greene of the Department of Neighborhood Development in May of 2018 to discuss their observations in and around the Victory Gardens regarding the issue of needles and the homeless population. She said they invited Greene on an “extensive walk-through” of the Gardens on May 21 of last year, and said that he told them how they could continue to provide details about things they were seeing in the Gardens, as well as how he could send additional services there.
“We understood from Jim that workers from the Pine Street Inn were coming down virtually every night to check on folks that might need services,” Bertolozzi said.
She added that Richter had also been speaking with representatives from the Boston Public Health Commission about needles that had been found in the Gardens and telling them what he had seen. He also discussed scheduling a workshop with BPHC about Needle Handling and Safety, Bertolozzi said.
“I don’t recall any public meetings [about the CareZONE van],” Bertolozzi said. “They seem to have taken up a presence there, and we talked about the work they were doing with the gardeners.”
Bertolozzi said that Richter saw the van parked on Agassiz Road and he told the doctors in the van about what he’d seen in the Gardens and encouraged them to come there.
“Soon after that, he mentioned he had seen the van parked on the service road on the southern side of the Gardens,” Bertolozzi said. “At the end of the day, although we can’t put a finger on all the details, we feel pretty certain Jim Greene and others in the City we talked to, along with Pine Street Inn, got the word out there was a need, and the CareZONE van showed up to provide services.”
Since the van began showing up, the anonymous neighbor said she and her friends have made a part-time job out of reporting needles to the City’s Mobile SHARPS team. She said they are very efficient at picking up the needles, but wonders why such sweeps aren’t included in the mission of the CareZONE van. “I feel despair,” said the neighbor. “It makes me sad because what they get – in what I’ve observed – isn’t anything that makes them try to stop. But I don’t feel like you can say that now because people will consider it a hate crime, that you don’t understand addiction…I honestly would have liked to know the van was coming before it did.”