Hot off of a major $1 million victory in the House Supplemental Budget, freshman State Rep. Jon Santiago appeared at the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA) on Tuesday night to discuss the next steps.
Santiago announced the $1 million earmark for Mass/Cass in the House Supplemental Budget last week, noting that it still has to get through the Senate and Gov. Charlie Baker. The money would add to a $750,000 earmark promised by Gov. Baker to Mayor Walsh earlier this year – making a total of $1.75 million in state funds potentially set aside for implementing the Mass/Cass 2.0 plan.
“I thought we would get some money, and I talked with other state representatives and the Speaker about getting more money for Mass/Cass,” he said. “In the supplemental budget, we were able to get a $1 million earmark. It has to go to the State Senate and to the governor. He can veto is, but we have enough votes to override it. I’m really optimistic we’re going to get a good chunk of money from the state legislature to implement Mass/Cass 2.0.”
Santiago called for the earmark in his first speech on the floor of the House, making a case that this is a statewide issue – something that many in the neighborhood have been proclaiming for years.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to address this hard-hit area – a neighborhood that has become the epicenter of the opioid epidemic,” said Rep. Santiago on the floor of the House. “To put it quite plainly, this bill’s $1 million investment to increase comprehensive public health services will not only save lives, but will extend a lifeline to an embattled community.”
Santiago told WSANA on Tuesday that he has found the House is a world of hundreds of competing interests. Convincing everyone to vote for your issue can be quite difficult.
“It’s a group of competing interests and it’s all about relationship building,” he said. “There are 160 state reps and you want $1 million for your district. You are just one vote. You have to convince 160 people that Mass/Cass is the most important area and more important than their area. You make a case and that’s what I did, and they agreed.”
There were some concerns from the group that more state money would lead to new services and more people coming for those services.
“If this is to fund more services with more state money, well we don’t want that here,” said Fernando Requena.
Santiago said he has the same concerns, but he is convinced it is simply to provide more outreach and to implement the additional response from DPW and the Boston Police.
“This is not expanding services,” he said. “This is not putting up another homeless shelter or another Methadone Clinic. The purpose is to implement the Mass/Cass 2.0 plan and the four points they have laid out, and one of those points is quality of life.”
In a press release, Santiago indicated funds will be used to support increased mobile street teams to connect those impacted by substance use disorder and homelessness to community providers. Additional monies will fund the STEP program, a substance use recovery program that utilizes wrap around services including a seamless treatment path, job training, and intense case management. Finally, resources will be provided for the expansion of women’s drop-in centers to reduce sexual exploitation and implement low-threshold programming to meet the unique needs of women with substance use disorder.
“The evolving addiction and homelessness crisis faced in the South End and Newmarket neighborhoods cries out for the resources and solutions to deal with a real epidemic,” said Steve Fox, moderator of the South End Opioid Working Group. “Representative Santiago’s tireless efforts to educate and enlist the support of his fellow legislators to bring new and crucial resources to the epicenter of this epidemic cannot be understated. In Jon’s short tenure so far, he has proven to be the real deal, a neighborhood champion, someone who understands what we need, then goes and gets it.”
WSANA Vice President Desi Murphy said the earmark is a step in the right direction, especially since it is money coming from the state and not the City.
“Leveraging state funding to put more boots on the ground, help homeless individuals, and expand innovative pilot programs is something the community has been calling for,” said Murphy. “It is an encouraging step in the right direction.”
President George Stergios said he is supportive of implementing Mass/Cass 2.0, and encouraged by the funding, but his frustration lies in the timing.
“This is what they should have done five or six years ago when they expanded the needle exchange on Albany Street and brought in two homeless shelters here,” he said. “All the things we had here, there should have been a major police presence like we have now from the beginning five or six years ago.”
If passed, Santiago said it would be a one-time budget expenditure, and they would have to fight for that funding again next year.
That got to the idea of sustainability – and whether or not the City can afford to continue spending so much money to implement their program.
“I’m concerned about the sustainability,” said Peter Sanborn. “There’s been a marked improvement here, but we are concert about if it will continue.”
Said Santiago, “A lot of our hearts are in the right place. It’s frustrating and difficult. We’ve all underestimated how difficult solving this would be. I’m excited that Mass/Cass 2.0 is there. Is it going to save the South End and Roxbury? Maybe one day, but we have a lot of work to do.”