Getting the concentration of human services spread out beyond the South End has been a key part of the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA) for several years now as the opioid epidemic has worsened, and Tuesday night’s meeting was highlighted by a long discussion of what is going on with that – whether working with community health centers on safe needle programs or confronting state facilities about dropping people in Boston.
The spotty progress of decentralization efforts by the City has been well-documented, and the tough stuff of that issue is that no one else in the City or state typically wants to absorb the problems brought to the South End by some clients of those services. On Tuesday night, City officials Gerry Thomas, of the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND), Kim Thai, Mass/Cass 2.0 director, and Jen Tracy, of the Office of Recovery Services, appeared at the WSANA meeting for more than an hour to update neighbors about the ongoing battle.
Thomas gave an interesting update on what they’re doing to prevent the prisons and mental health facilities in other parts of the state from dropping off clients in Boston – a practice that has been common in the past and one Mayor Martin Walsh has been vocal about ending.
“What we do is we have a triage team when any person or organization discharges someone to our shelter,” said Thomas. “We’ve had in years past people barely able to walk and in a wheelchair left outside the shelter door at 112 Southampton or Woods-Mullen. It is our job to provide shelter, but they have to make sure they have exhausted every other avenue before discharging here. We’re trying to shore that up and make sure there are services in other parts of the state, instead of just discharging to us. It is a work in progress.”
She cited 91 diversions in this category that have taken place during the COVID-19 pandemic, but at the same time she said of the 5,000 new shelter guests logged last year, probably 60 percent weren’t from Boston.
She said they have had very direct conversation with state agencies like the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), Department of Public Health (DPH), Department of Mental Health (DMH) other others about this issue.
“We have said there needs to be help getting more social services to go to so everyone isn’t coming to Boston because there is a dearth of services elsewhere,” she said.
So far, there have been victories in Worcester County and western Massachusetts, but there is still “weakness” on the South Shore, Lowell and in Middlesex County – unfortunately the areas mostly contributing Mass/Cass infiltration.
Tracy detailed a lot of the work that is going on right now with community health centers – one area where many hope needle exchanges and harm reduction services can be located and more easily accessed, as opposed to having one main facility in the South End.
She said they have identified six to 10 health centers outside the South End that might participate.
“There are a lot of pieces coming into play, but we are currently working with six and 10 community health centers,” she said.
Tracy also detailed some new needle exchange services, including a mobile van by Victory Programs that serves Dorchester and Mattapan, and Project Trust by Boston Medical that’s working in Egleston Square.
The shortfall, however, is that some wanted detailed numbers about how many needles are being given out at AHOPE on Albany Street – which is around 75,000 a month – versus the newer programs.
A heated exchange with President George Stergios highlighted that frustration.
“We’re not getting numbers, and we don’t know,” he said. “This could be a good thing and we could be very happy. We need numbers to know.”
“The numbers aren’t collected in that way,” said Tracy.
“They should be collected that way if you want transparency and results,” said Stergios, clearly frustrated with the report.
Meanwhile, Member Bob Minnocci said he felt the news delivered was positive.
“It feels positive to me,” he said. “It seems more focused and sharpened. It’s the most positive I’ve seen in months, or years perhaps.”
By and large, most wanted to get in-depth information on the needle exchange and harm reduction efforts in Worcester Square and the rest of the City. Experts on that are going to be invited to an upcoming meeting, said Vice President Desi Murphy.