Virtual Meeting Held to Discuss Ongoing Crisis at Mass. And Cass

The South End, Newmarket, Roxbury Working Group on Addiction, Recovery, and Homelessness held a virtual meeting Monday, Dec. 13, to discuss the ongoing public health crisis at Mass. and Cass, including Boston Medical Center’s plan to bring new homelessness/addiction services and temporary housing to the Roundhouse Hotel, as well as another plan to bring a “cottage community” to provide temporary housing for patients on the Shattuck Hotel campus.

Robert Koenig, executive director of strategic programs at BMC, said, as proposed, the hotel located at 891 Massachusetts Ave. in the heart of Mass. and Cass. would be leased for two years to accommodate a Transitional Care Center, a medically supported triage for patients referred by street outreach workers and shelter staff to Faster Paths at BMC to receive methadone; the Stabilization Care Center, which would provide space for patients with substance abuse disorder to stabilize and connect them with permanent housing and treatment; and 60 low-threshold transitional beds on the upper guest floors to be phased in over time.

Upon hearing the plan, Steve Fox, chair of the South End Forum, said many had suggested that the services as proposed would merely duplicate what already exists in the area at BMC and at Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. “Every time we move new services into Mass. and Cass, it ends up being permeant,” added Fox, pointing to the needle exchange program and the erstwhile comfort stations, among other services

Fox also expressed his frustration that the plan for new services makes no mention of the BMC Institutional Master Plan – a process that “looked at BMC in terms of space, building, and capacity” – while adding that the BMC has sufficient space for the new services in its existing buildings.

“To ask for a brand-new facility is pretty inconsistent with IMP process and personally disappointed me as someone who spent a lot of time on the process,” said Fox.

Yahaira Lopez of the South End-Roxbury Community Partnership also expressed her frustration with the current situation and said after advocating for more than a decade to improve the conditions, she said she “feels unsafe and feel like no one’s listening.” The ongoing crisis at Mass. and Cass, she added, has resulted in “constant car breaks” and has “robbed Black and brown communities of the ability to use local parks” due to the proliferation of drug use and other nefarious activity that has migrated there from the problem area.

“We’re duplicating services and wondering why we see an influx of individuals coming to this location,” said Lopez. “It’s not working, and we all know it’s not working, and we have individuals on Mass. and Cass who don’t want help – what are you going to do about that?”

Rep. Jon Santiago called the plan “a great idea” while also expressing concern about locating the services at Mass. and Cass, given the ongoing call to decentralize services there.

City Councilor Ed Flynn said the crisis at Mass. and Cass is also a “quality-of-life crisis” in that residents there are now afraid to walk down the street, and he said he wants to see a “major commitment” from both the city and the state to address quality-of-life issues in the affected communities.

In response to how the proposed services would differ from what’s there now, Dr. Miriam Komaromy, the Medical Director of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center, said these ones are “specifically geared to stabilizing people in the encampment now who have greatest challenges affecting them and haven’t been helped move out of area by existing services.”

Sue Sullivan, director of the Newmarket Business Association, however, disputed Dr. Komaromy’s assertion that afflicted individuals can’t get better without intervention and countered that a better solution would be to put a permanent end to the area’s open-air drug market.

“Until we stop open-air drug trade down here, nothing is going to change,” said Sullivan. “They’re not going to get better until that stops on the street here. We’re not getting to root cause of a lot if it, too, and we need to get the drugs off the streets.”

Likewise, George Gstergios, vice president of the   Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association, disputed the widely held belief that Housing First is the most-effective approach to getting people of the street and said once placed in Housing First, many of these individuals would continue to resort to petty crime to fuel their addictions. Instead, Gstergios said he believes a Treatment First approach would have a more effective outcome.

City Councilor Frank Baker also said he doesn’t agree with the Housing First model, and that he objects to the new services being located at Mass. and Cass.

Councilor Baker also said those who receive services at the Roundhouse would immediately leave the facility and step onto the streets of Mass. and Cass, where they likely be targeted by drug dealers.

“We can’t be any more clear – look somewhere else – and it’s falling on deaf ears,” said Councilor Baker, who also speculated that the services provided at the Roundhouse would likely become permanent once the two-year lease is up.

Domingos DaRosa, a Hyde Park resident and small business owner, asked for a timeframe on when BMC expected to begin providing services at the Roundhouse because, he said, “it already seems to be a done deal.”

Meanwhile, Fox outlined the state’s creation of  a “cottage community” to temporarily house patients on a small potion the grounds of Shattuck Hospital, with patients expected to move in beginning Dec. 20.

Work on the “cottage community,” which is being “built from scratch” using pre-fabricated structures with no existing infrastructure in place, got underway Nov. 30, said Fox, who called the project’s abbreviated timeline “pretty impressive.”

The “cottage community” will comprise 18 sleeping shelters, said Fox, with 12 one-bed shelters and five two-bed shelters, as well as three hygiene shelters equipped with showers and restrooms, a 4,000 square-foot community room, a security cabin, and a shared outdoor gathering space. It would also offer 24/7 security, which would ensure that patients don’t wander into adjacent Franklin Park, as well as to  and wraparound social and support systems during the day administered by Eliot Community Human Services, Inc., the contractor for the project.

The program also allows for easy expansion, said Fox, since the “cottage community” would only occupy a small portion of the hospital’s 13-acre campus, but the state wants to try it out first as a pilot program for a target period of 60 days.

This would be a first in Boston, but “cottage communities” have been successfully implanted in other cities and states, said Fox, who added that the model was  first used to provide temporary housing for oil workers in remote locations.

Fox also said he would like to see an inventory of properties owned by the state, Massport, and especially the Boston Planning and Development Agency “that could be easily converted into ‘cottage communities.’”

Just ahead of unveiling of her plan on Wednesday, Dec. 15, for addressing the ongoing public health crisis at Mass. and Cass, “with a focus on connecting those experiencing homelessness and living in tents into low-threshold, supportive housing and bolstering area residents and businesses,” Mayor Michelle Wu was also on hand for the meeting.

“The vison is this winter we will see a change in the situation there…with people connected to services and a very different experience for residents and business as well,”  said Mayor Wu, who added that once the area has been cleared on encampments, the city would put out a bid “to fix the streets to truly transform the area.”

Mayor Wu described this as a short-term solution to the problem and said that her team had met earlier that day at the Long Island rehab facility to survey the conditions of long-vacant buildings there, as well as to look at possible ferry service and other transportation options to access the site, as part of the medium- and long-term solutions.

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