Wednesday, February 1, 2023

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Engagement Center Finding Success Near Boston’s Troubled 'Mass and Cass'

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Tuesday, November 29, 2022   

Boston's 'Mass and Cass' area, with its large homeless population and open-air drug market, remains a trouble spot for city officials, but staff at the nearby Engagement Center say they are making inroads and helping drug-overdose survivors get the help they need.

Researchers interviewed 59 overdose survivors, more than half of whom were living on the street, to find out what was preventing them from getting treatment.

Jeff Desmarais, research and evaluation scientist at Institute for Community Health, said a lack of basic amenities, such as housing and access to a cell phone or proper ID, made a big difference, but that it also came down to a personal touch.

"Having staff that really care about folks and treat them with respect and dignity was one thing that folks were drawn to and helped them engage in and stay in care," Desmarais said.

More than half of Black and Latinx overdose survivors said they had encountered some form of discrimination in trying to access city health services. A lack of available treatment beds due to staffing shortages is also preventing people from getting clean.

The opioid epidemic, along with a lack of affordable housing and COVID, have all contributed to the increase in homelessness in the 'Mass and Cass' area. The Engagement Center offers the nearby population help to find housing, medical care, jobs, or even just a warm cup of coffee and a shower.

Yailka Cardenas, associate bureau director for recovery services with the Boston Public Health Commission, said some staff at the center have experienced addiction and homelessness themselves and can meet people where they are.

"No matter what they come to us with," Cardenas said, "we always try our very best to come up with a solution, and they feel very supported that even if we can't figure it out that day, we will figure something out for them within a timely manner."

Cardenas said personal relationships go a long way in helping people get clean, and that the Engagement Center can serve as a model for other day facilities serving similar populations. She said survivors, many of whom experience instability and trauma on a daily basis, report feeling safe and welcomed at the Engagement Center, which is the first and most important step in helping them change their lives.

Disclosure: Institute for Community Health contributes to our fund for reporting on Consumer Issues, Health Issues, Mental Health, Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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