Photo by Vancouver Coastal Health
Managers, officials, and task force members say we must save people from overdoses
(Somerville Wire) – The City of Somerville has hired the health center and research organization Fenway Health to work together on the project of opening a supervised safe consumption center, where people may use drugs in a safe, controlled environment and also access other supportive services. Last year, the City worked with researchers from Brown University to do a broad needs assessment, in order to figure out whether there was a demand for the site in Somerville, and in the fall, they put out a request to find someone to do the next phase of work. Fenway Health started work on the project in January 2022 and will be working through June, according to Carl Sciortino, who is managing the contract for Fenway Health. Their focus has been to find a site, which may be in Davis Square or East Somerville, and to develop conceptual design—figuring out a model and what policies need to be in place.
“We know from overdose data in the city that there’s activity here that really justifies why this is needed to save lives,” said Sciortino. “In terms of the program design, one of the most important things is that this is not just a place where people would go to use their pre-obtained drugs. That is what a supervised consumption site is at its core. But it’s also designed to have a set of wraparound services. So, we’re looking at how we integrate other services that address the real human needs, everything from housing and legal barriers, access to broader healthcare, infection control, as well as access to treatment services, to make sure that people, when they’re ready to get access to detox services, that they have an easy path to a whole range of services that would improve their health and quality of life.”
Somerville will no longer be the first city to have a supervised consumption site in the United States, as New York City opened two last year. But Sciortino added that opening a site could help save lives from overdoses, decreasing the public consumption of drugs in bathrooms, alleyways, or on the streets. He also acknowledges that there are disparities in overdose rates by race and gender lines, so services will be designed with the understanding that this is not a “one size fits all” situation. Some hours could be dedicated to women using drugs, while other programs could be configured to reach certain linguistic communities, like non-English speakers. Different communities will be kept in mind so that programming can be culturally competent. Legal issues are still being navigated: Sciortino referenced the Good Samaritan Law in Massachusetts, which protects people who call 911 during an overdose from being charged with possession of drugs. “We’re looking to pass state legislation that creates a similar framework around these kinds of programs and services, which are really not about enabling people to use drugs. It’s about people that are actually using drugs, getting them a space to use and not going to die on our streets,” said Sciortino.
Stephen Kelley is a member of the Supervised Consumption Site Task Force created by the City, and while he is not at a point in his life when he would use the site, because he said that he and his partner, when they do use drugs, are very sanitary and clean about the process, he would direct friends to visit the space, if it is built. Kelley said that he has overdosed many times in his life, and the most recent time happened two years ago. He took a speedball, a mixture of cocaine and heroin, without knowing what it was, and his husband had to revive him three times with Narcan. He believes that a supervised consumption site would be helpful for unhoused people and those seeking a supportive community, and he also added that he hopes the place would be non-discriminatory and inclusive of transgender people. Kelley mentioned that he has had to use Narcan on over 100 people in his life.
“A lot of them were friends, but a lot of them were also just random people on the street that I noticed,” said Kelley. “I can spot an overdose very far away. I would help them if needed. There’s always the test to see if they’re conscious or unconscious, and if there’s any doubt, Narcan doesn’t hurt to use. I never leave my house without Narcan on me.” He added, “There’s always some emotional stuff to it, because you never want to see someone die if there’s something you can do about it. But it’s just become such a day-to-day thing to me at this point; it feels like a routine.”
Mayor Katjana Ballantyne expressed that she would like to see a supervised consumption site come into being in Somerville. Creating such a facility is consistent with her belief in upholding inclusive policies as a leader in government.
“Opening a supervised consumption site in Somerville is about saving lives and removing the stigma around substance use disorder,” said Ballantyne. “We have families throughout Somerville mourning loved ones who died from an overdose and we can’t sit idly by. Research shows that supervised consumption sites prevent overdose deaths and lead more people into treatment. Providing compassionate care is one way to live up to our progressive values and make sure Somerville is a city where progress is for all. As we move forward on this work, I am committed to an inclusive community process that includes feedback from all stakeholders and takes into consideration the needs of people often left out of these conversations. We have an opportunity to lead our region toward life-saving solutions while also ensuring the model we select is right for our community.”
Councilor Matt McLaughlin said that we have lost an entire generation due to opioid use, and he has personally known many friends who overdosed and died. While he understands the concerns and fears that some have about having a supervised consumption site built in Somerville, he pointed to cities like Toronto and New York, where successful facilities have been established. With a well-designed space in place, we could help to save lives.
“I hear a lot of people say that they don’t want to see another Mass and Cass,” said McLaughlin. “And I point out that Mass and Cass presently exists. And it exists in every city in America; every city has this problem. So my perspective is that this is addressing a present situation, not trying to make the situation worse. I’m also not dismissive of people’s concerns, because this is a totally new idea, and there are potential pitfalls. We want to make sure this actually works and creates a safer environment.” He added, “The most important statistic is that there’s never been an overdose or death at a safe consumption site. It is preventing death. People are afraid that it’s encouraging drug use, but I don’t think anyone is going to walk past the safe consumption site and start using heroin. We’re dealing with people who have been using for a while, who are on their last ropes, and this is a life raft.”
This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service of the Somerville News Garden project of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.