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Progress report on Melnea Cass/Mass Ave. 2.0 strategic plan released

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Mayor's Office

Plan continues to guide the City's work to connect those struggling with substance use disorder to services, while ensuring public safety and quality of life for everyone

Mayor Martin J. Walsh today released a progress report on the Melnea Cass/Mass Ave 2.0 Strategic Plan, aimed at addressing the opioid crisis in Newmarket Square and surrounding areas, which has intensified with the COVID-19 pandemic and the high number of individuals seeking health care and shelter. The report marks progress in short-term and long-term strategies that guide the City's work on public health, public safety and quality of life issues that impact individuals who are struggling, and their surrounding communities. 

"This report details the strides we have already made in accomplishing the goals of the Melnea Cass/Mass Ave 2.0 plan, which has required the work of many partners who have dedicated their time, resources and expertise to help us meet our goals," said Mayor Walsh. "This report also discusses the ways in which the COVID-19 public health emergency has exacerbated existing inequities and presented new challenges. As we continue to battle the pandemic, we are providing supportive services for individuals struggling with substance use disorder, while also implementing public health and safety measures to improve quality of life for the entire Boston community."

Responding and recovering from the COVID-19 public health emergency

The COVID-19 pandemic represented sudden challenges, such as closure of daytime services, reduced access to treatment and shelters, increased releases from jails and prisons, closure of courts, reduced options for public safety interventions, and closure of public restrooms and access to bathrooms, which led to coordinated efforts within the Coordinated Response Team, representing many City departments, to quickly address them.

All City services remained operational during the public health emergency with adaptations made to programming to maintain physical distancing and ensure public safety measures. This includes greatly expanded outdoor space at the Engagement Center (located behind the 112 Southampton Shelter) to maintain guest capacity, the addition of six handwashing stations in Downtown Boston, the shifting of outpatient services to telehealth, and implementation of additional COVID-19 screening, testing, and infection control measures at shelters and residential programs. 

Collaboration with the State, Partners Healthcare, Ascension, Boston Health Care for the Homeless, and others led to the creation of 1,000 beds for COVID-19 patients at the Boston Hope Medical Center: 500 for homeless individuals and 500 for hospital overflows. The Boston Medical Center opened the East Newton Pavilion to create an additional 250 beds for COVID-19 patients. The City secured universal testing for shelter guests on two-week intervals, led by Boston Health Care for the Homeless as the clinical partner and in coordination with the Boston Public Health Commission, St. Francis House, and the Pine Street Inn. Guests who test positive for COVID-19 receive the care and support needed to recover and individuals who test negative are placed in designated areas to allow for better physical distancing. 

Through the creation of the Boston Resiliency Fund, Mayor Walsh and the Boston Resiliency Fund Steering Committee raised $33.3 million and awarded nearly $25.9 million to 340 organizations who are working to increase access to medical care, food access, and technology for remote learning. Many of these organizations work in the Mass/Cass area, including Boston Health Care for the Homeless, Pine Street Inn, Boston Medical Center, and the Greater Boston Food Bank. In partnership with the Resiliency Fund and RIZE Massachusetts, critically important funds COVID-19 Rapid Response Grants were awarded to residential substance use treatment providers in Boston. These grants have helped treatment providers continue to provide crucial services to those struggling with substance use disorders. 

The Mass/Cass Task Force continues to plan and reevaluate the services and resources available after COVID-19 in order to ensure ongoing and uninterrupted coordination, and engagement and providing pathways to substance use disorder treatment and housing. 

Coordinating, communicating and aligning services 

Since the launch of the strategic plan, coordination and communication between internal agencies has improved regarding the day-to-day and long-term strategic planning on the Mass/Cass area. The Coordinated Response Team, representing many City departments, was operationalized and has enabled greater consistency in implementing new programming and greater efficiency of resources.  

In addition, a 25-member Task Force composed of community leaders, non-profit partners, institutions, residents, business owners, and elected officials, all of whom are stakeholders in the Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue area, was established. The Task Force meets monthly to continue a productive dialogue with diverse stakeholders, increasing the transparency of city-wide efforts towards combating the opioid and homelessness crisis, and offering real-time perspective to policy shapers and service providers alike.

"Since we come from different backgrounds, the members of the Task Force offer unique and different perspectives on the impact of the opioid epidemic and challenges presented by COVID-19," said City Councilor At-Large Annissa Essaibi George. "From building a permanent Engagement Center to increasing the presence of outreach workers, the progress report for the Mass and Cass plan represents feedback from stakeholders directly impacted and involved. With the onset of COVID-19, this work is urgently needed and I look forward to continuing to collaborate with city officials and community members throughout the Task Force."

To help raise public awareness of the collective efforts in the area, the City launched a dedicated website that outlines the City of Boston's strategy to address these issues. The website includes a data dashboard with City metrics within 0.75 miles of the Mass/Cass intersection and a map with all resources in the area. These will be actively maintained with updates, and new and existing data sources will be leveraged to better understand the impact outside the area. 

Connecting those struggling with substance use disorder with resources and recovery 

In an effort to reduce overdose risk and infectious diseases, the City's Post Overdose Response Team (PORT) created programming which automates follow-up engagement with individuals who have recently experienced an overdose. The City employed a rotating Consumer Advisory Board to assist the Mayor's Office of Recovery Services in neighborhood outreach, syringe disposal, and engagement, and expanded the STEP Pilot program, which provides intensive case management, seamless treatment placements, housing supports, and recovery supports to chronically homeless individuals. Through a pilot program to develop individualized housing plans for chronically homeless individuals in Mass/Cass, the City has housed 162 individuals since January. 

Originally opened as a pilot space in August 2017 for individuals in need of a space to spend time during the day and get connected to the many housing and recovery services offered by partners in the Newmarket Square area, the City has been working to construct a permanent Engagement Center which will serve the same number of individuals to get off the street and connect with care. Construction is slated to begin this fall.

Focusing on quality of life issues for residents and businesses

The 2.0 Plan created a dedicated Public Works team to the Melnea Cass and Mass Ave area to provide daily street cleanings every day in the area, in addition to increased additional ground sweeps of Boston Public Health Commission, Parks & Recreation Department and Boston Public Schools properties. The City assigned street sweepers during the spring and summer months; coordinated cleanups with the Mobile Sharps Team, Public Works and the Boston Police Department's Street Outreach Unit, and weekly cleanups at the Reed Street bus stop. The City also expanded collaboration with Project Place to assist with cleaning up debris in the area. 

"One of the unsung but greatly appreciated resources that has made a difference at Mass and Cass is our dedicated Public Works folks," said Stephen Fox from the South End Forum. "For several months, dedicated resources and an aggressive plan to keep up with the volume of street debris, trash, and people on the streets and in our parklands has been a saving grace as we struggle with the crisis of addiction, homelessness, and mental health we see at Mass and Cass. In the city's most challenging environment requiring a multi-disciplinary approach to both the day to day and longer term, Public Works has been there to make a welcome and tangible difference; we both recognize and appreciate their key contributions." 

Boston EMS's Squad 80, which responds to incident call types with low frequency of transport was expanded to seven days a week, freeing up more ambulances and connecting more individuals to city services, including shelters and recovery programs. The Boston Fire Department created a Medical Response Area pilot program, a Delta 21 car staffed with two first responders/recovery coaches that responds to certain incident calls in the Mass Cass area three days a week. 

The number of street outreach workers through the Mayor's Office of Recovery Services was doubled to assist with harm reduction efforts in the neighborhoods and increase engagement. The plan also created a Boston Police Department Street Outreach Unit with the mission to promote community-based outreach to those affected by mental illness, substance use disorder and homelessness to connect individuals to services. 

Ensuring public safety for all residents by reducing criminal activity

In an effort to reduce criminal activity in the Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue area, the Boston Police Department and its Street Outreach Unit, and the Mayor's Office of Recovery Services, strategize deployments based upon assessments of hotspots of activity. Police districts D-4 in the South End, C-6 in South Boston, and B-2 in Roxbury created fixed posts as a method of strategic deployment to increase police presence in the area, and deployed the citywide bike unit into the Mass/Cass area. The Mayor's Office of Recovery Services and BPD are working together to increase opportunities for Crisis Intervention and Recovery Coach training for public safety officials. 

The BPD Street Outreach Unit was created, which currently includes five officers and one Sergeant under the direction of a Deputy Superintendent. Their mission is to promote community-based outreach through partnerships and collaboration to those affected by mental illness, substance use disorder and homelessness. They aim to connect these individuals to services before they engage in criminal activity or public disorder.  

The City of Boston will continue to work with community partners and civic associations to sustain initiatives, expand successful programming or services throughout the City, and develop new strategies to combat the impacts of homelessness, substance use disorder and the opioid crisis. Efforts will continue to focus on decentralization of services in the Mass Cass area and the development of new initiatives in other areas of the City to provide comprehensive care and resources to our most vulnerable populations.  

The City continues to make progress on the permitting of the Long Island Bridge in an effort to reestablish vehicular access for the planned Long Island Recovery Campus. By December 2018, the City had submitted applications for every local, state, and federal permit required to rebuild the Long Island Bridge. One of the remaining state permits is the Chapter 91 License from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. With its submission to DEP, the City has concluded the administrative completeness review for the Chapter 91 License and expects to receive that License shortly. Briefs filed in Suffolk Superior Court further ask for a reversal of the Quincy Conservation Commission's denial of a local permit for the Long Island Bridge. On August 27, 2020, the Court held oral arguments on the merits of Boston's challenge. Due to the complex legal and factual questions raised by the litigation, a decision could be expected within 30 days from the date of the hearing. 

For more information on the City's efforts on the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, please visit boston.gov/mass-cass.