Cambridge Opioid Working Group’s Report Proposes Solutions to Crisis

In late November the Cambridge Opioid Working Group released a report detailing the impact of the opioid epidemic on the city and offering local solutions to the crisis. The report, titled “Addressing the Opioid Epidemic in Cambridge,” also recommended nine steps for local leadership to follow, highlighting a need to reduce stigma, reduce harm and raise awareness.

“As a social worker I’ve worked for over 25 years with kids, and never once has a child ever said to me they wanted to grow up to be an addict,” said Cambridge Vice Mayor Marc McGovern at a Dec. 4 city council meeting. McGovern formed the working group back in August, and at the December meeting he briefly introduced the report to councilors.

Recommendations included harm reduction methods such as needle exchanges and even supervised consumption facilities (also called safe-injection sites). It also called for sobering sites similar to the Supportive Place for Observation and Treatment (SPOT) program in Boston, a drop-in site for intoxicated individuals run by the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. Within the first four months of operation, SPOT cared for “200 individuals in over 800 encounters,” according to the report.

The working group also called for increased outreach efforts, including the expansion of the Department of Public Health’s statewide “Make the Right Call” campaign, which stresses the importance of citizens calling 911 when witnessing an overdose.

At the moment, there is no deadline set for these goals nor any resources devoted to them. Jim Stewart, director of the First Church Shelter in Cambridge, attended the Dec. 4 meeting to advocate for the city council to set firm guidelines for the city manager.

“It can’t happen tomorrow night, but with a commitment to implement speedily important that [those services] be brought online sooner rather than later,” Stewart told Spare Change News. “We think this stuff could be available in weeks.”

Stewart also voiced concern that Cambridge might look at the report and never act on it, citing what he sees as similar inaction following a charrette (community meeting) on homelessness in 2015. All that came out of that, he said, was a video shown to a subcommittee of the council.

“We don’t want these recommendations to become just a PowerPoint presentation,” he said. “We want to see an outcome, not just a nice process … We can’t have the outcome be another open-ended process of consultation and deliberation—we need action.” Stewart, who also helped consult for the report, later reiterated those comments to the council.

At the hearing, a Cantabrian named Ricardo Ribeiro told the council that the homeless and addicted need more beds and access to treatment.

McGovern echoed the call for beds and for action when presenting the report to the council and even suggested that the city and the Cambridge Health Alliance could fund more beds within the city. McGovern added that he had been meeting with city manager Louis A. DePasquale throughout the process and that he is “on board with this.”

In 2016 Massachusetts reported 1,990 opioid-related deaths (and estimated the total amount to be even higher), 26 of which were in Cambridge. The working group’s report also notes that four out of five heroin addicts were first addicted to prescription medicine before turning to heroin, which 

The report was not the only homelessness related matter the council heard. At the same hearing the council also approved the appropriation of $37,500 from the free cash fund to help Youth on Fire, a homeless youth services center, with their daily operations. Youth on Fire almost closed this year when Gov. Charlie Baker eliminated vital funding to the organization in his budget proposal, but the legislature overrode the cuts.

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