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New engagement day center opens in Roxbury for unhoused people

The Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury launched a new engagement center on Oct. 7 to provide medical care, behavioral health and basic needs services for unhoused people. 

Wally's Cafe Jazz club
Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club at 427 Massachusetts Avenue. The historic cultural and music hub reopened on Sept. 8 after being shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. BRENDAN NORDSTROM/DFP STAFF

The Day Engagement Center is a double-wide trailer located at 1290 Tremont Street in Roxbury, adjacent to the Whittier clinic, and was established in partnership with Mayor Michelle Wu and the Boston Public Health Commission. The location is 1.2 miles from the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard — widely known as “Mass and Cass” — where many unhoused encampments are located. 

“(The center will) address health equity, social justice and the economic inequities impacting vulnerable and homeless populations,” Frederica Williams, president and CEO of the Whittier Street Health Care Center, wrote in an email.

The center offers primary care and certain disease testing on a daily basis and recovery support on a rotating schedule, Williams wrote.

Food, water, bathrooms, condoms and other daily necessities are provided as well as connection to housing and legal services. The center also offers internet service, haircuts, massages, prayer circles and gift cards for manual labor.

In an Oct. 20 press conference, Wu provided updates on how the city plans to address the unhoused crisis in Boston and mentioned the new daytime center in Roxbury.

“As a City, we have responsibility to care for individuals living with substance use disorders and mental health challenges,” Wu said in the press conference. 

The new center is one of the two daytime centers Wu announced in May. Wu and the Boston Public Health Commission received $6.9 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to power the city’s substance use services for homeless people, according to the announcement.

Howard Koh, professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said the new engagement center is “a ray of hope” for the issue at Mass and Cass.

“On one hand it is a very small step forward,” Koh said. “But on the other hand, if everyone involved in the Mass and Cass crisis can follow the example of Whittier Street and make similar commitments, that’s really the only way to make sustained progress on this crisis.” 

Koh said the major challenge in addressing homelessness is the transition from temporary housing to permanent, supportive housing.

“Getting people housing is necessary but far from sufficient,” Koh said. “It’s going to involve so many sectors of society who work closely together. So that is the challenge, but also the opportunity here.”

Wu proposed a bill in January that funds affordable housing and senior property tax relief by putting a 2% of transfer tax on real estate sales over $2 million, according to the Mayor’s Office of Housing.

The bill is currently in the House of Representatives and, according to the MOH, if passed, could generate “tens of millions annually” dedicated to the accommodations and relief.

Robyn Frost, executive director for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said the establishment of the new center is “absolutely a needed project.”

“It’s a one-stop shop for people to go and to be able to know when they enter that door, that there’s going to be services that can help them and are really geared toward people without housing,” Frost said.

Ryan Garrant, a senior at Northeastern University who lives near the center, said services like the new center are necessary, but the center is “a short term solution for a deeper problem.” 

“A lot of homelessness crisis has to be solved at a very young age,” Garrant said. “You have to get to them early, and then that environment rather than treating them when they’re older.”

Mithil Katakam, a junior at Northeastern University, said the new center is in a “ prime location” and “a really beneficial center.”

“I think it’s for a good cause,” Katakam said. “It would definitely help out, especially with Roxbury being a gentrified area.” 

Koh said academic communities need to be more aware of the prevailing homeless crisis in the United States.

“We want all students to learn more about the root causes of homelessness and how we can work better together to try to address them,” Koh said. “It’s very important to work together on these issues.”

 

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