Boston to Open Country’s First 'Safe Space' for Heroin Addicts

By May Wilkerson 04/14/16

The program will service Boston's "Methadone Mile."

Boston to Open Country’s First 'Safe Space' for Heroin Addicts
A look inside the room which will be converted into a safe space for the BHCHP Photo via CBS News

Faced with a growing heroin problem among Boston's homeless population, Dr. Jessie Gaeta of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) is spearheading a groundbreaking program that's established a “safe space” for heroin users. The program begins this month; it's the first of its kind in the country and will offer drug users a place to ride out their highs (and lows) under the supervision of medical professionals, without fear of legal repercussions. And for drug users who want to get treatment, staff will be on hand to help direct them towards treatment options. "Our main goal is to decrease deaths from overdoses, that's our first goal," Gaeta told CBS News. 

The program will service an area of Boston nicknamed "Methadone Mile," where Gaeta says it's not uncommon to see people outside in the midst of an overdose. Gaeta told CBS that supervised injection will not be one of the services offered in the safe space, but the program is still the first of its kind in the U.S. As the death toll of the opioid crisis rises, people are searching for a solution. More than 10,000 Americans died of heroin overdoses in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some states have been hit harder than others, like Massachusetts, where nearly four people die everyday from opioids (heroin or prescription painkillers, like OxyContin).

The good news is there's overwhelming evidence in favor of harm reduction strategies that demonstrate that things like needle exchanges and access to Narcan (an opioid-reversal medication) can lower the death toll from opioid overdoses. "If things are in a bad way, and you're going to overdose, at least we have everything at our fingertips to reverse that," said Gaeta. 

The new “safe space” will cost an estimated $200,000 a year to run, which the BHCHP is currently working on obtaining. Gaeta says Boston's mayor and the governor of Massachusetts have given the project the green light, but there's been some pushback from critics who say the concept will “enable” drug users.

"The controversy is, does it encourage people to keep using if we make their lives less dangerous and less miserable, or can we scare people into care?" Dr. Barbara Herbert, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, told WBUR public radio.

To the critics, Gaeta says she’s not trying to enable users, but to prevent death and spread of disease among those who are going to use regardless. "When I'm asked if building a small program like this will encourage people, or enable people to use more, I think the answer is no," she said. "I think people are already using, a lot."

This video from CBS gives you a look inside the safe space. Or watch it here.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.