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In Seeking Needle Exchange Services, Springfield Also Wants More Treatment Beds

As the city of Springfield, Massachusetts prepares to move forward with a needle exchange program to address the opioid crisis, concerns are again being voiced about a lack of treatment options. What officials say has been a longstanding shortage of substance abuse treatment beds in the region is frustrating to law enforcement and others on the front line of the drug epidemic.

The area of Springfield around Maple and High Streets has long been rundown and plagued by crime.  Recently, police have seen an uptick in prostitution in the neighborhood.

"It is not the traditional form of prostitution where women are being trafficked and men are profiting, except for the fact that  drug dealers are profiting, because the primary driver seems to be drug addiction," Springfield Police Commissioner John Barbieri said.

He addressed  a joint hearing held recently by the City Council Health and Human Services Committee and Public Safety Committee.

Barbieri said police as part of an effort to drive prostitution out of the neighborhood have arrested men for attempting to purchase sex and sought to publicly shame them by putting their photos on social media. 

As for the women, Barbieri said the police consider them victims. But, it seems they have to be arrested – often multiple times – before they can get help for their drug addiction.  He said police officers are frustrated with the situation.

" I guess it is trying to find the balance,"  said Barbieri. "Services for people who want to get off the streets and get help and  absent that for people who are an ongoing threat or danger to themselves  either incarceration or court-ordered sanctions to get them off the streets and get them placed."

Complaints about a shortage of psychiatric and substance abuse treatment beds in western Massachusetts is nothing new. 

Springfield Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris said when people are ready to go into treatment they are ready to go at that moment and can’t be put on a waiting list.

"The need is huge and has been a need for a number of years," said Caulton-Harris on the availability of treatment on demand in the greater Springfield area.

Caulton-Harris said there have been calls from organizations involved in combating the opioid crisis to bring back a mobile outreach program that operated in Springfield between 1999 and 2004.

"We were transportating individuals into treatment, even though it was not in western Mass, it was in Worcester and the eastern part of the state at least we had transportation to take people where they needed to go," explained Caulton-Harris.

The outreach program ended when a $300,000 grant that paid for it expired, according to Caulton-Harris.

Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi announced earlier this year that 86 beds at the department’s addiction recovery center on Mill Street in Springfield will be reserved for people who have been civilly committed for treatment.

But the treatment is for men, not women, because a quirk in state law forbids women patients from being treated at a correctional facility unless they have been arrested.

Martha Lyman, research director for the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, said there is a special program the department administers to help women who have survived human trafficking and prostitution, but its success is limited by the region’s shortage of treatment beds.

" If a woman decides she wants to get out of this life and not go back to where she was, we don't have options," Lyman said.  " We dont' have enough treatment beds for men as well."

The Springfield Public Health Council voted last March to declare a public health emergency because of the opioid epidemic and authorize a needle exchange program in the city.

Mayor Domenic Sarno dropped his longstanding opposition to needle exchange, but insists on more services for those affected by opioids.

In the letter Caulton-Harris sent to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health asking it to launch in Springfield what is now called a “syringe services program,” said wrote “the city continues to express concern about the lack of treatment beds for those with substance use disorders who are ready to go into treatment.”

In a 2017 report, the state health department said 1,100 beds for substance use and psychiatric treatment had been added since 2015.   A spokesman for the department, Omar Cabrera, said a regional breakdown of where the beds have been added is not available.   He said there are 791 total substance use treatment beds licensed in the western region of the state.

CORRECTION: The Hampden County Sherrif's Department's 86 treatment beds are located at both the facility on Mill St. in Springfield and at the Hampden County Jail in Ludlow.



The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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