Initiative promises 'hand of compassion' in area of Springfield rife with illegal drug use
Officials launch Project Rescue
An intervention is taking place in a drug and violence-riddled section of Springfield, Massachusetts.
Once a month, on a randomly chosen day, teams of mental health clinicians, substance abuse counselors, law enforcement, and social services providers will take over a parking lot in the High and School Street corridor – an area notorious for drug-dealing, prostitution, and aggressive panhandling.
They’ll offer help to people struggling with addiction and mental health problems and provide hope to residents whom Mayor Domenic Sarno described as prisoners in their apartments afraid to let their children go outside to play.
“It is not right and we need to eradicate it,” Sarno said.
The initiative dubbed “Project Rescue” is a joint venture by the city of Springfield and the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office. But, Sarno stressed it is not a police operation.
Historically, this area of the city’s Metro Center has been heavily policed. As a prelude to the launch of Project Rescue, a multi-agency task force made multiple arrests in the High and School Street area and seized drugs and guns.
“Besides coming with the heavy hand we also come with the hand of compassion,” Sarno said.
Residents willing to speak with reporters were hopeful about the initiative announced at a press conference Friday. Lucy Vazquez, who lives on High Street, said drug use in the area is “really bad.”
“You see people doing drugs and stuff,” she said. “I have grandkids too and sometimes I can’t bring them to my house because I can’t walk through there. It is really awful.”
A block away on Temple Street, Sean Dixon watched from the front porch of his apartment house as the tables and pop-up tents for Project Rescue were set up in the parking lot across the street.
“I hope it works, yes, I hope it works,” Dixon said.
He said consistency is the key to success.
“They got to come here every day,” he said. “That is the only way it’s going to work,”
Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi said early returns are positive from a similar initiative his department engaged in with the city of Holyoke.
“I am confident in saying, because we just went through this in Holyoke, the days that we’re present dealing drugs will not be present, overdoses will go down, and the people in need of help are going to be offered continuous help,” Cocchi said.
The High and School Street corridor was not chosen for Project Rescue simply because of its reputation, but because statistics her department tracks show the area has high rates of opioid overdoses, said Springfield Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris.
“We need to get out from behind our walls and get into the neighborhoods and reach out to people,” Caulton-Harris said.
Springfield’s health department is preparing to equip two vans that will be used for outreach in various parts of the city where people need behavioral health services.