A Place to be Welcomed
Co-imagining a day space for folks navigating substance use issues and housing insecurity
Editors Note: Foreword written by Sabrina Dorsainvil presenting a research reflection by Felice Ling and Cecilia Ackerman. This piece is centered on the research, design and implementation of the Engagement Center (EC), a low barrier space for people navigating substance use issues and housing insecurity in Boston, MA. This space was envisioned and brought to life by a coalition of city departments and community partners with the intent to ensure one of the cities most vulnerable populations has a place to go to relax, access resources and opportunities.
So, what would it look like to create a space that is welcoming, connective, and creative? Could we create a safe space that stretched to meet the needs of a diverse population such as the one in the area of the city currently deemed “Mass and Cass”? This piece was originally written almost three years after our team raised our hands to support the creation of this day space. Our team held one part of the picture for the Engagement Center and are grateful to have explored how we might use our work to make a welcoming, connective, and creative space for folks navigating substance use issues and housing insecurity. We’re glad we were able to co-imagine an alternative place to be that aimed to create a sense of dignity and was designed with intention. As this work moves into another phase of its lifecycle it feels right to pause and reflect on how we got here.
Care and its possibilities are at the core of this work. We stretched ourselves as a team to explore “care” as innovation. We’ve found ourselves learning what might be possible if care showed up in our built spaces, our critical services, our programs, and our systems at large.
As should be expected — this is but one part of the story. We hope to continue to reflect on what it means to build a learning pilot that prioritizes the human experience. This space, once a tent, is now a building influenced greatly by the learnings from the pilot space. For this piece we will hear from our first round of guests in the initial Engagement Center through the qualitative explorations of researchers Felice Ling and Cecilia Ackerman.
“I’ve just recently, within the last seven months, been homeless.”
Jen looked over, keeping steady eye contact as she told her life story in a warm, conversational tone that contrasted with the stark reality of the life circumstances that had brought her to where she was today.
“I was in a relationship,” she continued. “Moved in with him. It ended. He kicked me out, so I found myself on the street. I relapsed. I went to detox, went into a program, then came off. I was in a shelter in Quincy. I OD’ed in their shelter, so they barred me. That’s what brought me out here.”
“Here.” Here, as in the space where we were chatting: a spruced-up former warehouse at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, officially known as the Engagement Center, or “the EC” for short. Many of the people who use the warehouse simply call it “the tent.” For Jen, the 43-year-old woman we were speaking with that morning, it is “a Godsend.”
The Engagement Center is a pilot program that had been open for five months when we first visited. It is one of many drop-in centers around the country that have sprouted up in the context of the national housing and opioid crises. On its surface, its mission is straightforward: provide “a welcoming environment for individuals in need of a space to spend time during the day.”
But beyond what appears to be the simplicity of that straightforward goal, the more complicated, almost visceral impact of the EC comes into focus. That emotion comes out in the way that Jen describes the place: “This place is a Godsend. My God, to not have something like this? …It’s a place to come and not have to be out there, in the mix of all that.”
Jen’s words are emotionally charged because the EC meets a need that few other social services address. Unlike services that directly provide treatment or work to prevent drug use, the Engagement Center’s services are centered on ‘harm reduction,’ minimizing the risks associated with drug use and reducing suffering. This approach recognizes that not everyone is willing or able to seek treatment, and not everyone is ready to ask for help.
The Engagement Center consequently attracts many people who are at their most vulnerable. An employee of the EC pointed out that the people who use the space have “stories [that] are a lot tougher, a lot more raw” compared to those who are already actively seeking help through other resources. The Engagement Center attempts to address the paradox that those who need help the most are often the least likely to receive it.
Local businesses and residents are wary of inviting these individuals into their neighborhoods. As one staff member articulated, “People have a total misunderstanding of who they are. Because you’re riding by Mass Ave, you’re riding by BMC [Boston Medical Center] and you’re in your car thinking, ‘Oh my God. Look at these people.’” But her personal experiences working at the EC have given her new perspective: “I thought that two years ago. I was one of those people until now. Working with them, having conversations with them — these are good people.”
Who, then, are these people? And how does the Engagement Center actually fit into their lives? Does it actually help them? To investigate these questions, the City of Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) contracted us, two independent social scientists, to spend time in the space.
On a cold day in late January, we followed a team from the Mayor’s Office into the Engagement Center.
On our first visit, we were led down a path lined on both sides with chain link fence that opened onto a tarmac courtyard. A staff member stood keeping an eye on people mingling near the port-a-potties that dotted the courtyard. Beyond this was the white half-domed entrance of a large windowless tent.
The bleakness of the physical space (a consequence of the fact that the program was still in its pilot stage) was counteracted by thoughtful attempts to brighten it up. A poster reading “Everyone is Welcome Here” had been affixed to the fence. A cheerful stripe of green paint marked the way to the entrance. Inside, staff in plain clothes greeted guests as they made their way past the staff counter to get free coffee and snacks laid out on a long folding table. People gathered at tables and chairs, some near one of two televisions mounted on the wall or at the three computers opposite them. Others perused the bookshelves of a small library in front of the curtained-off nurse’s station at the back of the large room.
That first day, we introduced ourselves to the staff and awkwardly wandered around. When we came back a second time, it was only the two of us — sometimes starting conversations together, sometimes splitting up. Our second week in the space, only one of us was there. By the time we started speaking with people in formal hour-long interviews, we knew who the regulars were, and they knew who we were. Using the tools of anthropology (a mix of observations, conversations, and a whole lot of hours spent in the space), we began to learn a little bit about the lives of the people who use the space, the challenges they face, and how they’ve made the Engagement Center their own.
Jen was turned out of a shelter for overdosing there.
Her story is by no means unique. Barred from shelters, hospitals, clinics, and even libraries, those dealing with homelessness and drug use don’t have many good alternatives. We heard about a teenager who spends his nights in the subway. We learned about those who have no other option but to sleep in the back of a UHaul truck, where sexual assault is a common problem.
On top of that, we heard stories of people feeling mistrusted, judged, and invalidated. One man told us the story of how he had been turned out of a treatment program: “[a] friend that I hung around with, he OD’ed, and I think I was guilty by association….I was thrown out of the program. At first, they was saying that I drank alcohol and stuff like that. Which I didn’t. They said, ‘Your eyes are bloodshot’…And I go, ‘I just found out he died.’ And it hurt me like a storm.” The pain of being disbelieved is further magnified by the extreme isolation of their circumstances. Many of the guests we spoke with at the Engagement Center had been cut off from their families and friends. Shunned from public spaces, shooed from coffee shops, and barred from the very institutions that are meant to help them, these individuals deal with the pain of stigmatization everyday.
Experiences of repeated stigmatization take a toll. It is no wonder, then, that Engagement Center guests have been characterized as having “short attention spans” or being “quick to anger.” One staff member described this as “fight or flight” behaviors people have picked up in order to survive repeated experiences of social exclusion. In the face of dehumanizing stigma, it’s not surprising that recovery may seem unreachable.
This is exactly why a “welcoming environment” is so important.
For Jen, the safety of the space is crucial — as she put it, even if you are high and under the influence of a drug, you can still “come in here and know that you’re safe… [because] nobody’s gonna take advantage of you in here.” But “welcoming” means far more than “safe.”
Take the case of Aaron, a 27 year old man we interviewed during our time at the Engagement Center, who deals with stigmatization every day. His mother and father both passed away from injury and illness; he lost his sister to a heroin overdose a few years ago. After a shoulder injury, he started taking oxytocins. When they ran out, he turned to heroin. His fiancee cut ties with him because of his addiction. He soon found himself on his own and homeless. To make matters worse, he had been diagnosed with diabetes.
Barred from the shelters for a period (due to the way he once aggressively demanded his diabetes medication), there aren’t many places where Aaron is welcome. Aaron felt judged, invalidated, and forced into the fringes of society: “It sucks going on low blood sugar. If I don’t have any food, I have to go stealing.”
For Aaron, the Engagement Center has been a meaningful and positive exception to a series of tragic life experiences. To help him manage his blood sugar, Aaron requested that EC staff order fruit cups as a snack. To his surprise, his request was heard and accommodated.
For people who are ignored everywhere else, that feeling of being heard is earth-shattering. One staff member described an event that stuck in his mind: “One woman choked up and started almost crying because I remembered her name after she told me her name for the first time.”
The Engagement Center helps people to re-acquire a sense of self they may have lost to stigmatization. As one guest stated, “Here you don’t feel like you’re being pushed out. You get accepted for you who you are here.” In the context of constantly “being pushed out,” being “accepted” is crucial.
The guest who spoke about being “accepted” also spoke about “fitting in.”
He was referring to the relationships that the EC enabled. In a space like the EC, where people are welcome to loiter and hang out, individuals dealing with homelessness and drug use start to build relationships with Engagement Center staff over time.
These relationships formed with staff are key. The EC provides an easy way for those relationships to form. In a New York Times piece, Alex H. Kral, an epidemiologist with RTI International, lauded needle exchanges (where those who use drugs can safely discard of their syringes in exchange for sterile ones) for being “the most low-threshold way for people who use drugs to have contact with any kind of public health official.” We would argue that a drop-in center like the Engagement Center is even more low-threshold, and far less controversial.
As guests develop relationships with staff, staff take on the roles of counselors, mentors, and role models. They model respect and diplomacy in mediating interpersonal conflicts, as well as forgiveness and second chances — something many guests at the EC haven’t experienced from family and friends. One staff member who works with young men looking for jobs teaches overt social skills. She says to them, “Make sure when you see me in the morning you say good morning. You have to say that back. When I give you things, you say thank you.” Most of the time, however, this process of self-validation and empowerment is more subtle.
How staff act and behave is emulated by those who use the space in their interactions with one another. Walking into the EC, you would likely find teams of men and women engaged in a serious dominoes tournament, a table of older folks chatting and rolling cigarettes, and groups of young adults sharing food and watching TV.
While we chatted over lunch with Cheryl, a 60-year-old who had been homeless for three years following an eviction, she got up to check on a young woman who had her head down on the keyboard of a computer. Cheryl explained that the woman had a rubber band for injecting heroin in her hand; it was hard to know if the young woman was about to do it or already had. Cheryl’s husband whispered, “You know what they say. As long as they’re still breathing, they’re alright.”
While it wasn’t her responsibility to watch for overdoses, Cheryl checked anyway. As guests at the Engagement Center build relationships with staff and each other, a sense of community takes root. As a guest said of others at the EC, “They don’t have nothing else, they don’t have nobody. So they come here. And we all look out for each other.”
The Engagement Center won’t, by itself, cure drug addiction or stop homelessness.
It’s not a direct line to recovery and isn’t meant to push guests into making changes in their lives. As one staff member described it, that “isn’t a primary function of the EC. It’s more a cast-off of it.” Its primary function is more fundamental: help make life — and the pains of dealing with homelessness and drug use — just a little bit easier to bear.
At the heart of the Engagement Center’s success in this endeavor are the relationships that the space enables. Relationships are formed among guests and with staff members, in an environment where the labels of “homeless” or “drug user” don’t automatically result in stigmatization and isolation. As a result, for those lacking a home and a family, the Engagement Center, in a way, gives them both.
While the EC won’t cure drug addiction or stop homelessness, it will help people get there. Stacey McKenna (an environment, health, and social justice writer), referring to a 1962 paper for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, along with her own research, made the case that most people dealing with addiction “age out” of drugs — but homelessness and poverty makes recovery significantly more difficult. McKenna, describing two individuals who participated in her study, wrote, “Whenever they came up short of funds for a room for the night, they typically landed on the couch of someone who used meth.”
For those without a stable home, the Engagement Center fills that void. When we spoke with Jen, she was in recovery and had gone 85 days without using heroin. For her, the Engagement Center is a place to keep her recovery on track and to help her avoid the ‘people, places, and things’ that might encourage her to use.
On top of that, Jen finds that sharing the space with people who have never used drugs helps her to envision what that is like: “People that have never been in that position fascinate me because I’m always like, ‘How?’” She continued, “Nobody ever grows up thinking they’re gonna be a drug addict…So it fascinates me to see people that are citizens.”
One such so-called “citizen” is Javier, a 30-year-old who has never used drugs and doesn’t plan to start. Javier first came to the EC when he got out of jail. With help from staff who connected him with resources, he was able to enroll for free at a culinary arts program, find a job in food service, and get into a program for rapid re-housing.
Though Jen doesn’t actively socialize with Javier, just sharing that space with him has piqued her curiosity; we believe that Jen’s fascination with people like Javier plays a part in her recovery. Moreover, Javier does not isolate himself from those who are recovering. He frequently plays dominoes with a diverse group of guests, some of whom are actively fighting addiction. The dominoes table is a place where people seeking different social networks can find new friends.
While there are no expectations at the Engagement Center that those who use drugs will seek out treatment, we found that relationships with staff and with other guests at the EC prepare people to actually broach the idea of recovery. Through those relationships, they become agents of their own recovery.
All this only scratches the surface of how the Engagement Center works.
Ultimately, we learned that stigmatization in society breaks people down, and the EC builds people back up. It gets people to a place where they are ready to make use of the resources available to them, and it gives them some kind of stability in an otherwise insecure and chaotic world.
We believe the Engagement Center is therefore an incredibly valuable and innovative intervention that reaches people who are at their most vulnerable and who may not receive services elsewhere. None of that is straightforward though. Jen described the difficulty of her situation: “I’m literally at the line. I could cross that line any day. I’m no different than anybody else in here. I just chose not to be on it today.” For Jen and many others like her, the Engagement Center is a place she can count on — a constant in her day-to-day life that offers an alternative to unsafe situations that may otherwise be difficult to avoid. The conflicts and pains people bring to the Engagement Center are real, but the relationships they form there grant them the tools to take on those challenges. These relationships are what makes the space a “home” for many of the guests.
By the end of our time there, we had spent a combined 29 hours in the space and spoken with more than 50 people. Those with whom we had formed relationships were happy to see us “checking in” with them. Others made room for us to join in their conversations, as we got to know them. During one of our days at the Engagement Center, a quiet, older man said conversationally, “You should have been here yesterday. I think someone had a stroke.” Not long after, three more joined the table with styrofoam containers filled with rice and beans, chicken, and slaw. As they sat down, the man moved things around the table and shifted his chair, inviting them in with a “Let me give you guys some room.”
In our research, we saw people — staff and guests — really demonstrate care for one another. Through interpersonal care and relationship-building, the Engagement Center takes on the compounded social challenges of homelessness, job insecurity, drug use, illness, and stigma. Dealing with the interwoven nature of these issues is tricky and complex, but staff at the EC are skilled at improvising, often having experienced some of the same difficulties as the guests they work with. Staff are the very foundation of the Engagement Center, developing and sustaining relationships that people like Jen can rely on to help them navigate the road to recovery, if they so choose. As such, the Engagement Center is rich with opportunities to learn more about new methods for helping people who have been systematically marginalized to become agents in their own paths forward.
About the Authors
Felice Ling is an applied social scientist, who uses her training in ethnographic methods to inform design. Her work has had an impact on startups, international technology corporations, and nonprofit organizations across a variety of industries. She holds an M.A. in Social Science from the University of Chicago. For more information about her past work, check out her portfolio at feliceling.com.
Cecilia Ackerman is an Ethnographer who has worked on qualitative research projects on digital learning in charter schools, learning labs in public libraries, and exhibition design in museums. She has an M.A. in Anthropology from the University of California, Davis, and an M.A. in Social Science from the University of Chicago.
Sabrina Dorsainvil is a Boston, MA based public artist, civic designer and illustrator. As the first Director of Civic Design for the City of Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Sabrina uses creative approaches to navigate issues around public health, civic participation, care infrastructure, and the built environment. Sabrina’s art focuses on storytelling, unpacking complex ideas and finding simple yet vibrant ways of celebrating people and their humanity. Learn more about Sabrina at sabrinadorsainvil.com.
To learn more about the Engagement Center visit www.boston.gov/engagement-center.
You can also learn more about the City of Boston’s Office of Recovery Services here. If located in Boston, MA and seeking Recovery support please call 3–1–1 or 617–635–4500.