A Place to be Welcomed

Co-imagining a day space for folks navigating substance use issues and housing insecurity

Foreword:

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.

“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.

Staff wait outside the walkway to the original EC space.
Image Credit: Olivia Yao

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.

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New Urban Mechanics

The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.