The Engagement Center
Opened in August 2017, the Engagement Center (EC) is a welcoming, low-threshold daytime space for individuals navigating homelessness and substance use near the intersection of Melnea Cass and Mass Ave.
The “low-threshold model” improves access to care for people impacted by addiction by:
- Lowering barriers to entry
- Tailoring services to the needs of people who use drugs
- Prioritizing trusted, caring staff
About the Engagement Center
The EC provides a safe place for individuals to:
- Rest and connect
- Access basic resources
- Engage in recovery and homeless services
- Receive nursing care and medical supports
In December 2021, the EC moved into a new building at 26 Atkinson Street. The new EC spaces offers guests access to:
- Water, coffee, and light snacks
- Restrooms and showers
- Programming space for art, therapy and wellness services
- TV, phone chargers, wifi and books
- Computer and phone workstations available for email access, applications, and meeting with housing advocates, counselors, or recovery coaches
- Upgraded nurse stations for medical care
Participants receive nursing care daily from Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. They can also receive medical care, connect with a behavioral health provider, and start substance use disorder treatment.
The EC has continuously worked with community partners to offer programming in the space that is responsive to guests interests and needs. We host writing workshops, art projects, yoga, and music programs. In response to the feedback from guests we recently piloted a monthly assistance program that allowed individuals to sign up for state IDs with the Mass RMV. This crucial resource is often a necessity for employment or enrollment in housing programs. For guests navigating legal challenges we host opportunities to check-in and understand their probation status. We’re consistently working with guests, staff and community partners to explore, improve, and expand resources offered in the space.
“Here you don’t feel like you’re being pushed out. You get accepted for who you are. It’s a place you fit in.”
- Engagement Center Guest
Our Street Outreach Team operates within and around the Engagement Center. This group builds relationships with individuals by sharing information about resources, making referrals, and working to reduce barriers to care such as transportation. You can watch a feature about Chianta, former street outreach worker.
EC Design and Research
In 2017, Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) led the initial design of the Engagement Center. Their team and partners conducted ongoing qualitative research and space improvements over time. This included an ethnographic research study by Blue Brick Ethnography and the renovation of our temporary space. The MONUM team engaged guests, staff, and the community in creative ways to imagine what the EC can be. This ongoing engagement shaped the design of the new EC building by SAAM Architects. The EC has shifted and grown thanks to MONUM’s commitment to imagination, reflection, and innovation.
Alongside MONUM we worked to build additional partnerships and experiment with art and wellness based programming. Examples of this have been bringing Hands to Heart Yoga, Writers Without Margins, and the Me2 Orchestra to the space. As a part of the Mayor’s Office of Art and Culture’s Transformative Public Art program, curated by Street Theory, artist collective Mz. Icar created "Together" for the exterior of the spaces and local artist Alex Cook created four interior murals for staff and guests to enjoy.
This ongoing collaboration with MONUM, partners and neighbors has been critical to the EC's success.
The early EC space became a beacon of possibility for creating a space that was safe, welcoming, connective and creative. Here are some of our early reflections that continue to guide this effort of creating low-threshold spaces and meeting people where they are:
Listening to guests and staff, always
We needed to be constantly mindful of the needs of guests and staff members, which coexist and collaborate closely in the EC. We intentionally devoted time to incorporate guests and staff feedback in the development of the space.
Meeting people where they are in relation to SUDs
One of the hardest lessons, an elusive one to this date for some people working in this space, is recognizing that everyone is on their own journey and receptiveness to care. Gauging guests’ context remains a sensitive endeavor, one that requires daily openness, a recognition of trauma, and patience to address. We remain guided by Harm Reduction Principles in our effort to create a meaningful space.
An external evaluation of our work
After the first 6-months of our pilot ended, we invited Blue Brick Ethnography to help us understand what specific needs were being met in the space and who was benefiting from its services. Listening to guests’ stories not only went a long way in acknowledging what we had accomplished but also in imagining what else the space could offer.
An experimental mindset rooted in care
The Engagement Center was one of the first daytime low-threshold spaces led by the City. We decided to approach this as an opportunity to experiment with expanded programming that included yoga classes, live music, barbers, an outdoor recreation area, plants, a library in collaboration with the BPL and much more.
Inspiring future work
Every positive outcome was a nod to expand the mission and our learnings along the way guides us. In 2021, the City broke ground to provide a permanent physical space for the Engagement Center. These lessons also informed both long term planning and the exploration of low threshold overnight spaces.
Future of Low-Threshold Spaces
While the EC served clients during the day, the need for low-threshold overnight spaces continued. Inspired by the EC’s lessons, ORS, and MONUM published a report offering guidance on how to design overnight low-threshold spaces. View the 2021 Overnight Low Threshold Space Practice Guidance here.
Inspired by the Engagement Center, the State of Massachusetts is supporting shelters across the state with increasing their low-threshold programming, so that Massachusetts residents can access care no matter where they live. This effort is made possible through the State’s Triage, Engagement, and Assessment funding.
In early 2022 we were able to support the creation of 6 units of low-threshold housing at the following sites:
- PSI Shattuck
- Dorm 1