With addiction communities, COVID demands unique city response

Sometimes, remote support group meetings aren't an option. Boston officials say they understand that.

Attendees gather at a vigil for overdose victims in Charlestown in late September. (Photo by Dakota Antelman)

When most other in-person events moved to remote formats, this spring, Shannon Marie Lundin and the Narcotics Anonymous (NA) addiction support group she runs just moved outside. 

Even as COVID-19 made such mass gatherings perilous, Lundin said, she had no choice but to do what she did.

"We would get high under any and all conditions,” she explains. “So, that’s the mindset we have to have for our recovery.”

The pandemic created a bevy of collateral issues for people already struggling with mental health conditions. In the addiction community, those impacts have been particularly severe, exposing decades of structural failure and demanding a unique response from government officials tasked with fighting viral spread.

“People in recovery are more worried about relapsing and not coming back than they’re worried about catching COVID,” Lundin explained. “So, when COVID first hit, I was very worried about the community and the people that I serve.”

Outdoor NA meetings thrive with de-facto city approval

Lundin’s NA groups have met twice daily throughout the pandemic. 

No longer indoors, they socially distance themselves on the bleachers of the Charlestown High School football stadium. 

In South Boston, Boston’s Director of Recovery Services Jen Tracey says, the Gavin Foundation has also offered outdoor programming.

“It’s very important to be able to be around other people who have the same struggles, whether its with loss or addictions,” Lundin said of the need for these kinds of meetings. “When you’re in person, you see body language. You see facial expressions. You can’t get that on Zoom.”

Lundin’s meetings in Charlestown have, at times, drawn more than 80 people to them. 

Though state and federal guidelines recommended against such events, Tracey says she and others in city government understand the need. 

Even if they didn’t though, Lundin says she’s sure that meetings would still be going forward.

“I think they knew we were going to do it anyway,” she said of city officials. “People in recovery are very resilient people. We’ve already been through hell and back. COVID isn’t going to scare us.”

City officials patch holes in addiction/homelessness support systems

Outside of meetings, Tracey and the rest of Boston’s Recovery Services Office have been hard at work amending other aspects of the local recovery support infrastructure they’re more directly involved with. 

Indoor drop-in centers they ran, for one, have all closed. 

Shelters across the city they support, meanwhile, have halved bed space, leaving many people concurrently facing homelessness and addiction without proper housing. 

“The whole system changed,” Tracey said.  

The city found some solutions. 

Outdoor drop in centers have worked well. 

Downtown, Mayor Marty Walsh earned credit for organizing a deal to house several hundred people in the care of the Pine Street Inn shelter at a Suffolk University dorm, from April through August. 

But the success hasn’t been unilateral. 

Mask wearing sparse within some addiction subcommunities

Photos alongside recent media coverage of addiction in the South End’s ‘Mass and Cass’ area show people frequently congregating in cramped homeless encampments without masks. 

At a vigil for overdose victims Lundin organized in Charlestown late last month, few members within a dense crowd wore masks, at all. One Substantive photo from the event, in particular, showed more than 70% of visible event attendees either without a mask or with a mask pulled down below their chin. 

Speaking before the event, Lundin insisted that COVID-19 safety precautions were being followed. 

Tracey, meanwhile, recognized that there’s room for improvement in terms of mask wearing in the addiction community. 

“Does everyone wear their masks all the time?” she said. “No. But everyone has masks and we’ll continue to talk to them about safety.”

All this being said, the neighborhoods where addiction subcommunities lax on mask wearing most often gather have not necessarily seen the kind of COVID-19 surge some might fear. 

Charlestown and the South End, where Lundin’s vigil and those media photos showed mask-less people, respectively, both actually fall below Boston’s city-wide rate of positive COVID-19 cases as of Oct. 17.

Officials say reach out and support those in recovery

COVID-19 continues. So does the fight against addiction. 

Admittedly, for those facing the later public health crisis, their battle has dragged on far longer than the one against the coronavirus has. Likewise, it will continue after the pandemic lapses. Therefore, as dire as COVID-19 surges are, addiction remains the prevailing threat in many corners of Boston.

Things aren’t binary, though. These crises interact. 

Many needing support haven’t been able to get to the few in person meetings still running. 

Then, while city adaptations have been promising, Jen Tracey says there are big questions about whether these solutions will be sustainable throughout the cold weather months. 

The isolation so many already feel while getting high, coming down, battling withdrawals or seeking long term support in sobriety is becoming harder to fight because of the coronavirus.

Tracey says city officials are working hard to innovate with new solutions and better care. But, ultimately, in a year of loneliness, Tracey says the best thing community members can do is offer the kind of proverbial, socially distanced hug so many need. 

“There’s a lot of challenges with COVID,” she explained. “And, like all communities, those that are in recovery have faced increased social isolation, economic instability and anxiety. It’s more important than ever that we reach out and support folks in recovery.” 

***

Longer investigative stories like this take time and energy to create. Please support my mission with Substantive by subscribing to the Substantive email newsletter!