SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – Last year, opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts reached a record high. Now, local officials are looking for ways to bring those numbers down.

“We are going to meet the community where they are. we have to come out from behind our walls and get into our neighborhoods and let our residents know what we can offer as far as help is concerned,” said Springfield Health and Human Services Commissioner, Helen Caulton-Harris.

A partnership will collaborate with local nonprofits, a network of mental health providers, and a team of on-the-street outreach workers. Response teams will target specific areas in Springfield to help those who struggle with mental health and abuse, and panhandlers who become aggressive to feed their mental health and addiction needs.

The Project Rescue initiative will be an opportunity to bring help, services and resources to those in need, according to Mayor Sarno. The first area they will concentrate on is the Temple, School, High streets neighborhood. Outreach counselors and sheriff’s deputies will be out on the streets, specifically looking for people who need help.

Mayor Sarno states, “The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the need for mental health and addiction resources and services across the country.  I want to thank Sheriff Nick Cocchi and his team, and all of our community outreach partners for coming together to work with my dedicated city team to create this special response and engagement initiative – Project Rescue.  Working together this dedicated community response and engagement team can address and provide the services and resources needed for those individuals in need, especially those suffering from mental health or addiction.  Another objective of Project Rescue will be to include mobile vans capable of responding and providing outreach efforts and assistance to panhandlers, especially those that have become more and more aggressive in their search to fuel their addiction.”

Part of the outreach includes a van with an exam table, bathroom, and sink. Healthcare staff will be able to connect these people in need with local addiction, housing, and mental health resources such as The Gandara Center or open pantry.

“This is not a policing initiative or a show of force operation.  This is a humanitarian and public and mental health initiative to save lives,” Mayor Sarno expressed.  “We want to work with our public health, mental health, and addiction network team to provide the services, treatment, and resources available to help these individuals in need.”

Both the police department and the fire department said they are called to a lot of incidents in this Temple-School-High Street neighborhood, so they’re hoping that this van helps them keep this neighborhood safer.

On-demand addiction treatment options and mental health services made a difference at the Hampden County office when it partnered with the Holyoke Police Department.

“This is an innovative collaboration that allows us to bring help, hope and compassion to the streets, right to the people who need it most,” Sheriff Cocchi said. “We’ve seen how the pandemic pushed more people into addiction, and we’re not standing by and waiting for things to get better. We’re going into the most difficult neighborhoods across Hampden County and helping make things better.”

Cocchi believes that this partnership is about building a relationship with those in need of services.

“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,” expressed Cocchi.

HHS Commissioner Caulton-Harris added, “The Springfield Department of Health and Human Services has long been an advocate for providing services and resources to those in need.  Project Rescue is a collaborative effort with all of our public and private stakeholders to address the growing concerns and need for resources to address mental health, addiction and panhandling, all of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.  This ‘all hands of deck’ approach will focus on positive community outreach and engagement initiatives for a healthier and safer Springfield community.”        

HHS Commissioner Caulton-Harris Office of Racial Equity will join in bringing outreach with assistance from mental health clinicians and outreach workers.

In recent efforts, Police Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood said the Springfield Police Department arrested drug dealers and other bad actors that were not from the neighborhood to help with the success of Project Rescue because collaborative outreach efforts will be able to reach those in need more easily.

Clapprood said, “The brave and dedicated women and men of the Springfield Police Department welcome this joint initiative to help tackle this growing concern of mental health, addiction and panhandling.  The more resources and collaborative partnerships we have to address the public health and mental health needs of our community, the better the Springfield Police Department can serve our residents and business community.”

Fire Commissioner Calvi stated, “The Springfield Fire Department welcomes this joint partnership and looks forward to being a part of Project Rescue.  This collaborative response will provide the resources needed from our public and private stakeholders to help those individuals in need of mental health and addiction services.”

Gándara Center Chief Executive Officer, Lois Nesci added, “Mental Health and substance use are critical issues in our community.  We are committed to working with the City to help those in need of behavioral health services. I applaud the Mayor for taking steps to address these concerns.”

The first part of the project rescue happened earlier this week, when police arrested 15 people in this neighborhood, at least 5 of them for allegedly trying to sell drugs.

“They came in because they found a lucrative business and they planted themselves in here. They got brave and bold about operating and occupying this neighborhood,” said Clapprood.

The city is looking to expand the program to more neighborhoods in the future. For now, they will be in the Temple, School, and High streets area once a month. The response teams are made up of law enforcement professionals, mental health clinicians, substance abuse counselors, medical professionals, and community outreach workers.