By Caroline Smith
BU News Service
BOSTON — Jennifer A. Nassour and Priscilla “Kenzie” Bok are facing off for the West End’s support now that councilor Josh Zakim is giving up his District 8 Boston City Council seat this election season, and both candidates are telling their heart-wrenching experiences with the opioid crises to help garner votes.
Both candidates believe more work needs to be done to properly address substance abuse prevention and treatment in Boston.
Boston’s City Council’s Homelessness, Mental Health and Recovery Committee addresses substance use disorder issues in several parts, according to Councilor At-Large and committee chair Annissa Essaibi-George.
Essaibi-George said the committee focuses on recovery services at an individual level by providing housing, recovery and clinical care to improve “quality of life issues.”
For Republican first-time candidate Jennifer Nassour — a lawyer and CEO of the nonpartisan coalition ReflectUS — the loss of her brother to an overdose fuels her compassion for addressing the crisis at hand.
Nassour found her brother dead in their family home nearly 20 years ago. She remembered having to call her mother, who was in California for a business trip, to tell her that her son had overdosed.
“No one should ever have to tell their parent,” Nassour said. “No parent should ever have to commute and find their child in that place.”
In her campaign, Nassour said she emphasizes the urgency of the opioid crisis in Boston. Many of her mailed campaign postcards tell the story of her brother’s overdose.
“My brother died in 2000, so I have spent the better part of 19 years not wanting to discuss his death with anyone because it’s embarrassing, painful,” Nassour said. “But then, I realized as I’m doing this, it is such a big problem and there are so many people that are affected.”
Nassour said she would like to see more treatment options introduced into legislation, and said she blames state and federal governments for “throwing a Band-Aid” on addiction-related problems.
“I don’t think we can kick the can down the road anymore,” she said. “I think that time passed. I think our politicians have been negligent in actually handling the situation. I think a lot more should have been done by this point.”
While working with the federal government to ask for more funding for Boston’s addiction prevention and treatment efforts, Nassour believes immediate work should focus on connecting with doctors and those directly tied to the epidemic.
“Someone needs to sit down with doctors and mental health professionals,” Nassour said. “It is talking to the people who are on the ground in Boston and understand what they see every day — the emergency rooms, the EMS, the police officers, the firefighters — the people who are on the front line.”
The Democratic candidate, Kenzie Bok, was the senior adviser for policy at the Boston Housing Authority and worked as Essaibi-George’s budget director in the time leading up to her first-time running for office.
Bok intervened in an overdose situation at the corner of Berkeley Street and Newbury Street in May, which showed her how urgent addressing the regional epidemic is. The man collapsed in the street and Bok said she helped control the situation.
“It was terrifying,” Bok said. “I jumped in the lane just to stop traffic because you couldn’t see him and somebody else called 911. And then we were just waiting, and I was standing right next to him and he was dying. You feel very helpless.”
Bok emphasized the importance of carrying Narcan, a Naloxone spray that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, and attending the Boston Public Health Commission’s training on Narcan led by the Boston Public Health Commission’s AHOPE (Access, Harm Reduction, Overdose Prevention and Education) service.
After completing the training, Bok said AHOPE provides two packages of Narcan for people to carry in case of an emergency. Addressing the opioid epidemic as a community is crucial, Bok said.
“It really is a citywide and regional issue, and I think that so many folks I talk to have family members or friends who have been victims of this crisis,” Bok said. She also highlighted the importance of gathering more resources for victims, including providing more beds for those looking to treat their substance use disorder.
“It should be like, ‘You want to get into treatment? We are rolling out the red carpet for that to happen,’” Bok said.
Caitlin McLaughlin, the spokesperson for the Boston Public Health Commission, said Boston provides a “robust system of care” for anyone in the community who may be struggling with a substance use disorder. She said Boston offers several services including the Mobile Sharps teams to pick-up discarded syringes, AHOPE, PAATHS (Providing Access to Addiction Treatments, Hope and Support) and the Office of Recovery Services.
Both Nassour and Bok believe talking with Quincy’s local government to rebuild the Long Island bridge and rehabilitation campus would be a collective effort on tackling the regional crisis.
“There was a bridge — there is a precedent for it — and just because it was collapsing doesn’t mean that they can then just unilaterally say, ‘no, go away,’” Nassour said. “They’re going to have to play in the sandbox, nicely.”
Looking forward, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh proposed plans to “[confront] more challenges concentrated in the Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard area and the surrounding neighborhoods” surrounding the opioid crisis.
Boston’s Municipal Elections will take place on November 5 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.