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"Safe space" for heroin addicts sparks hope, controversy

"It's really not uncommon to come into work or leave work and see somebody outside in the midst of an overdose," observes Dr. Jessie Gaeta.

That's why Gaeta never goes anywhere without a life-saving kit of Narcan, a treatment which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose in progress. At her office at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), she sees the dramatic toll the heroin epidemic is taking on the community around her. The program is at the intersection of Albany Street and Massachusetts Avenue, which has earned the dark nickname "Methadone Mile."

So Gaeta is rolling out a controversial plan that is the first of its kind in the nation. Starting this month, the BHCHP will open its doors to drug users by inviting them into a so-called "safe space" where users can ride out their highs under the watch of medical professionals. If users want to find treatment, staff will help them do that, too.

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Dr. Jessie Gaeta

CBS News

"Our main goal is to decrease deaths from overdoses, that's our first goal," Gaeta told CBS News during a tour of the space.

The opioid epidemic is claiming thousands of lives each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 10,000 Americans died of heroin overdoses in 2014 alone. The crisis has hit hard in Massachusetts, where nearly four people are dying each day from opioids.

"If things are in a bad way, and you're going to overdose, at least we have everything at our fingertips to reverse that," Gaeta said.

Gaeta says the space will cost around $200,000 annually, and the BHCHP is currently raising money to support it. She says she's received the blessing of Boston's mayor and Massachusetts' governor. But the idea has its critics who worry this concept will only enable users.

"The controversy is, does it encourage people to keep using if we make their lives less dangerous and less miserable, or can we scare people into care?" Dr. Barbara Herbert, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, told Boston's WBUR public radio.

While Boston's program is a first for the U.S., there are a handful of facilities around the world that go even further by offering supervised injection sites. The closest is in Vancouver, Canada. The mayor of Ithaca, New York, recently proposed a supervised injection site there, and just this week a California lawmaker backed the same thing, but supervised injection is illegal in the U.S.

In Boston, Gaeta says supervised injection is not part of the current plan for her "safe space."

"When I'm asked if building a small program like this will encourage people, or enable people to use more, I think the answer is no. I think people are already using, a lot," she said.

A stone's throw from the soon-to-be spot for the "safe space" we met recovering addict Gregory Bray. He says he's overdosed on heroin four times within the last year and has lived on and off the streets. He applauded the center's effort to tackle overdose deaths in this kind of way.

"These people show they care about other people's lives and that right there is the most beautiful thing in the world how they come to you and help you," Bray said.

But he expressed some concern about the potential risks.

"You don't want to cater to a person [saying] 'I got this room here I can go over and get high,'" he said. "If it's going to be a place somebody in and out, in and out, going in the bathroom shooting up, OD-ing and stuff -- that's not a good place. I would never say that's a good place. Because we can't have that in our community."

Gaeta says she isn't trying to enable users, she's trying to keep them alive.