Editor's note: This is the last in a three-part series focusing on the region's struggles with the growing opioid addiction epidemic. On Sunday, we addressed the scope of the problem locally. On Monday, we addressed the strategies that different communities are trying in order to stem the tide
Megan Eden leaned forward in her seat inside Zen Asian Fusion Lounge in downtown Schenectady. As the daughter of an addict, the scourge of opioids and heroin is personal for her.
She knows it hits close to home for countless others, whether they’re willing to speak about it or not. She motioned toward the drink sitting in front of her, and tipped a lemon wedge off the rim and into the water.
“With heroin and addiction in general, the bottom breaks out of the glass, and it just spills out all over the table and onto the floor,” she said. “It affects everyone in your life.”
Eden is the chairwoman of TEAM Schenectady, one of two grassroots organizations that are ramping up efforts to combat the opioid crisis in the city. At the same time, Schenectady’s main treatment facility is in the process of rolling out a few new initiatives aimed at shining fresh light on the issue.
Those looking to address the problem see three major areas that need to be addressed: Prevention, treatment and recovery. However, they’ve also identified the need to eliminate the stigma surrounding addiction, saying that often blocks users from seeking help in the first place.
“You hear of the not-in-my-backyard mentality,” Eden said. “You hear people say, ‘I don’t want them affecting my yard,’ until we start realizing it’s your neighbor (with a problem) and it is affecting your backyard.”
On the second Thursday of each month, roughly a dozen people file into Schenectady City Hall and settle around the table where City Council committee meetings are held.
The group consists of parents, children and friends of addicts, and others who simply want to help put an end to the plague of opioids in the community.
TEAM Schenectady was founded in January 2016 after former Councilman John Ferrari sought to create a council of residents to address drug use in the community. Group leaders felt they were seeing more and more overdoses, but there was limited public discussion about the problem.
The past 15 months have largely been spent building awareness of both the organization and the local impact of opioid addiction. In January, the organization partnered with city police to accomplish those goals.
Master Sgt. Dean Lansley talks as Megan Eden listens during a TEAM Schenectady meeting. (Provided)
The group has set in motion a few smaller initiatives, largely by working with local law enforcement. One priority is implementing more drop boxes in the city and county where addicts can safely dispose of needles, or organizing a needle exchange to avoid re-using dirty needles.
The group has also gotten the ear of Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford, who has been receptive to different potential programs and solutions, said Master Sgt. Dean Lansley, a Schenectady resident who works with various Capital Region anti-drug groups as part of the New York Air National Guard’s Counterdrug Task Force.
At a recent meeting, Lansley and Eden presented options for moving forward, including using the Chatham Cares program as a model. Through Chatham Cares, an addict can walk into the village's police station and say they want to get into treatment, no questions asked. An officer will then seek out the nearest treatment bed, while a volunteer stays with the addict to keep them company.
Though that initiative is not likely to work in Schenectady for a number of reasons, including a lack of space and resources, that hasn’t stopped TEAM Schenectady from trying to find other paths to meaningful progress.
“There’s so many options out there,” Lansley said.
“We just need to find the one that fits for us,” Eden said, finishing the thought.
It’s a Wednesday night, and Megan Briggs is jotting down notes in her journal, keeping track of ideas to raise awareness of the opioid epidemic in Schenectady.
She records someone’s suggestion to make T-shirts for a memorial walk. She jots down a proposal to hold a candlelight vigil for those who have lost loved ones to addiction.
Briggs, a recovering addict who has been clean for five months, lost the love of her life to a heroin overdose at age 19. A former nursing school student, Briggs dropped out, unable to keep up with school while feeding her addiction.
“I remember the first time I got high, I thought, ‘why doesn’t everyone do this?’” Briggs said. “It’s like everything is the way it’s supposed to be in the world.”
Briggs, 23, is a member of the dur, a small band of recovering addicts looking to open up a conversation among those struggling with addiction. The group is associated with New Choices Recovery Center in Schenectady.
Recovering heroin addict James DeSantis. (Peter R. Barber)
James DeSantis, a leading member of the advocacy group, envisions it as the hub in a bicycle wheel. The spokes represent various recovery groups, treatment options and wellness communities. The goal is to provide a connection among those who need help but who might not know where to turn.
Breaking Barriers meets every two weeks to plan events and discuss ways to improve support for recovering addicts.
“(Officials) will say, we’re doing this and that, but what good is it if the people who need it don’t know about it?” DeSantis said.
Some group members hope to dig deeper into the recovery process. Briggs, for example, wants to offer a support system for those with mental illness. Erin Wiggins, who has two young children and is pregnant with a third, hopes to create a place where mothers in recovery can talk about their successes and struggles.
DeSantis has discussed the idea of opening a “sober pub” downtown that would provide a haven for recovering addicts or for family and friends of addicts.
Briggs, DeSantis and Wiggins agree that the stigma of addiction is a hurdle, as frequent negative portrayals of drug users increases the likelihood that those who need help will keep quiet for fear of backlash.
With Breaking Barriers, they talk about celebration and positivity, hoping to highlight even small milestones in recovery.
“We’re not anonymous anymore. That’s the best way to break the stigma.” DeSantis said. “This is the community fighting back against it.”
On a handout describing the services offered at New Choices Recovery center, there are 24 bullet points describing an array of services. But only so much can be done once addiction has taken root.
“Ultimately, if you’re going to really turn the tide on addiction, it’s going to be through prevention: to intervene with people before they even embark on that path,” said Stuart Rosenblatt, the center’s executive director.
A series of grants, and the need for services locally, has led New Choices to make plans for expansion of both its services and its presence in the community. The center already provides counseling, supported housing and wraparound services for those who complete treatment.
New Choices was recently awarded a grant to become Schenectady County’s primary prevention program provider. The initiative is expected to roll out in the next month or two, and the center is already interviewing new employees, Rosenblatt said.
One concentration for the expanded program will be dedicating resources to schools, where experts said more needs to be done to inform kids and their parents. New Choices staff will also host community forums, distribute educational materials and make presentations for school staff and parents.
New Choices will also be able to administer methadone from its outpatient facility at 846 State St., thanks to new state funding. Previously, those in need of methadone, a drug used to treat heroin addiction, had to travel to Albany or Amsterdam to receive it.
The state distributed $8.1 million in funding to eight addiction treatment providers statewide. Of that, New Choices will receive $198,000 to help improve its infrastructure, which will bring the space up to state standards for methadone distribution.
Rosenblatt said there are still numerous regulatory hoops to jump through before methadone will be available in the city, but he estimated the program should be up and running by the end of the fall.
New Choices, which is housed at 302 State St., will also likely be in a new space this time next year, Rosenblatt said. Designs are still in the works, and a final location has not been announced, though he said it won’t be far from the current one.
Rosenblatt said he wouldn’t be surprised if the center ran into some opposition with its plans, citing the same stigma that surrounds addiction. New Choices will work to address those concerns in the community, he said.
“What one needs to do to combat the NIMBY issue is provide education,” Rosenblatt said. “NIMBY, for the most part, comes out of, like most prejudices, ignorance.”
A meeting of the Heroin and Opioid Abuse Task Force, Capital Region Session, at Proctors' GE Theatre in May 2016. (Marc Schultz)
The opioid epidemic at times can seem insurmountable. People die of overdoses every day. Lethal batches of heroin can kill several people at a time. And tangible progress is often hard to see, community leaders acknowledge.
Breaking Barriers consists of no more than 10 active members who attend each meeting. TEAM Schenectady must contend with the fact that convening once a month makes the decision-making process slow. Even New Choices must wait on bureaucratic approval before moving forward with its plans.
However, nearly everyone involved in the fight against heroin and opioids readily admits it’s a problem without an overnight solution. It will take more funding. It will take education and outreach, and it will take greater acceptance of those seeking help.
As community leaders wait for those things to develop, their mindset is to remain positive and focused on making a difference.
“A lot of people want immediate satisfaction,” said Lansley, the Master Sgt. “It does get frustrating, but it is what it is. At the end of the day, even a little impact is a positive impact.”