A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to establish a pilot program to help 50 of Maine’s homeless residents get stable housing and treatment for opioid addiction. A bill presented to the Health and Human Services Committee today drew dozens of supporters during a public hearing. No one opposed the bill, but at least one lawmaker questioned whether it’s the best use of resources to tackle the problem.
For more than two decades, Portland social service agency Preble Street didn’t have a single overdose at any of its programs or buildings, says executive director Mark Swann. That changed four years ago.
“A young man was discovered on the floor of our soup kitchen bathroom with a needle in his arm, not breathing, his lips blue,” Swann says.
That marked the beginning of a trend, says Swann. The next year, Preble Street saw one overdose every three months. In 2016, it was once every two weeks. Last year, it was one every eight days.
“As tragic as it is to think about somebody alone and desperate dying in a soup kitchen bathroom, what’s even more horrific is that every person who had overdosed — every single one — at some point had asked us for help before that overdose.”
But too often, Swann says, treatment is not available. There aren’t enough programs, and many programs typically require insurance, which most of Preble Street’s clients don’t have.
“This battle is being lost to some of Maine’s most vulnerable and at risk people,” Swann says.
Democratic Representative Drew Gattine says lawmakers need to do more to tackle the opioid problem. And a bill he’s sponsoring, he says, targets those who are suffering the most. It would establish a pilot program to provide treatment to 50 of Maine’s homeless.
“The nuts and bolts of this bill direct DHHS to create programs in both rural and populated parts of the state,” says Gattine.
Those in the program would receive medication-assisted treatment, case management and peer support. They’d also be placed in stable housing. That’s a key element, says Dr. Renee Fay-Leblanc, chief medical officer of Greater Portland Health.
“This bill will allow patients to get to a place where they can be successful in traditional substance use programs, and it will save lives,” Fay-Leblanc says.
“Getting into my own apartment was so important for my recovery,” says Brianna Nielsen of Portland. She was among dozens of people who testified in support of the bill, may of whom are in recovery from substance use. Nielsen says she was also homeless for several months, but has now been sober for nearly two years. She owes her success to both getting into a treatment program and stable housing.
“When people are sleeping on mats crowded in emergency shelters surrounded by drug use, it’s so hard to find stability and peace,” Nielsen says.
The pilot program would also target people who are high utilizers of the criminal justice system. Cumberland county Sheriff Kevin Joyce says inmates tell him that they feel safer in jail than when they’re free.
“Because they know the first stop is probably going to be to a friend, and that friend is going to want to sell them drugs, and before you know it, they’re back at it,” says Joyce.
The bill did not draw any opposition. But given the scope of the opioid epidemic, which was responsible for a majority of the 376 drug overdose deaths in Maine in 2016, Republican Senator Eric Brakey asked Portland police chief Mike Sauschuck whether the pilot program is the most effective use of resources, and potentially coercive.
“Especially when we don’t have enough resources to cover everyone who is ready to make that decision for themselves,” says Brakey.
Chief Sauschuck responded with this:
“To be completely honest, I wish we were in a situation where we had so many treatment options we were actively coercing people to get into the system. In fact what we have now is thousands and thousands and thousands of Mainers that are coming forward and saying, I need treatment, and we say, That’s great. Come back in six weeks, and I might get you a bed.”
The bill does not include an estimate of the cost of the program. Drew Gattine says whatever the cost, it will be a more effective use of resources to get people treatment than for them to cycle through hospital emergency departments and jails.
This story was originally published Jan. 17, 2018 at 5:17 p.m. ET.