Taking on the Opioid Crisis in New England | City of Ideas

Posted 07/25/2016 by Sandy Kendall, James Burnett

Jim O'Donnell, board member at the CSH and president of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, spoke bluntly to say that because of overdoses "the presence of death on the streets is palpable now," reminding him of the early days of the AIDS era. "The homeless often teach us what problems are coming the way of the mainstream," he observed.

Representatives from across the region showed their states' data in similar graphs, all depicting deaths from various substances such as alcohol or other drugs holding steady, while deaths from heroin and other opioids have shot sharply upward in the last several years. This is the trend that Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services and keynote speaker Marylou Sudders said we must bend through a broad spectrum of work, from prevention through intervention, treatment and recovery. "The path to recovery pulls together housing, treatment, employment, and hope," she summed up, adding, "The government has a strong role, but not an exclusive one. We need new solutions to the homelessness and pain --both physical and psychological-- that often starts the cycle of drug use."

Sudders was addressing an impressive collection of government and nonprofit professionals --representing the six New England states plus New York-- gathered at the Boston Foundation to share what their organizations are doing in the areas where healthcare, addiction, homelessness and incarceration intersect. As noted by the afternoon keynote speaker, White House Senior Policy Advisor Katherine Klem, several themes emerged from the shared comments and concerns of these practitioners. Chief among theses is a new focus on the power of data --both for understanding the problems (e.g., within the spike of unintentional overdose deaths of the last few years; Fentanyl is implicated in more than 50 percent of cases) and for assessing results of initiatives (e.g., prison recidivism rates). Not far behind come the needs: the need to break down silos within and between government agencies; the need to change perceptions so people see addiction as a chronically relapsing disease rather than a character flaw; the need to reach out to parents and families regarding substance use disorders and, of course, the need for more resources to get all of this and other new ideas going full steam.

A critic on Twitter wrote last week that it will take more than meetings and conversations to properly address opioid addiction. It will take action in the streets, the critic wrote. And they were right. It takes experts leading teams that engage addicts, loved ones, and enablers, and employ best practices to help them get better. Those experts? They were the people convening at the Boston Foundation last week, comparing notes, and sharing with one another what's working and what's not on the streets in their respective states. As finding solutions go, "conversations" don't get better than that.


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