MANCHESTER, NH – The success of the city’s experimental Safe Station project is evident in a few important ways.
First, there are the numbers, which are watched closely by Christopher Hickey, the city’s EMS officer and, more to the point, the guy who came up with the idea of designating all the city’s fire houses as “Safe Stations” for those seeking relief from drug addition.
It was a simple idea that is resonating, and growing.
At a news conference on Wednesday it was announced that the number of drug overdoses in the city for the month of January so far is way down: 26 – well below the 60+ overdoses reported in January of 2016.
More than 1,000 people have walked through the door in the past nine months. It’s a phenomenon that has given Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan a crash course in the world of addiction and recovery.
“If this were just a program where we pushed people back out into the community after giving them Narcan, it wouldn’t work. I feel like I’ve gotten a master’s degree in the recovery business in my first nine months as Chief. I find myself worrying about what’s going to happen to them once they leave my station,” Goonan says. “That’s where the focus is.”
He now understands fully that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Each individual has different needs and circumstances, Goonan says.
Secondly, there’s the buy-in – everyone from Mayor Ted Gatsas, to community health and financial institutions, and even individuals, are partnering with the initiative, to support the unorthodox but effective pathway to treatment Safe Station provides. Yesterday it was announced that the program – via one of its sustaining partners, Granite United Way – received a $75,000 boost from Anthem Foundation, and another $100,000 – a personal gift from Joe Reilly, NH Regional President at Eastern Bank, and his wife, Venetia. And there is more in the pipeline, according to Stephanie Bergeron, executive director of Serenity Place.
But the true success of the program can be measured by a guy like Madisen Peterson. Three months ago he thought suicide was the only way to free himself of a life that had spiraled out of control. He was in a deep and active heroin addiction and had been in trouble with the law, was “stealing, lying, cheating,” to feed his habit.
A friend told him about Safe Station, and how she found help in Manchester. So Peterson, 25, made the 50-mile trek to the “big city” for one last chance at the life he longed to live, free of drugs.
It was a giant leap for someone who had never been far from his small New Hampshire hometown.
“I was scared to come to Manchester. I’m a small town boy. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought it was going to be full of gangs. Turns out it was the best thing I ever did,” says Peterson. He has been heroin-free for 94 days, and counting. He now volunteers for Serenity Place, which is where those who enter recovery through Safe Station begin their journey.
And he wants to be an EMT.
“I just want to save lives,” says Peterson. “They saved my life, so why not try it, and give back?”
He says if there were a Safe Station in his small town of Farmington, there would be lots of people coming through the door.
“There’s nothing in my town, no support for someone like me,” Peterson says. “But I guarantee if they opened up a Safe Station, a lot of people would walk through the door.”
He says the trouble is that many addicts are also addicted to chaos, and so getting clean without the support system inevitably leads them back to the chaos.
“It’s a struggle every day for me, but it’s the people who keep me going,” Peterson says. “It’s a long way from my town to Manchester, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Coming here and coming to Safe Station saved my life.”