Advocate says it’s time to change the tone of the conversation around the homeless and addicted

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Eric Spofford of Granite Recovery Centers, right, talks with Jess Helton, who has been living homeless in Manchester for several months, but suffering from opioid addiction for years. Helton did not accept a bed at Granite Recovery Centers on Nov. 18. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – Following Friday’s eviction of the homeless living on the state-owned courthouse property, the city refocused on identifying a centralized location where those without shelter can find warmth and provisions.

Of those living on the courthouse grounds, 22 were transported by the state to “respite beds” the day before state police moved in to carry out the eviction. The beds were provided through a contract with Granite Recovery Centers, a deal brokered by Governor Sununu. Of those who left, several were transferred to treatment, freeing up some of the 22 beds which were again offered on Friday to those at the encampment.

It was a partial solution for a fraction of those in need, but for those fortunate to have the chance, things seem to be going well, says Eric Spofford, founder and CEO of the recovery network.

“Generally, it’s been a great success,” Spofford said on Saturday. “Since Thursday we only lost one person who didn’t come back. But the rest had belongings scattered here there and everywhere, mental health appointments, and we were able to give them rides and facilitate all of that, and we met everyone’s needs. We’ve gotten several into treatment, so they’ve left but for positive reasons,” Spofford said.

He knows how hard the road to recovery can be for the most lost of souls. He once dwelled in that dark place himself, finally rebounding from countless stints in recovery to overcome his own six-year heroin addiction. His program is based on everything he learned about what doesn’t work.

“It’s important we change the tone around this conversation. I dislike how they describe them as ‘Manchester’s homeless people.’ To us and to me these are people who – most of them – have substance use disorder. All but one of the 22 who came to us do. And they are people that suffer from the same condition I was fortunate enough to get well from 14 years ago, the same condition that’s taken 500 lives a year. So I’m glad to see them getting help and make positive changes in their life. These are people who need help,” Spofford said.

When he opened New Hampshire’s first sober house in 2009 in Derry it was met with a lot of NIMBY backlash and resistance. But times and minds changed, as more people were affected and afflicted and the dire need for resources became clear. Six years later, Granite House was named NH Business of the Year by the Greater Derry Londonderry Chamber of Commerce. And in 2018, Spofford was honored by the U.S. Small Business Administration as  Young Entrepreneur of the Year for New Hampshire and New England.

The accolades are nice, but Spofford takes them in stride. He has to. As someone in recovery, he knows firsthand the fragile existence so many live on the other side of addiction. For every success story, there are countless others who stumble, fall and die.

“It comes back to my mantra that I’ve been screaming for 12 years, there’s a scarcity of treatment beds in New Hampshire. The biggest challenge we’re facing with these folks who are homeless and in need of help is they’re going into withdrawal from alcohol and other drugs, and they need treatment and step-down programs to get them back to life. If you could give me an open checkbook it still wouldn’t solve the problem,” Spofford says.

Somewhere around 2013, when fentanyl came along and people were dying daily, first responders were scrambling just to save lives. Things shifted rapidly and an incredible number of people began to understand the grasp of addiction.

“Granite House came about in 2008-09, but the opioid epidemic started exploding in the late ’90s, and it didn’t get any airplay until 2016 during the election cycle, only because of people dying at scale. So for almost 20 years this went largely unchecked with old-school prohibition and  tough on crime tactics, the whole drug war philosophy of ‘lock ’em up. When you look at the course of 20 years, since oxy took off and created the suburban NH heroin addict, we’ve only been doing this on the front page with political attention and communities rallying behind it for about five years,” Spofford says. On such a large scale social problem, that’s not such a long time.”

Granite House
Granite House, now located on West Broadway in Derry, started out as a multi-family residence in a Derry neighborhood with a dozen people living in recovery. Eric Spofford, founder, lived and worked one-on-one with them. Courtesy Photo.

Granite Recovery Centers has grown from one small multi-family sober house in Derry to 15 facilities around the state with 400 beds in a full continuum of care model, which includes withdrawal management, residential and sober living, and outpatient services. Right now there are about 300 people in treatment for addiction through Granite Recovery Centers.

Recovery from addiction is not a one-size-fits-all situation. With the rise in Medication-Assisted Treatment or MAT, Spofford says while that works for some, it has also contributed to the rise in suboxone use, the synthetic drug used to shift addicts away from illegal opioids, which is now one of the most prevalent street drugs.

People broken by addiction need time to recover and be resilient. Giving them a dose of medicine may address their drug habit but it doesn’t help piece their lives back together.

“Almost all of those who came to Granite Recovery Centers from the courthouse on Thursday are on MAT, so I’d ask does that look like a solution?” he says.

Those who want to argue as to whether the homeless really want or deserve salvation, or who get caught up in the semantics of whether addiction is a disease or a choice are missing the point, Spofford says.

“We have grandmas that took off with a prescription pill addiction and wine, and we have middle-aged business people – lawyers, company owners, all types, along with folks who’ve gone to the bottom of their addiction,  and have experienced significant trauma and may have experienced homelessness. We get them from all social classes and walks of life,” Spofford said. 

What works for one may not for another, and those who have lost everything to their addiction are often the hardest to reach.

Blaming those in the throes of addiction for making a choice that led them down a spiraling path is pointless.

“Human beings make bad decisions, all human beings. You don’t go into hospital and see someone with lung cancer and berate them for starting to smoke at 14. You don’t see anyone say to someone with diabetes that you shouldn’t have eaten that crap your whole life. Where’s the compassion? I stand guilty of having made a bad decision, and if you’re going to judge that then you better be on a mountain top of good decisions you’ve made your whole life,” Spofford said. 

Until we have everyone rowing in the same direction, there will be no real progress, he says.

He says he’s worked collaboratively with the state and local municipalities, including Safe Station, to get people into recovery.

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Eric Spofford, CEO of Granite State Recovery Centers.

“For that I’m grateful and appreciative, but I also poke fun at them when people look to the state to fix this problem. Have you ever been to the DMV? This is the largest social problem human beings have ever faced, to expect the government to be the end all be all solution is unreasonable,” Spofford says.

He dislikes the politics around recovery and the bureaucracy that stymies real solutions. He loves the idea of communities taking action, and the principle of “it takes a village.”

“Granite Recovery Centers is a byproduct of my own advocacy, of seeing a problem and finding solutions, and I don’t think until we get the engagement of the community rowing in the same direction we could ever make meaningful progress on this issue in New Hampshire,” he says.

As far as what individuals can do if they feel the urge to help, there are a few things.

“They’re hungry – food helps. All the typical stuff you may do for someone experiencing homelessness but while you’re doing that, also be encouraging them to get help, and then help facilitate that. Do they need to go to a detox program? Then get educated on what resources are available, let them use your cell phone to make some calls. Give them a ride. Find out what are their barriers to recovery and then help to start to remove the barriers,” Spofford says.

Peers in recovery are vital to the equation.

“It’s my personal belief if you’ve been saved from this condition, you owe. You need to get busy helping others. I feel I’m serving out a lifelong indebtedness because I didn’t die with a needle in my arm like I was supposed to,” Spofford says. “There isn’t anybody who can’t do something. You don’t need to be in recovery or have a degree. The information is out there and there’s work to be done.”


About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!