MANCHESTER, NH – Creating a shelter where addicts can find safe haven from the streets until the pathway to their recovery is clear has been a bittersweet endeavor for Kriss and Mark Blevens.
If only a place like this had existed when Amber Blevens needed it, she would likely still be here. If she were still here, a place like this wouldn’t exist.
On Friday, Gov. Maggie Hassan visited the center and helped cut the ceremonial ribbon, along with Mayor Ted Gatsas and Hope for New Hampshire Recovery Director Holly Cekala.
It was a formality, as Amber’s Place has already helped 25 “guests” – and counting – find treatment over the past three weeks, during a “soft” opening.
After three “regulars,” who had been coming to Hope for NH daily for support died of overdoses in one week, Blevens said there was no more time to wait. The problem for many of those in recovery is that a 9-to-5 community center can’t answer the call of desperation that comes in the middle of the night. Since then, Hope for NH has established a system for on-call volunteer recovery coaches, and Amber’s Place is where they can come when there’s no place else to go.
As far as she knows, this is the first emergency rescue shelter of its kind in the country. Those who most typically have survived a heroin overdose, once medically cleared in a hospital emergency department, can stay up to 14 days while actively seeking treatment and recovery solutions, says Blevens.
“This is a porthole for the sickest of the sick, for those whose next stop is either another arrest, an overdose or the morgue,” says Blevens.
It is a free service staffed around the clock by peer recovery coaches, which includes meals, a cot and basic supplies, and a community of others in recovery, who wrap themselves around those in need like giant hug from humanity.
Blevens and her husband have bootstrapped the endeavor, for the most part, investing some of their own savings, reaching out to friends and local philanthropists, and starting a GoFundMe page. On Friday the center received a $5,000 check from the Dan Duval Charitable Trust, which was matched by another generous donor.
That should keep the shelter up and running for, maybe, eight more weeks – thanks also to donations of food and clothing, which keep pouring in.
“I got a thousand-dollar check from a woman who came into my salon to have her brows waxed yesterday,” says Blevens, who is a full-time evangelist for recovery, even while running her successful Kriss Cosmetics salons in two Manchester locations.
Although Amber’s Place currently shares space with Hope for NH Recovery at 140 Central St., Amber’s Place will eventually take over the entire space, once Hope for NH relocates to the old Hoitt’s Furniture building, on Wilson Street.
Blevens says the immediate goal is saving lives, getting people into treatment and replacing the existing narrative of shame and punishment with one of love and compassion.
Area police departments, including Goffstown and Manchester, will begin using Amber’s Place as a diversion shelter for those who have been charged with non-felony crimes directly related to drug use, says Blevens.
Sort of like drug court, without the court, she says.
“They have a choice as to whether they want to go to Valley Street, or Amber’s Place. They will still be held accountable for their crimes, but if they remain in recovery, say six months down the road, it will definitely change their outcome legally,” Blevens said. “If they leave Amber’s Place, they’re in big trouble.”
It would be a tangible way to slow the revolving door addicts currently find themselves stuck in, whether it’s one that leads back to the criminal justice system or a hospital emergency room, for lack of recovery options.
Add to that Hope for NH’s presence in the city – the state’s first community peer recovery center providing support for addicts in recovery – and it feels like a First in the Nation blueprint for how to reverse the addiction and overdose statistics, which continue to climb here, and around the country.
Also climbing: The number of people walking through the door of Hope for NH, which last month was 2,600 people.
From Amber’s Place, guests may go on to a 30- or 90-day treatment program, or just find housing and an intensive outpatient treatment program.
Other Hope for NH locations are about to pop up, with plans solidifying in Concord and Berlin — and beyond, with the notion that planting as many community recovery centers as possible around the state is a proven way to keep addicts from returning to drugs and the trappings of their former lives once they get out of rehab.
There has been no state or federal funding released for these programs. On Friday Hassan said it is an “all hands on deck” situation, and she is hopeful that pending legislation will soon remedy that, noting some remaining “bureaucratic hurdles.”
Those in the trenches can’t wait for government money, so they will continue to do what they can with what they have, and keep relying on the generosity of the community at large.
“It takes incredible courage, not just to walk in the door and ask for help, but to stay and receive it,” says Blevens.
In the long-term, the idealistic goal is to shut Amber’s Place down, for good.
“That is truly the goal, to shut the doors here, because we get to the point where it’s not needed anymore,” Blevens says. “Wouldn’t that be beautiful?”
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