Board moves on ordinances to address fallout from opioid crisis and gaps in state system

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MANCHESTER, NH – A unified board voted Tuesday to move forward with some adjustments and amendments to existing city ordinances in an effort to address the increase in people coming to Manchester for addiction and homeless services from outside the state’s designated “catchment zone.”

Mayor Joyce Craig introduced several action steps to address “conduct in public spaces.” The first was to remove “overnight” from an existing ordinance that prohibits camping in public spaces, including parks.  The board voted to fast-track that change. 

During the discussion Alderman At-Large Joe Levasseur asked about the outcome of a state Supreme Court decision in Rochester, in which homeless advocates brought suit against the city of Rochester for its prohibition on overnight camping. Manchester was among many municipalities waiting to see the outcome of that case, which was decided in May. 

City Solicitor Emily Rice reported that the court sided with the city.

City Solicitor Emily Rice. MPTV

In that decision, the court wrote: “In this case, even if we assume, without deciding, that the defendant has standing to challenge the enforceability of (Rochester’s ban) as against homeless Rochester residents, nothing in RSA 165:1-a expressly requires municipalities to allow persons to camp, sleep or occupy a vehicle on city-owned property,” referencing  the state  statute that outlines how municipalities must provide aid under the state’s public safety and welfare law.

Rice said in researching various “sit-lie” ordinances they also realized that crafting an ordinance is not enough. An analysis was provided to Aldermen, described as a “road map” by Rice for the “back office structure” needed to support any new or amended ordinances.

Two other unanimous votes were made by Aldermen to send for review to committee one proposal that would “prevent trespassing on public property in certain circumstances” and another that would consider a plan specific to Manchester and homelessness to “return those who are not in crisis back to their home ‘hub’.” Those two items will be discussed at the committee level.

The future of Safe Station was also discussed, after Aldermen Levasseur and Keith Hirschmann said they felt it may be time to phase out Safe Station, which they perceive as a magnet to the city for those who come and then aren’t absorbed into the statewide recovery system.

Alderman John Cataldo asked if the city would be initiating a “residency requirement” for those who come through Safe Station.

“That’s the conversation we’d like to have at the committee level,” Craig said, adding that the city has been making NH DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers aware of the burden on Manchester, with no meaningful response. 

Fire Chief Dan Goonan said he has also been seeking clarity from the state on statistics that reflect 7,000 people accessing services through The Doorway, which is the state’s service delivery system. Goonan said it’s unclear how the state is counting and defining “services,” which may include informational phone calls.

Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan. MPTV

Goonan pointed out that the statewide 211 service, which is supposed to direct callers to services in their area, is basically a switchboard, and the city’s designated “hub,” Granite Pathways, does not have overnight or weekend hours.

HIrschmann applauded a 211 commercial he saw on TV, which he said should help alleviate “people ringing on fire station doorbells.” Craig pointed out that the 211 call system has been in place for nine months and so far it has not relieved the increase in demand for city services from people coming to the city from other hubs. 

“If it was working like that it would be great,” Alderman Bill Barry said. He shared a conversation he had with someone from Manchester who had called Concord and Laconia for services.

“They’re backstepping because they’re not prepared. What’s happening now is when people call 211 they’re being referred to Manchester,” Barry said. “We need to share it. If the state received all kinds of federal funding to implement these hubs, it’s a simple solution, why don’t they just take that money and, using Manchester as a model, put money into those hubs to make sure they’re outfitted with the same [services] we have in Manchester.” 

Above, the cities and towns included in Manchester and Nashua catchment areas as per a presentation to the city by DHHS in January.

Barry said he believes it’s more a matter of NIMBY [not in my back yard] for other communities that don’t want to draw more people in for services.

Levasseur raised the question of failed state legislation that would have mandated Safe Station as a statewide network, including designating other locations as acting Safe Stations where there were no fire stations. He said he could not recall the bill number, but that he did recall chief of police from around the state speaking against it. Craig asked Levasseur to follow-up with the bill number so that it could be researched further. He also questioned the state’s figure of 7,000 people served through The Doorway, asking if that included people coming to Manchester.

Even if Manchester accounts for half or a third of those 7,000, the city is still getting overloaded with people even though the hub system is in effect, Levasseur said. 

“You raise a great point Alderman Levasseur, in that we don’t know what that 7,000 number represents,” Craig said. “We’ve been asking for data for months … we do have data from our Manchester Safe Station, and it is showing last year … for the first time we saw a decrease in opioid overdose deaths and a decrease in opioid overdoses. The doorway started in January, and that’s the only thing that changed, and we’re seeing an increase in people coming to Manchester for help and an increase in deaths.”

Alderman Barbara Shaw said she also recalled the bill, and that DHHS made assurances it would as an agency provide oversight to ensure Manchester did not get inundated. “That never happened,” Shaw said.

Craig also reminded the board that none of the federal money to deal with the opioid crisis has come to the city – it has all been directed to the city’s designated Doorways. The city’s designee, Granite Pathways, has received an estimated $5 million, none of which has come to the city.

Levasseur said he was promised by the governor clearer data from the state on how the money is being spent and the breakdown of the 7,000 who’ve access Doorways. He said he expected the information in time for the October Board of Aldermen meeting.

Goonan spoke in defense of Safe Station, countering statements made by some aldermen as being the source of the problem. Goonan maintained that Safe Station originated to solve the problem of emergency services being exhausted by 911 calls, often for overdoses, with no way for people to find a way into treatment. He noted that Safe Station is being adopted in communities outside of New Hampshire, and said the “hub” system was supposed to create a way to return those who came from outside Manchester back to their hometown hubs. The state has asked Manchester to “be patient,” but no corrective action has been made.

So far, there is no provision for that process in the state’s Doorway program.

Goonan said he thinks the state should require hubs across the state be open and available evenings and weekends. He noted that 27 people came through Safe Station on Saturday and Sunday because there were no other open Doorways, including Granite Pathways, Manchester’s designated hub. The majority of those served were from outside Manchester.

He said that the reason hospitals in Manchester and Nashua did not want to buy into the Doorway program is because they supported Safe Station in those two communities, and didn’t have faith in the state’s proposed system.

“I call all the hubs, all the time, and they tell me they’re ‘spoking’ folks down here all the time because they don’t have the resources for them.” They can give them suboxone and some MAT (medically-assisted treatment), Goonan said.  There’s a front door but no back door.

Alderman Tim Baines. MPTV

Alderman Tim Baines asked whether the city’s legislative delegation has been advocating for the city on the Doorways issue, to which Craig said that the federal allocation for the Doorways went through the Executive Council for approval because it is a state contract.

Baines also questioned a statement made by Goonan on a video clip circulating through the media, in which he described Manchester as “the epicenter of the drug crisis in the United States.”

“That’s a big statement,” Baines said. “Obviously when Safe Station started I’m sure you didn’t envision it was forever … if this board were to take a vote hypothetically to close Safe Station, what do you envision would happen, and do you truly believe that quote, that we’re the epicenter?”

“We’re No. 3 in the country, and I’d say probably 03101 is No. 3 in the country per capita for the fentanyl crisis, that’s a hard and fast statistic, so that’s an easy one,” Goonan said.

“If we closed Safe Station I think there’d be more homeless, truthfully. You gotta  think that even if our statistics are 100 percent correct, 50 percent of those coming into Safe Station are from Manchester, so obviously there’s a huge problem in Manchester as well as the state, so to close down Safe Station, that would be a  big mistake,” Goonan said. “I would assume deaths would go up and people in crisis coming to Safe Station,  if we turn them away or if they had nowhere to go, who’s to say? It’s a hard number to capture.”

Craig reiterated that Safe Station was initiated in 2016 because there was no other access point to service for Manchester residents, and it was never intended to be a statewide hub.

Levasseur noted Goonan’s passion but stressed that he still supports shutting down Safe Station

“Whenever something closes people find another place to go,” Levasseur said. “I think it should be [shut down] for a reason. Manchester has given its heart and soul, I can’t imagine if you put a price on it, mayor, on what we expend on a yearly basis … what this homeless crisis and vagrancy has done to our reputation as a city, what it has done to the morale and spirit of people who live here citywide … we have given enough, this city has given enough.”

Alderman Joe Levasseur. MPTV

Levasseur said closing Safe Station is the only way to force the state to adjust the system.

“If we want the state to start doing their part and their share, and other cities and towns to do their part and their share, we have to cut the cord. It’s time to cut the cord and say no more,” Levasseur said.

Alderman Tony Sapienza noted that solving homelessness and the opioid crisis is a persistent national problem, with no easy or obvious fix, adding that the immediate issue before Manchester is the way other municipalities are being allowed to dump those in crisis on the city.

“We don’t have the capacity. We have to change the dynamic,” Sapienza said.

Alderman Dan O’Neil said residents must report problems to the police directly rather than calling 911 or posting on social media to properly document and address the issues for tracking purposes.

“We need to talk about the three-legged stool – substance abuse, mental health and homelessness. We have to get out of these silos of just talking about homelessness or substance abuse,” O’Neil said. “We have to focus on that three-legged stool because it all ties together.”

Goonan described the opioid drug crisis as “a terrible relapsing issue” for which people can come in repeatedly for help until finally, something works. 

“This is a perfect storm … we have tons of mental health issues and homelessness created because there are no [other full-time shelters] in the state. I don’t think Safe Station is the main driver here I think it’s because all the other shelters are shut down,” Goonan said. “What I would ask is let us work on a Safe Station 8.0 and have hubs help us get people back to where they’re from.  [Safe Station is] working for our community, for the 50 percent of people from Manchester coming in. Let us work on it at the committee level and hopefully get some connection from the state” to establish treatment options in other parts of the state.

Added Goonan, “You can say what you want about Safe Station but people are coming for a reason. It’s a proven access point, and the state should get other hubs open while we’re open.” 

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