My mission last week was to find out how things were going with Safe Station since the collapse of Serenity Place. The two entities worked hand-in-hand to shepherd people, from entry to services. I made an appointment with Chief Dan Goonan.
By the time I got to his office on Friday, he was finishing up a meeting with the city’s Emergency Management Services Officer Chris Hickey, who has been credited with the brainstorm that begat Safe Station in May of 2016. Perfect! I joined them in Hickey’s office.
“My goal was getting people to the right services – but we didn’t have enough partners to be able to execute the program to its most effective capability,” says Hickey. He gets up from his chair and goes over to his desk to retrieve a Safe Station services flow chart he just updated.
It outlines changes and additions to the flow, including new partnerships with the Farnum Center Granite Pathways, and local hospitals. It describes the journey a person will take once they enter a Safe Station seeking help for their addiction, depending on time of day.
When Safe Station started, it was an experimental idea. Hickey offered it up as a way to reduce the number of overdose deaths and AMR calls; invite people ready for change to walk in a door, hopefully, in a moment of clarity, instead of the city responding to a drug overdose, too often, too late to save a life.
It was neither proven nor perfect. But it was a fresh idea. To date, several NH municipalities have launched their own rendition of Safe Station, and fire stations from around the country contact Hickey for information. Grateful letters arrive to the fire station from those who credit the program with saving their lives.
“We put a loose plan together, and we ran with it. What happened with Serenity Place was necessary to identify gaps in the system,” says Hickey. “We probably executed it too quickly, like having a new baby. You learn as you go along. What we started with and what we have now is like night and day.”
Mayor Joyce Craig says she agrees with that assessment, that in the aftermath of Serenity Place, a better model is emerging.
“Safe Station was put in place at a point in time when it was an emergency, and we needed an access point for people. Anyone could feel safe and comfortable going to a fire station to ask for help,” Craig says. “However there are other access points now that are available – in Manchester, and in our surrounding communities. The options have grown, and that’s a good thing.”
For nearly two years, every one of the 3,100 people who came through Safe Station went directly to Serenity Place – too much for one agency to handle.
“What we have right now is a more clinical and comprehensive model, and that’s because of all the players that are involved now. Serenity couldn’t do it by themselves. They shot from the heart, and were very passionate and compassionate. Their philosophy was preventing further harm, and that harm-reduction model was extremely effective. But it was the backside execution of it that wasn’t,” Goonan says. “Safe Station identified the great need for services, and the kinds of services needed – from homelessness and mental illness, to sober housing and long-term recovery. I feel like we buried Serenity Place with people. But nobody anticipated the amount of people coming through.”
The original concept for Safe Station was to get people through the door and connected to services for substance abuse. With the addition now of partnerships with Families in Transition, Farnum Center, Granite Pathways, HOPE for NH Recovery and other agencies, the related issues of chronic homelessness, behavioral and physical health issues, legal entanglements, financial strains and family reunification are all on the table.
Part of the new system includes reducing the time it takes for someone to get from Safe Station to the right next place. While we were discussing the flow chart a call coming through dispatch caught Hickey’s ear.
“This is our first Lyft call,” he says, dashing out the door and down to the dispatch center to witness the new process in place for those who enter a Safe Station and are medically cleared for transport.
Using Lyft concierge service, the dispatcher looks at a city map on a monitor to find a nearby Lyft driver. Those overseeing the process can actually watch the virtual car make it’s way around the city.
In this instance, a Lyft driver arrived at Station 7 within three minutes. Less than a minute later that person was en route to Granite Pathways at 351 Chestnut St., which is temporarily set up at the former Serenity Place. From there the person will get a clinical evaluation from a LADC (for Licensed Alcohol Drug Abuse Counselor) to determine the next step.
Hickey returned with the blow-by-blow, with Lt. Leo Roy from Station 7 on the phone for supplemental info. Lt. Roy reported everything went like clockwork. Hickey and Goonan agreed that the new system is already more efficient, and is getting people to the right services faster. AMR last year partnered nationally with Lyft to provide non-emergency medical transport. Goonan likes that Lyft drivers are drug-tested and have regular background checks. Friday’s ride cost was $6.81, minus a discount, “– we get five dollars off our first ride,” Goonan said, smiling.
Goonan says in another recent case, Manchester’s Mental Health Crisis Response team was called for a person who needed help beyond just substance abuse. She quickly ended up at Farnum Center for a medical detox and mental health services.
“That’s something we never had before,” says Goonan, who admits that some people were languishing at Serenity Place too long for one reason or another.
He and Hickey regard Safe Station as an important piece of the recovery puzzle. Responding to the city’s emergencies is what fire and rescue personnel are trained to do. If, along the way, they have helped to reduce stigma and barriers that once prevented people in need of finding services, well, it’s all in a day’s work.
“We’ve learned that we have to run this like a business. We need a plan,” Goonan says.
The mayor says bringing experts and agencies together around the table has helped in retooling a system that began as more of a field hospital, which is now evolving into a community partnership.
“One agency can’t do it alone. You need agencies and the right depth of services to deal with these problems. Safe Station is still a good access point, but now we need to come together as a city – and a state,” Craig says.
“In Manchester we’ve always only talked about Safe Station. I think it’s important to talk about everything available. We don’t know what’s going to be most appealing to someone – you may feel more comfortable walking into Farnum or Safe Station, or picking up the phone to talk to someone. We want to get the word out that there are other ways to access help,” Craig says.
One of the realities Craig found is that hospitals and homeless shelters outside of Manchester are referring people directly to Manchester fire stations for help.
“Quite frankly, we think it’s important to educate everyone on the goal. If someone is at a hospital they shouldn’t have to take a step back to a fire station to get into recovery or treatment. Elliot and CMC have done an awful lot lately in terms of having staff in the Emergency Department who are focused on identifying when someone is addicted to drugs and knowing which agency to call,” Craig says.
Her office released a statement Friday announcing the updated Safe Station plan and partnerships.
“It’s also important to say Manchester fire stations will continue to help those people in need – no matter where they come from – and that those who come will get the help they need through these partnerships we’ve forged, and through City Hall. What we’ve done is made this process better by identifying more options for people. The bigger message we want to get out there is that Safe Station is not the only access point.”
Craig says other issues remain, including making sure available funding for recovery services is accessed, including the allotted portion of the state alcohol fund which is supposed to divert 5 percent of annual profits from alcohol sales toward addiction services. Historically, most of the money has gone into the general fund. She’s met with Gov. Sununu since taking office, and they’ve spoken by phone several times. He’s plugged in and responsive, and made it clear he wanted Safe Station to remain intact following the demise of Serenity Place.
Another unsolved piece of the puzzle: How to address the back-end issues, including sufficient sober living and recovery housing, so that fire station doors don’t become revolving ones for those in need of a fresh start. Goonan is working with Sen. Lou D’Allesandro to tackle the issue of recovery housing regulation.
There are still so many moving parts. Hickey believes the real solutions to this national epidemic will come from the next generation, through education programs based on what we’re still learning, and hindsight. In the meantime, he and Goonan will continue to use whatever resources are available as first-responders to the city’s most critical and persistent emergency.
“We hear that only 1-in-10 people get help for substance abuse. That’s still staggering to me, given the number of people who’ve come through Safe Station so far,” Goonan says. “What the Fire Department did was we helped with the stigma. We didn’t treat people like addicts or criminals. We had two classes here, yesterday and today for staff, to bring everyone up to speed on the changes. It’s been a two-year learning curve, but I’m proud of what they do, and I believe it’s something the fire department needs to continue to do.”
Keeping the public up to speed is also important. To that end, Goonan, Mayor Craig and Health Department Chief Tim Soucy are on the Feb. 6 agenda to present an overview of what happened with Serenity Place, and outline the reorganization of services before the Aldermanic Special Committee on Alcohol, Other Drugs and Youth Services. The 4:30 p.m. meeting is public and will be held at City Hall.
Carol Robidoux is publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.