Affordable housing in county a particular challenge for opioid users in recovery

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PITTSFIELD — The man was high, gone back to drugs after being released from incarceration.

Frank Busener picked him up.

He wanted $20 to continue the binge.

When the money wasn't forthcoming, the man jumped out of the moving car.

He eventually overdosed, and is now dead.

But if he had a place to go that day, that story might have been different.

Busener, who works in re-entry support at the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office, told that story to a group of about 20 community members in public health, law enforcement and recovery support at a meeting of the Central County RX/Heroin Workgroup on Wednesday morning.

The work group, an ad hoc organization primarily of local nonprofit and public health leaders, aims to combat opioid addiction in the Berkshires. It is chaired by Jennifer Kimball, coordinator of the Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative, and Gina Armstrong.

Armstrong is the director of public health for the city of Pittsfield.

The meeting focused on challenges to supportive housing for those in recovery in Berkshire County.

Mainly, there's not enough.

"Our re-entry housing is these people in the room," Busener said.

About 20 to 30 people per month are released from prisons and jails into Berkshire County. Some are addicts who need extensive services, including housing assistance.

Affordable housing is a particular challenge — housing authorities don't consider a person homeless if they are in a residential treatment program, even if they have nowhere to go once it's over, said Amy Borden, program manager of Keenan House for Women, a residential recovery program of The Brien Center.

Keenan House, a 17-bed recovery home, opened in November, and there's already a waiting list. Officials plan to close the wait list soon, at least for the time being.

"We don't want to give people false hope," Borden said.

Women face even greater housing challenges in the county, she said.

"There are women who want their kids back, but have nowhere to go," she said. "Women don't want to go into a shelter with their children."

It wasn't long ago that Luke Mechmann, 22, counted himself one of the thousands of homeless addicts in the United States.

He was addicted to heroin and crack cocaine.

Originally from the Bronx/Yonkers area outside New York City, he counts his time at the 29-bed Alternative Living Centers in Pittsfield his eighth try at recovery.

After joining the program last May, he relapsed twice.

But he was welcomed back to the centers, which include wraparound support in the form of meetings, stable housing, food and assistance with employment.

"I needed this kind of structure," he said. "They give you enough rope to hang yourself, or enough rope to tie a beautiful knot."

The sheriff's office has substance abuse programs, but officials want to provide offerings that would teach offenders more life skills, as the Alternative Living Centers do, said Alan Bianchi, who works with Busener.

The office operates a re-entry center on Second Street in Pittsfield, focusing on helping ex-inmates navigate life outside.

"We have a building full of people," Busener said. "A lot of them are hopeless. I think it's our responsibility to give a little light. If there's no opportunity, there's no hope."

Some people in Berkshire County don't have access to the hope that comes from having a supportive place to live in recovery — there just isn't enough space for them.

"Unfortunately, we don't have enough room for everybody who needs it," said Lloyd Johnston, residential coordinator of Alternative Living Centers. Opened in 2012, the centers — two residential homes — provide 90-day and long-term sober living programs.

When people addicted to drugs don't have a supportive environment to go to, the place they call home can be a detriment to recovery.

"The environment may not keep them clean, but it sure can help," said Paul Supranowicz, who owns Alternative Living Centers.

After being released from incarceration, ex-inmates with drug problems struggle to find housing.

"We don't have enough dedicated re-entry housing," Kimball said. "There's all these guys scrambling around to find these individual landlords."

That's if they even have the startup money required to get a place to live.

For women who engaged in prostitution while addicted, the barriers to recovery can be immense.

They might have to walk down the same street they walked as part of prostitution to get to a recovery meeting, Busener said.

"They need our love," he said. "They need our guidance."

Meeting attendees discussed the importance of community partnerships and legislative support for recovery housing.

Kimball plans to speak with the Berkshire County legislative delegation about addiction issues before the Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative's quarterly meeting in March.

"We have a collective voice," said Armstrong, director of public health for Pittsfield. "We know where we are. We know where we want to go. We know where the gaps are."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@berkshireeagle.com, at @BE_pleboeuf on Twitter and 413-496-6247.


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