Safe Space For Chittenden County Addicts Could Be Gone By Month's End

Nov 25, 2015

An unassuming two-story house on the outskirts of downtown Burlington has become an unlikely refuge for heroin addicts. But a funding crisis means the doors are about to close, and advocates say addicts, and the community at large, will pay a steep price if people lose access to the clean needles and overdose-reversal kits handed out here daily. 

There's an orange, poster-sized piece of paper taped to the front of a supply cabinet in the main office of the Safe Recovery Program. Every time an addict uses one of the overdose-reversal kits handed out here, one of the staff draws a small black line on the paper. 

"You can see on here that we've had 423 so far since December of 2013," says Tom Dalton, program coordinator for the Safe Recovery Program. 

They're beginning to run out of room.

The federal grant that's kept this place operating over the past four years will run dry at the end of this month. 

Dalton and Grace Keller are the last remaining members of a staff that once numbered seven. Their search for replacement funds has turned frantic as they try to save a program they say addicts desperately rely on.

"They know that they're going to find somebody who's welcoming, who's friendly, who wants to help them," Dalton says. "And we're going to listen to whatever it is they say we need, and we're going to try to help with that."

It's not that funding for the syringe exchange and overdose-reversal kits handed out here is at risk. The Vermont Department of Health will continue paying for those. 

But Dalton says the Safe Recovery Program offers the kind of environment where addicts will actually feel comfortable accessing them. 

Clients don't need an appointment. They don't have to pay any money. They don't even have to give their name.

"We're the site that has access to the people who are likely to be present at an overdose," Dalton explains. "If we're not reaching those people, those people aren't going to be reached." 

Tracy Dolan, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, says the funding was tied to a federal HIV-prevention program. 

"We are a very low-incident state, and in part of because of that the federal government will not renew the money coming into Vermont for that purpose," Dolan says.

The Safe Recovery Program is run under the auspices of the Howard Center, which is now asking state officials to come up with the $140,000 annually needed to keep it running. The pitch has so far been unsuccessful. 

News of the looming cuts first began circulating publicly after a report last week by the online news site, VTDigger.

"It's important work, there's no doubt about that, and so it is tough," says Dolan. "We have always more need than we have resources."

Since Safe Recovery Program began serving clients under that grant, not one of the program's clients has contracted a new case of HIV, according to Dolan. Dolan says that gives the department high confidence there won't be any outbreaks in the future. 

Dalton says it is precisely because the Safe Recovery Program exists that the HIV prevalence has remained low. And he says all the clean needles and overdose-reversal kits in the world won't addicts if they don't have a safe place to access them.

Chittenden County State's Attorney TJ Donovan says the Safe Recovery Program is a unique space that accommodates the needs addicts, and he says its loss would undermine the public-health approach Vermont is trying to bring to opiate dependency. 

"This organization is really playing a vital role in keeping community safe and healthy." - Chittenden County State's Attorney TJ Donovan

Donovan, a member of the Howard Center board, is pressing policymakers to fund the program.

"This organization is really playing a vital role in keeping community safe and healthy," Donovan says.

The Safe Recovery Program has handed out more than 5,000 doses of Naloxone over the past two years, and it's now enrolled nearly 4,000 members in a syringe-exchange program that safely disposes of more than 200,000 syringes annually.

Keller says relationships with addicts born out of syringe exchange and Naloxone frequently lead to treatment and recovery. 

"Some of the big victories that we see in our work are the people who were so shy or so quiet, not saying a word, and then slowly building that relationship with them to the point where they ask you for help," Keller says.

The program completes more than 250 referrals to the Chittenden Clinic annually, and connects vulnerable addicts with other social services.

Dalton says it's the relationships that define the program. 

"It says, we care about you, we care about your health, and we care about your wellbeing," Dalton says.

He says he's convinced that without the Safe Recovery Program in place  — the black lines celebrating overdose reversals over the past two years — will become casualties of opiate addiction in the future.