Frontline groups pitch new, barrier-free programs to help 'sick community'
Deficits in housing, mental health and addiction services lead charities, non-profits to try to fill gaps
Shopping carts piled high with someone's belongings. Tents popping up in wooded areas. People tucked into porticos of public buildings.
Those are just a few of the symptoms of New Brunswick's ongoing challenge with homelessless, addiction and mental health.
Charlie Burrell and Debby Warren say the crisis is getting worse, and it's time for all levels of government to fund charities and not-for-profits who are coming up with new treatment options they believe will help.
"What you're seeing on the streets is the price of doing nothing," said Warren, executive director of Ensemble Moncton, formerly AIDS Moncton. "And so the price of doing nothing is we have a sick community."
Burrell and his crew of volunteers at the Humanity Project serve about 200 meals every day from their building on St. George St. in Moncton. After more than 8 years of talking to people who are struggling, he knows where the gaps are.
That's why the not-for-profit jumped at the opportunity to purchase a 187-acre property outside of Salisbury, in Little River, with the goal of opening a recovery farm for people who need long term, residential rehabilitation.
"The saddest thing I see is when I see people that get out of a detox program or get out of a prison system and they're 60, 70, 80 pounds heavier and they're happy and they're hopeful. And then I ask them, 'Where are you staying tonight, you got to place to stay?'"
Burrell said that in most cases, they don't. They quickly end up back in emergency shelters or living rough, and the hope they felt after getting clean evaporates.
"I always look at them and I say, 'I'm sorry,' he said. "I'm sorry, because I know in a week, two weeks, it's only a matter of time if you stay in that situation I'm going to see you and you're going to be 40 pounds less and you're going to be using needles again, or you're going to be smoking meth again because we've put you back into that environment and expect you to succeed."
Burrell said the recovery farm will include tiny homes for clients where they will have privacy and learn the skills they need to live independently. It will also include 24/7 support and long-term counselling on addictions and mental health.
"You have to give them the tools to be able to cope and to deal with their issues and to understand the triggers when they see it coming and be strong enough to walk away and make a different choice."
The more options the better
Warren said that with a growing number of people struggling with addiction, not-for-profits and charities need more government support to deliver more programs to people who are asking for help.
"It really is about options," she said.
At Ensemble Moncton, Warren and her team already offer a needle distribution program, an overdose prevention site as well as counselling and the services of a nurse practitioner. This summer she hopes to add an injectable opioid replacement program.
She's working with Dr. Sara Davidson of Fredericton's Riverstone Recovery Centre to get it going. The program will give people with addictions a prescription for a replacement drug which they can inject under the supervision of an licensed practical nurse.
With a rash of recent overdoses, Warren points to the program as a way to keep people from buying unsafe street drugs or making other unsafe choices.
"People don't have to steal … people don't have to sell their bodies. So it's a start in that direction. And who knows — as they get stabilized, it's about accessing other services and helping with their recovery when they're in that place and ready to do it."
Study finds barriers to getting treatment
Ensemble Moncton and Avenue B in Saint John are both involved in a study led by Dalhousie professor Lois Jackson.
In phase one, 55 people who inject drugs were asked about access to government-funded drug treatment programs with the goal of learning what "facilitators and/or barriers to access" exist.
The barriers included long wait times, lack of programs in some areas, judgmental staff and strict policies that don't allow clients to smoke.
Warren said what works for one person may not work for another, and she believes not-for-profits and charities wanting to offer new programs should be supported with government funds.
"I don't think government should be in the service industry. This is a personal opinion and observation. Government should govern and I believe that non-profits and charities — it's a really good bang for your buck."
Warren said these groups are able to make decisions and move more quickly than government, and the frontline workers already have great relationships with their clients.
"It is more than just the individual, it's the families," she said. "And we need to do something big. I know that [government is] trying in bits and pieces, but we really need to do it big."
'Methamphetamine is destroying our city'
Burrell said the idea for a recovery farm, outside of the city, isn't his.
"This idea came from thousands and thousands of hours of listening to those that are in an impoverished situation, listening to those who are having hard times getting help for their mental illness, listening to those who are having a hard time, struggling with their addiction. That's where the idea came from."
When the opportunity to purchase the 187-acre property just 30 minutes from Moncton came up, two business people helped the Humanity Project buy it.
Burrell doesn't want to wait any longer for government to come up with solutions, saying the drug problem is only getting worse.
"Methamphetamine is destroying our city," he said. It's scary as hell out there."
Everybody knows we need to do more than we're doing because what we're doing now, it surely isn't working.- Charlie Burrell, Humanity Project
Burrell sometimes walks the streets at night, and has invited Moncton city councillors to join him.
He has asked for $3 million in funding from the city over the next three years to pay for capital improvements at the recovery farm, including tiny homes, and to pay professionals to offer addiction and mental health treatment.
"The one thing with the methamphetamine is, people are quick to act, and they're quick to react. The can go from smiling to violent instantly — instantly. And the change that I have seen in people is scary, and they need the help.
"Everybody knows we need to do something, everybody knows we need to do more than we're doing because what we're doing now, it surely isn't working."
A spokesperson for the City of Moncton said the deadline for requests from organizations looking for financial support is June 17, with decisions about funding made in the fall, closer to the budget deliberations.
"We receive many requests for groups and must take the time to evaluate each one appropriately," Isabelle LeBlanc said in an email.
For Burrell it's not a matter of whether the city can afford to do it, rather it's a matter of whether the city can afford not to.
"Like how much more damage and destruction do you want to watch around you … with their help we take more people off the streets and help more people a lot quicker, which in return saves us taxpayers money, it heals our community, and it starts building a better community."
Warren hopes all levels of government will beef up their funding to not-for-profits and charities with good track records, reminding people that it's not just the people struggling with addiction who are hurting.
"We have family members calling us wondering if their loved one is still alive … and they're calling on behalf of the 13- year-old child of that adult. That's what we deal with.
"Guess who's going to be the next one that frontline groups have to serve? It's going to be that 13-year-old child who was worried about their dad."
Burrell knows he isn't an expert in mental health or addiction, but is asking government to recognize that the experience frontline workers like him have gained can make a difference.
"I deal with mental health and I deal with addiction a lot, but I'm no expert," he said. "And that's why I've partnered with people who are.
"My forte is dealing one on one with people and showing them that someone loves them and cares about them and wants to help them and then moving them forward into the right direction."
Warren and Burrell believe this kind of non-judgmental approach is exactly what is needed to bring down barriers to recovery, and help those who want to change their lives to heal.