A crisis, not a crime:  How Holyoke Police are treating addiction

  • Donald Abrahamson, foreground, of Holyoke talks recently about the recovery he began last year with help from the Holyoke Police Community Center. He spoke during a group interview with people who work at the Community Center. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Donald Abrahamson of Holyoke talks about his recovery last year during an interview Feb. 29 at the Holyoke Police Community Center. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Johan Ortiz, second from left, a recovery coach with Behavioral Health Network, talks Feb. 29 about his work with those served by the Holyoke Police Community Center. Joining him are, from left, Juliet Ochoa, program coordinator for the RFK RUTA Mentoring Program; fellow recovery coach Harrison Corales-Moreno, standing; Elizabeth Sudler, director of recovery coaching at Behavioral Health Network; and Hampden County Deputy Sheriffs Liandro Gonzalez and Ernst Jean-Louis. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Police Sgt. John Hart talks about the mission of the Holyoke Police Community Center during an interview Feb. 29 at the center on Race Street. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Donald Abrahamson of Holyoke talks about his recovery last year during an interview Feb. 29 at the Holyoke Police Community Center. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Elizabeth Sudler, director of recovery coaching at Behavioral Health Network, talks Feb. 29 about her work with those served by the Holyoke Police Community Center. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Police Sgt. John Hart talks about the mission of the Holyoke Police Community Center during an interview Feb. 29 at the center on Race Street. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Juliet Ochoa, program coordinator for the RFK RUTA Mentoring Program, talks Feb. 29 about her work with those served by the Holyoke Police Community Center. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Recovery coach Eddie Rodriguez, second from left, talks about working with Donald Abrahamson, foreground right, of Holyoke with his recovery last year during an interview Feb. 29 at the Holyoke Police Community Center. Joining them are Ernst Jean-Louis, left, and Sean Garvey, third from left, both with the Hampden County Sheriff's Department. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Donald Abrahamson, foreground, of Holyoke talks Feb. 29 about the recovery he began last year with help from the Holyoke Police Community Center. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Police Det. Joseph Emiterio talks Feb. 29 about the mission of the Holyoke Police Community Center. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Retired Holyoke Police Capt. Alan Fletcher, center, and others involved with the Holyoke Police Community Center talk in one of the offices of the Center, which is located on the second floor of the Steam Building at 208 Race Street, on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. Joining him are, from left, Johan Ortiz, a recovery coach with Behavioral Health Network, and Liandro Gonzalez, Sean Garvey and Ernst Jean-Louis, all with the Hampden County Sheriff's Department. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Retired Holyoke Police Capt. Alan Fletcher talks about the mission of the Holyoke Police Community Center on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Police Sgt. John Hart leaves one of the offices of the Holyoke Police Community Center after a meeting with others involved with the center. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/6/2020 9:13:33 PM
Modified: 3/6/2020 9:13:19 PM

HOLYOKE — For 11 years, Donald Abrahamson dealt with the chronic pain that came from breaking his neck by taking the oxycodone his doctor prescribed.

But like many Americans who grapple with the disease of addiction, Abrahamson stopped seeking medical care and eventually started using heroin. When he bought a house and moved to Holyoke in 2017, he said, his access to the drug increased.

“I just moved right into heroin city,” Abrahamson said. “It was like everywhere I looked — it was heroin.”

Clean since June, Abrahamson is determined not to become a statistic in the country’s growing and destructive opioid epidemic. He wants to help others, just like people helped him at the Holyoke Police Community Center at 208 Race St. The space is home to teams that follow up on opioid overdoses and crisis calls to connect struggling community members with recovery and other services.

The opioid intervention efforts are funded by two grants from the federal Department of Justice. Recovery coaches with the Behavioral Health Network in Springfield, along with narcotics intervention officers, staff the center Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. A state grant funds a crisis clinician through Behavioral Health Network who works Monday through Thursday from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Another federal grant allows for city police and the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department to use the center as a hub for community policing, where officers go out into the city and conduct education and intervention and also make referrals to the center’s other teams.

Holyoke Police Sgt. John Hart secured those grants for the department. He explained that plainclothes officers, along with recovery coaches, physically respond to active overdoses in the city and also follow up with the subjects of those calls. Once a person is connected with a recovery coach, the client is assisted in accessing detox beds, medication-assisted treatment and residential or other programs if willing. The follow-up is similar for crisis calls, Hart said, adding that the staff clinician will also respond and follow up to make referrals to programs, sometimes along with a plainclothes crisis intervention officer.

FCoaches and clinicians help refer clients to the center’s partners, Hart said, which include health service providers such as Tapestry Health, Hope for Holyoke, Gándara Center and others.

Workers at the community center don’t just wait for a person to overdose. Holyoke Police Detective Joseph Emiterio said much of the center’s mission falls under “proactive policing,” which he described as officers and coaches going out into the communities hardest hit by the opioid crisis to tell people about the services at the center before an overdose happens.

“It’s about making that connection, spreading the word and getting people to know about it,” Emiterio said.

A coordinated community response team meets monthly to talk about improvements to the center, and they work directly with the Hampden District Attorney’s office and Holyoke District Court in jail diversion programs, Hart said.

The center also reviews the police arrest log, where staff members follow up with people charged with possession and shoplifting, as those are often related to drug use, Emiterio said.

In less than a year, the center made connections with 380 people — 70 of whom have been assisted into a detox or medically assisted treatment program, Emiterio said. Officers and recovery coaches use an app developed by the community center for easier case management, Hart said. Michael Krezmien, director of the Center for Youth Engagement at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is the researcher and evaluator for the center’s two opioid grants.

For Abrahamson, being connected with a mentor was exactly what he needed. He said he’d lost his friends due to heroin, but recovery coach Eddie Rodriguez, who was the first coach to work at the center, became his confidant. Abrahamson said Rodriguez gave him the strength to continue with his recovery.

Rodriguez remembers living in Puerto Rico, begging for money at the height of his own drug addiction. It’s those experiences that allow him to build credibility and connect with clients, he said.

“We’ve had a lot of names come here without faith, without hope,” Rodriguez said. “One word, maybe one hug, maybe one ‘I believe in you’ made the change.”

‘There’s a reason’

Because the community center also answers crisis calls, sometimes the crisis clinician or officers will not know whether the call is related to drugs or mental health until they respond or follow up, said Elizabeth Sudler, director of recovery coaching at Behavioral Health Network. Hart said some calls used to “fall through the gaps,” as they weren’t properly documented in the police logs, though now overdoses and crisis calls are clearly marked so they aren’t missed in follow-ups.

Workers at the center — regardless if they are tasked with opioid or crisis calls — communicate with one another to make sure people are connected with the resources they need, Hart said.

Speaking from his own experience, Abrahamson pointed out the connection that can exist between drug use and mental health issues. As he put it: “You don’t just overdose because you want to overdose. There’s a reason.”

Hart agrees. He said that, in the past, crimes like simple possession of drugs, along with crisis calls, could often lead to arrests. But 85% of the police department is now trained by Behavioral Health Network in crisis intervention.

“Now that’s the last tool on our belt,” Hart said of arrests.

A nascent program like the police department’s community center doesn’t come without its challenges. Hart said it’s often difficult to find detox beds offsite for people who want them, as they are in high demand. He said the center is considering having a few beds of its own so staffers can monitor people for a day or two, but he added that cost is a hurdle.

Workers at the center say their main goal is to offer referrals to a wide range of services so each client is given ample opportunity to find the help they need.

“One solution might work for Donald, but that same solution might not work for someone else,” Hart said. “So, we have multiple pathways and gaps that we’re filling.”

Sudler said workers at the center seek to be “relentless” in identifying and providing resources to those who want and need help. And for recovery coaches like Rodriguez, the chance to help people struggling with addiction is “the gift that God put in my hands,” he said.

Then there are those who want the help, but “they just don’t know how to get it,” Abrahamson said. “You gotta get out there somehow and tell them it’s there.

“And when you get it, it’s good — good things happen,” Abrahamson said. “I still got my house, I still got my puppies, I still got my girl, I still got everything I came in here with and I didn’t lose a thing because I beat it. And I refuse to let it take me down.”

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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