On the front lines

On the front lines

As young people and families find themselves affected by the opioid crisis, Brattleboro wrestles with the question of funding priorities for the human-services organizations that provide support at all levels

BRATTLEBORO — Members at this year's Annual Representative Town Meeting approved a 1-percent local-option sales tax, a measure projected to add more than $600,000 to the town's coffers.

That decision prompted a spirit of generosity in some of the Town Meeting members - one that sometimes began to seem like a spending spree.

After considering suggestions that included doubling the allotment for human services and even putting all the new revenues into that budget line, members also approved a 15-percent across-the-board hike in donations to 27 nonprofit service agencies and organizations.

A good deal of the discourse during the meeting centered on the challenge of the opioid addiction crisis and its relationship to other problems that the town faces. While other causes received stronger additional financing, members were acutely aware of the opioid crisis in town.

For Brandie E. Starr, who became the new chair of the Selectboard on Monday and also works as an outreach case manager for Groundworks Collaborative, the discussion helped to set a priority for the board in the coming year.

“The town's involvement in the systemic opiate crisis conversation did not begin at Representative Town Meeting, and it will not end there. I promise you that,” said Starr in a Facebook communication.

“The entire system of the Human Services budget is going to be looked at, to make sure that it accurately addresses actual need in a way that makes sense,” she said.

'Addiction is the problem'

Local social-service agencies face resource constraints, but a deeper challenge may be how best to use the resources that do exist, and how such agencies can work together and coordinate their efforts as part of a comprehensive plan.

Different agencies focus on different issues, but some of those that deal with children, youth, families, and dislocated people see that many challenges have their roots in the opioid epidemic.

James Douglas, 61, a local advocate for people experiencing homelessness, would agree.

“I do not believe homelessness describes the problem any longer,” said Douglas, who has lived without a permanent home for much of his life. “Housing for people is a must, but I do believe this is a drug epidemic and not a homeless crisis.”

“Those that are not on drugs and become homeless generally find the help they need,” he said, acknowledging how difficult and complex that may be. “Addiction is the epidemic that needs to be addressed.”

In scores of interviews over the past six months by The Commons with people who are dislocated and those who serve them, the problem of substance-use disorder has been a constant theme.

One source who has worked closely to the problem said that while struggles with drug dependency might not be the precipitating factor, it is nearly always present in people's stories about how they wound up with the hardships they face.

Youth in the shadow of opioid epidemic, directly and indirectly

Christine Linn, the director of youth development programs at Youth Services, helps young people in need find stability in terms of housing and work.

In her role with the local non-profit that serves more than 2,500 clients each year, Linn often works with youth who come from unstable or problematic family situations and who are now independent while still lacking support systems.

“I've been in my position for a couple of years, and I was a case manager before that, and if I go through my list of 80 to 100 clients over that time, there is not a single one that doesn't have either severe mental-health issues or severe addiction issues,” she said.

Those issues did not always directly affect her clients, she said. Often, the role of drugs in the lives of family members indirectly created the hardships.

Linn described one client as a teenaged woman with younger teenage brothers. All have been in the care of the Department of Children and Families.

“All of the kids have been couch-surfing at one point or another, even the 13-year-old,” she said. “The grandmother is a severe alcoholic, and the mother was leaving the kids, even a 5-year-old, alone for several periods at a time when she was out scoring.”

“So, yeah, it's everywhere,” said Linn.

The lack of family structure coupled with the end of high-school years and emergence into adulthood is a particularly vulnerable point of transition, she said.

Linn said that many agencies, including Youth Services, have extended their services to those who are in their early and even mid-20s, noting that even when systems are in place and housing and work are found for these older youth, they are still vulnerable.

She remembers clearly the experience of helping a young woman and her two young children find work and stability in her life. Her client had finished her high school credential, she had a job, and she and her children had a roof over their heads.

“And as I was driving away, I was thinking, like the crisis is over, and now there's a woman who has experienced incredible traumas and has overcome all these hurdles, and now she's in this apartment by herself working the job, and is she able to handle that?” said Linn.

Linn and other service providers talked about the importance of adult volunteers in supporting young people at risk or in transition, and how some people might flinch at the concept and commitment of this sort of mentoring.

Still, she said, mentoring requires less time than many people think.

She said that she understood how people flinch from the commitment that the concept of “mentor” implies, and that it might require a time commitment that most people are not ready for.

“I get that they may think it would be too much,” she said. “But really, we could just use some help on a Friday afternoon if somebody had two hours.”

Kids affected directly and indirectly

Based in Brattleboro and in operation since 1975, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Windham County is also trying to step up to the challenge of addiction by serving children and youth affected by the problem.

The organization matches caring adult mentors to children in need, and it currently serves 48 young people.

The BBBS chapter recently received grants from its national organization as well as $15,000 in federal funding to create a program to serve additional area children whose families have been affected by addiction.

Kimberly E. Diemond, the executive director, said that the grants would enable BBBS to match mentors to 10 children or youth who have been affected directly by the opioid crisis, along with an additional 20 children or youth who are considered “at risk” and living in rural communities, including children whose lives have been affected indirectly.

“Across all youth-serving organizations, there are just a lot more challenges that these kids are facing these days, especially when you add in a family member that is suffering from addiction,” Diemond said. “Then that's a whole other level.”

Diemond hopes mentors will be strong role models for the children in the program and that they will also be “willing and able to learn more about resiliency, about how trauma in childhood can affect a child, and then how outside support can help build their resiliency back.”

“The ins and outs of addiction itself are complicated, so we're definitely going to be asking more of these particular volunteers,” she said.

According to Diemond, BBBS in Vermont has a waiting list of more than 150 children and youth at any given time, and she said that locally, at least 65 find themselves on the waiting list.

She described a three-part challenge: depending on volunteers to take on the work of mentoring a young person, recruiting adequate staffing to provide support and supervision and, most of all, developing the financial resources required to support the system.

“Yeah, we have a lot of kids on a waiting list,” Diemond said. “We're looking at ways to increase our funding sources so we can hire more staff, so we can serve our kids. That's the challenge.”

For high-school students and families, 'the true culprits'

Some younger sources suggested Henry Zacchini as one who is attuned to the challenges that some youth face in Brattleboro.

A social-studies and economics teacher at Brattleboro Union High School, Zacchini said that it was essential to see the problems of area youth as a reflection of social inequalities and a lack of supportive resources that affect the whole United States.

“There are ways that social class and the advantages that play out at the national level also take place in Brattleboro,” he said. “There are kids who have social advantages and can take advantage of every opportunity and all the school has to offer, and there are kids that can't, mainly because of their family circumstances and backgrounds.”

Zacchini described a “divide partially along social class lines, and partially along family lines, in terms of who has access to family and those who have resources at home, and those who don't.”

“Part of what's going on is a broad-scale attack on the middle class and the working class of the United States,” he added. “And that's been going on for nearly five decades.”

He described “a massive erosion of resources taken from the working class and pushed toward the top 1 percent, or the top 0.1 percent, a massive re-allocation of resources to the top of the pyramid.”

“And that has left the rest of us holding nothing, or almost nothing,” said Zacchini.

He talked about the ways in which young people bring outside problems into the classroom and the way that teaching can feel as though it has as much to do with social work as it does with classroom instruction.

“That kind of damage to resources has impacted families and made them stressed out,” he said.

As a result, “it's made my job as a teacher and that of my colleagues less like teachers - though, of course, we do that - but more like mental-health workers or social-workers,” Zacchini said. “So many of the kids we have in class, their families are in crisis, or highly stressed out.”

“People say, oh there's drugs in Brattleboro, oh there's crime in Brattleboro. But they're never looking at the true culprits,” said Zacchini, referring to the ways in which the current economic framework of the United States has created a very small group of people with huge wealth, along with a seemingly permanent underclass.

“They're never looking at the true-the true culprits in the scenario,” said Zacchini, “and the culprits are not necessarily those in Brattleboro. There are larger sources of thievery that have taken those resources from people.”

Connections direct and indirect

For a school district its size, Brattleboro Union High School offers a rich array of extracurricular opportunities, from sports, music, and theater to options for study abroad and a career-services program. For students who don't engage in these options, for whatever reason, the Brattleboro Boys and Girls Club sometimes makes up the difference.

The club operates somewhere in a middle ground between the schools, the programs that places like BBBS provide, and the services that a more comprehensive non-profit like Youth Services have in place.

For Ricky Davidson, the executive director, the challenge for the nonprofit is to provide a range of support structures, from drop-in opportunities to regular programs, and sometimes interventions that engage other agencies.

The Flat Street facility provides a place where kids can drop in after school and find fun things to do together, or to see an older person with whom they have connected.

It's also a place that is not immune from the crisis of addiction.

“The kids that come to the club, many of them are connected in some way [to the opioid epidemic],” Davidson said. ”It's not necessarily directly, but indirectly, like somebody in their family, maybe somebody lives in their apartment building, a friend of the family's, whatever, might be struggling with an opioid addiction.”

“But what I see our youth really dealing with is other substance-addiction issues that aren't opioids - they haven't gotten to the level of the opioid crisis yet,” he said. “I'm not convinced they're not going to go there.”

“We don't deal with the opioid crisis every single day head on, but we are dealing with kids that are struggling with [questions like] 'Should I be smoking pot with some people that are making bad choices? Should I have gone with my friend who invited me to go Juul down the street?”

The young people who have started down this path “are struggling with the addictions and the problems that are coming from those things,” said Davidson.

“And I think that's something that we're trying to address every single day, whether it's supporting a kid who's making a good choice or really trying to help a kid who's made some bad choices to turn it around and make better decisions and healthier choices for themselves.”

Davidson talked about how supporting nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Club is not simply a matter of directing help to individuals in need, but also a way of helping the whole community.

“When you support nonprofits in the area, you're supporting friends and neighbors and supporting the whole community, because it's the person who lives across the street from you, or next door to you, or the person you pass on the way to the grocery store or the post office who is struggling,” he said.

“When you're working with folks who are struggling, then you're helping to lift everybody else up, and everyone gets to rise with them,” said Davidson.

“We're a small community, and we have big city problems,” he said. “I've been in Brattleboro since the 1990s, and the thing I've noticed in the last 10 years is that when you compare us to Detroit, or Chicago, or New York City, we're nothing as far as population goes, but we have all the same problems - maybe even at a greater scale.”

Questions of priorities

Some observers and participants came away from Annual Representative Town Meeting on March 23 thinking that decisions made there - such as adding $90,000 to the $10,000 initially requested for energy efficiency while approving only a symbolic increase in funding for social services - indicate that the town has its priorities wrong.

Brandie Starr does not agree.

“When we're talking about housing and the systemic opiate crisis, it's actually better that we have this time between now and next Representative Town Meeting to get the right people together at the table to figure out exactly what is the best use of funds,” she said.

On her to-do list? RATM agenda items focused on “safe housing, available housing, and serious public discussion about the opiate epidemic,” she said.

Christine Linn suggested that when residents feel overwhelmed by local issues, or frustrated, or think that “bootstrapping” is the answer, they should also consider what is going on in human terms.

“People should really push themselves to ask, 'Why is a young person in a homeless shelter?'” she said. “'What have they had to get through that this is where they are?'”

“I really just wish people would push themselves to find compassion and empathy, rather than blame, or hopelessness, or whatever,” she said. “We can't get through any of this if we can't get people to a place of empathy.”

James Douglas - no stranger to experiencing homelessness - speaks eloquently to the ways in which concerns about the natural world and concerns about people are really part of the same spectrum.

He says the answer lies in healing.

“We need to take care of Brattleboro like we would take care of ourselves, and if we don't take care of ourselves properly, then we know where to start,” he said. “If you are one of those who are already doing well at taking care of yourself, then it's time to help others learn how to do the same.”

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