LAKEWOOD, Ohio–It’s a blue-sky summer day in this small city immediately west of Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie. Lakewood Mayor Michael Summers sits at a polished wood table in his sunny office, talking about death.
Last weekend, he says, six people overdosed on opiates in the city. Two didn’t survive.
As the state’s opioid crisis has intensified, it has hit this millennial-heavy inner-ring suburb particularly hard: Both overdoses and overdose deaths more than tripled in Lakewood from 2015 to 2016, with 141 overdoses and 31 deaths last year.
“We’re overwhelmed,” said Summers. “I think conventional wisdom was ‘this will get better.’ It’s not getting better.”
So in the fall, the city plans to launch a program to help residents get into treatment faster. Called Project SOAR (Supporting Opiate Addiction Recovery), the program will:
- Deploy four “peer support specialists” — people in long-term addiction recovery — to intervene with people in the emergency department after an overdose, in the municipal court probation office, and in one local fire station, which will be open around the clock for people who need treatment referrals;
- Provide rapid access to treatment and recovery resources for those ready;
- Track the impact of the program to see if it can be replicated in other Northeast Ohio communities.
The city doesn’t have a specific fall launch date for the program yet, and is waiting to hear if it will receive about $300,000 in federal funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) to pay for SOAR’s peer support specialists.
William Denihan, CEO of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County, helped the city apply for that three-year grant. Lakewood is just the right size for such a program, Denihan says, and has the support of the mayor’s office, making it more likely to succeed.
“The grant will enhance the program a great deal, but Lakewood is going to move forward regardless,” Denihan says.
‘We have to do something’
Planning for Project SOAR began in January when Lakewood city leaders sat down with more than 20 local and regional partners, including churches, businesses, healthcare providers and state representatives to talk about what could be done to respond to the area’s obvious problem.
It was starting from a position of strength. The city was one of the first to give naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug, to its police and first responders. Lakewood also has six full-time narcotics officers — more than any other suburb in the county, according to Mayor Summers — devoted to cutting off the supply of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil, which have become increasingly common and are far deadlier than heroin.
Lakewood is also home to a number of sober living, treatment and recovery housing facilities, including The Lantern Center for Recovery, The Woodrow Project, the Catholic Diocese’s Matt Talbot addiction treatment center, and the recently-opened Lean In Recovery Center.
Still, many Lakewood weekends are like the recent one Summers described: multiple overdoses, and often a death.
That may be in part because Lakewood, which has more rental properties than the surrounding area, is a popular residence among the demographic most affected by the opioid crisis: young, white, middle to lower-income people. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50, and Lakewood has about 13 percent more people in this age group than the rest of the county.
Summers says he isn’t sure exactly why Lakewood is so hard hit, but “we have to do something.”
For now, that something will be “playing defense,” Summers says. Project SOAR isn’t prevention, he says, because it will target people after they’ve had an overdose.
“We have a lot of people overdosing, and we know from experience that a lot of them are second- and third-time overdoses,” he says.
When the program launches, SOAR will send peer support specialists to the Cleveland Clinic Lakewood emergency department when a person is being treated there following an overdose to offer help getting into treatment, says Katie Kurtz, clinical manager for Lakewood’s department of human services.
“For those who are ready for treatment in that moment, we’ll have prioritized linkage through our partnership with the ADAMHS board,” she says.
Summers stresses: “That means we’ll have a bed.”
The ADAMHS board will also help with assessing each person to figure out which level of care he or she needs.
If a patient who is a Lakewood resident refuses help or isn’t ready for treatment, SOAR team members will try again within a week with a home visit, Kurtz says, “to remind them that we’re here and that recovery is possible.”
The city’s Fire Station No. 1 on Madison Avenue will also open this fall to anyone — resident or not– who wants help getting into treatment. It’s modeled after New Hampshire’s Safe Stations program, which has made fire stations in that state’s two largest cities into access points for people seeking addiction treatment.
“They can go in and they’ll be assessed by a trained fire or EMS worker and then a peer support specialist will help link them to resources or treatment,” Kurtz says.
Peer support specialists also will work with the Lakewood Municipal court probation office to help people suffering from addiction within the court system who want to get into treatment.
Peer support key
SOAR borrows not only from the Safe Stations model, but also from some techniques in use closer to home. The program has based its within-a-week follow-up in part on Colerain Township near Cincinnati, which is deploying a police officer, paramedic and addiction counselor to the homes of residents who have recently overdosed to help them into treatment.
That model, launched in 2015, has attracted the attention of other cities and states.
SOAR uses the key principle of peer support from one of the addiction recovery world’s oldest communities, Alcoholics Anonymous, to deliver what Summers says is its most important impact.
“I have to believe the secret sauce here is the relationship that peers can create. That’s the magic moment, I think,” he says. “That moment of ‘Hey, I’ve been there.'”
Gina Bonaminio, 23, of Cleveland, works at Lakewood’s Woodrow Project and will act as the coordinator for the specialists.
Bonaminio grew up in Lorain County and has been sober 3 1/2 years after a heroin addiction that began with prescription pain pill use when she was 16. She knows what it’s like to feel beyond help.
“In the recovery world we call it terminal uniqueness,” she says. “When we’re in the throes of our addiction we really think there’s nobody out there who understands what we’re going through and who can help us with anything, be that recovery or anything in life.”
When people who share the same experience come together, it breaks down those barriers, she says.
“When somebody like me gets into that room in the emergency department, it can save someone’s life.”
Lakewood officials and their partners are confident Project SOAR will save lives.
There’s a lot they still don’t know about how the program will work, how or if they’ll track the people they refer to treatment, and what the effects will be on overdoses and addiction in the city.
“This has become so huge that it’s way far ahead of us,” Kurtz says. “We haven’t caught up yet. There aren’t any evidence-based models or best practices so we have to lean on other programs that have shown promise.”
One thing that’s clear to Summers as he thinks about the six people who had overdosed on that late-June weekend in his city, and the four who survived: Any attempts to fix the problem are going to take a long time to work.
“We have to keep trying. It’s too important,” Summers says.
If you or a family member is struggling with an addiction in Lakewood before Project SOAR launches this fall, you can contact Katie Kurtz with the City of Lakewood at (216) 529-5011 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit onelakewood.com/facing addiction for more local resources.