The statistics on opioid abuse, overdoses and drug-related deaths in the U.S. are staggering. More people are dying from drugs than automobile accidents, and opioids like heroin and fentanyl killed more Americans last year than the entire Vietnam War.
At the local level, the ravages of the crisis are even more shocking than the horrific and ever-increasing numbers. In many cities, addiction drama has jumped out of screens and news outlets and taken over familiar streets, neighborhoods, homes we know.
Manchester, New Hampshire is one of the places where opioid abuse has changed the landscape. Nearly everyone in this small city has a family member or friend who OD’d or knows someone who does.
First responders have seen their call volume rise dramatically, but firefighters, for example, aren’t chasing more fires. They’re getting multiple calls a day for an “unresponsive person,” which is code for someone deep in the clutches of an overdose.
“Last month was our highest month with overdoses,” Fire Chief Dan Goonan told Fox News. ”We had 118 and we had 11 deaths. ... It’s not really getting better. I think we’re trying to tread some water here and do the best we can with the resources we have.”
Fox News visited with Goonan one year ago to take an in-depth look at the opioid crisis. In the fall of 2016, in the late swirl of the presidential campaign, Manchester was already in the throes of an epidemic.
Local police were teaming up with the Drug Enforcement Agency to try and track drugs from the buyers to the suppliers and get them off the streets.
So far, the strategy hasn’t shown significant results and the workload has gotten heavier.
“We’ve formed a strike force here and we’re pushing cases down to the source — the folks who are actually the command and control. The ones who are making decisions that are really affecting life in New Hampshire … that’s who we’re targeting,” said the DEA’s Jon DeLena, assistant special agent in charge of Northern New England.
Overdoses are now common on the streets of Manchester, even in the light of day.
Lawmakers who didn’t appreciate President Donald Trump calling the state “a drug-infested den” are forced to admit they need federal help and complain it’s not coming fast enough.
This week, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu announced $150,000 in state funds would be funneled to two local rehab programs: Safe Station, run by the fire department, and Serenity Place, which not only treats addicts but employs some of those in recovery.
“A bunch of bureaucrats and the governor aren’t going to solve the drug crisis,” Sununu told Fox News, “but folks on the frontlines of this, folks in recovery actually telling their stories and giving examples of what works and doesn’t work — that’s how you really start making a difference.”
The executive director of Serenity Place, Stephanie Bergeron, said New Hampshire has been hard hit and a lot of promises were made. But, she said, “I don’t think we’re seeing much and if anything is happening we’re just not aware of it yet.”
“Really, right now if it weren’t for private donors we certainly wouldn’t be doing Safe Station, I’m pretty certain of that,” Goonan added.
His department created Safe Station last year because it was getting so many calls on overdose victims that it barely could keep up. The idea was addicts could walk into any firehouse and get an evaluation and referral to a program before it was too late.
Since its launch, Safe Station has helped more than 2,500 people, 62 percent of them traveling to Manchester from other parts of the state.
There are some success stories, like a man named Denis we met last year. He’d lost his estranged wife to a drug overdose, lost his home and lost custody of his son. He found the strength to kick opioids and then found treatment and counseling to prevent a relapse.
Now Denis works full time as a chef and driver for Serenity Place and tries to encourage others to get help.
“People need hope,” Denis told Fox News. “If they feel like nothing they do matters or if there’s no way out of it, then there’s no reason to change but if people provide them hope and a realistic way to get out of that lifestyle, you know — they will go for it.”
Next week Trump will declare the opioid epidemic a “national crisis.” That won’t be news to the people of Manchester, but it will be a much awaited step forward.