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Safe Station program goes mobile to connect homeless with addiction, mental health services

With the original services of the once-innovative Safe Station program now available through Catholic Medical Center, the Manchester Fire Department has begun a new phase of Safe Station. It’s gone mobile.

Three times a week, a team that includes firefighters, mental health workers and shelter managers has been visiting homeless camps in the city.

Fire Chief Dan Goonan said the effort is to get some 175 homeless camp residents more connected with the help they need to fight problems such as substance abuse or mental illness. And they try to convince them to move to shelters, an effort that he acknowledged is not going so well during the summer.

Many of the people in the camps are the same people they would see at Safe Station, he said.

“Getting out to where people are has been so valuable,” said Mayor Joyce Craig. “The response from the individuals has been very positive.”

The demand for the service may be increasing. Experts predict a 40% rise in homelessness nationwide, much of that due to economic problems associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2016, the Manchester Fire Department created Safe Station, making every fire station an access point for drug users to be linked to treatment, services and medical care. It was replicated in locations nationwide, and Goonan hosted President Donald Trump and other top officials to showcase the program.

But Safe Station notoriety has been fading. Gov. Chris Sununu’s Doorways program leaned away from fire stations as entry points for services. And earlier this year, Catholic Medical Center assumed the formal Doorway function.

Goonan said he created the mobile response team with federal CARES Act money and $265,000 annually provided by Sununu to address homeless issues.

“The global image of firemen is they’re there to help,” said Bill Rider, president of the Greater Manchester Mental Health Center.

After a few visits, the people in camps realized the crisis team was there to help, he said. Conversations started. Nurses helped people with injuries. At least eight were hospitalized for psychiatric problems. At least 16 applied for government benefits.

On July 1, a headcount found 173 people in 31 camps, including the four camps where officials had been supplying toilets, sinks, food deliveries, police coverage and trash pickup. The city discontinued those services late last month.

The goal is to encourage camp residents to move to the shelter, but on July 1, the shelter was hosting only 18 people who came from the camps.

Goonan said four out of every five people in camps are suffering from mental health problems. Rider said poverty and homelessness are a cause of the mental illness.

Goonan, Craig and Rider explained the effort to U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who visited the Central Fire Station to discuss a surge in overdoses and the mobile response initiative.

The long-term solution is to find permanent apartments for the homeless and to continue to provide supportive services once they land in an apartment, said Meghan Shea, vice president of clinical and supportive services at Families in Transition.

But funds are hard to come by.

The federal CARES package provides $3.75 million in emergency solutions grants to address homeless issues in New Hampshire, but Shaheen said that is being held up by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Shaheen said that HUD has yet to issue guidance that is used before the money can be released.

“Issues like that are really frustrating because the money gets passed, and then it gets held up either at the federal or state level and it doesn’t get to the people who need it,” Shaheen said.

Craig noted that only 38% of the people queried in the camps say they come from Manchester. The mayor said it’s important for other communities to develop plans to prevent homeless people moving to Manchester.

“It’s a tribute to your success that they can come here and get help but they can’t go any other place,” Shaheen said.