Hope for homeless addicts

Jeff vonKaenel

Some days I think I have problems. But last Monday, at the Transitions Clinic, I heard about the difficulties of going through drug withdrawal and the challenges of living on the street with no job and needing a massive amount of money for a drug habit. After hearing doctors, addicts and homelessness advocates speak for a couple of hours to elected officials about the challenges facing homeless addicts, I had a different perspective.

Located in the unrevitalized part of Oak Park, the Transitions Clinic building is like a car with more than 300,000 miles on it. It may need a lot of repairs, but it is still running. We met on Monday in the waiting room. There were two tables. At the first were three Sacramento elected officials: Mayor Darrell Steinberg, Supervisor Phil Serna and Assemblyman Kevin McCarty. At the other table were the experts, including Dr. Neil Flynn and Dr. Alinea Stevens from Transitions Clinic and Tahiri Kraft from Sacramento Self Help Housing.

Dr. Flynn began the meeting by explaining how poverty and homelessness breed hopelessness. The number of homeless people struggling with addiction has increased dramatically. But now there are new, more effective drugs available to treat addicts.

Dr. Flynn is a big supporter of Buprenorphine, which is more familiarly known as Bup, or Subutex. Most experts believe it is more effective than other drugs in treating addiction. It is less likely to be abused and easier to take, but it is also more expensive than methadone.

There are challenges to overcome. One is the limit on the number of patients a doctor can prescribe this drug to, and another is the fact that only a limited number of doctors are qualified to prescribe it. To make things worse, the pharmaceutical company Reckitt Benckiser, which produces Buprenorphine, has been jacking up the price.

These problems seemed overwhelming. Then a middle-aged guy, Steve Hanzelic, stood up and told his story. He had never taken an opiate before he suffered a shoulder injury and began taking prescription pain pills. In time, he became addicted to them. Later, he switched to heroin because it was cheaper than illegal prescription drugs. His life went to hell. He described withdrawal as like having “fire ants crawling in your veins.” But, immediately after taking Buprenorphine, his life changed for the better. No more cravings. Back to normal.

Hanzleic’s story brought hope into the discussion. Supervisor Serna asked why it was so easy to prescribe opiates but so difficult to prescribe medication to treat opiate abuse. Steinberg talked about his plan to find more housing for the homeless.

After the meeting, McCarty told me about his Opioid/Heroin Addiction Prevention and Rehabilitation Act, Assembly Bill 1512, which would fund prevention programs through a small surcharge on each opiate sale. Unfortunately, for the bill to pass would require two-thirds of state legislators to stand up to the pharmaceutical companies.

I also heard about a plan to buy houses that recovering addicts could stay in. This program would be run by Sacramento Self-Help Housing.

There is a lot to do. Those of us at the meeting gained some understanding of the opiate addiction and homelessness problem here in Sacramento, and we heard about some small steps that could be taken toward a solution. But even small steps would mean so much to the people helped.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.