A mother’s plea to Lexington’s Opioid Abatement Commission: Listen to the voices of suffering

by Laverne Zabielski

An opioid addiction disease has taken over Lexington. The Opioid Abatement Commission recently appointed by Mayor Gorton and scheduled to meet this Friday, Sept. 15 has the opportunity to enact solutions. Citizens are suffering. People in Lexington don’t know how to deal with the sudden rise of addicts and homeless roaming our streets, sleeping and camping on public property and often, because of a lack of public toilets, defecating.

Ky House Bill 248 provides no provisions for harm reduction or housing first. They expect complete and total abstinence. Where does the Legislature think those suffering from an opioid addiction disease are to live? The Opioid Abatement Commission has the power to address these issues. I am grateful that the courts have ordered the corporations and individuals who knowingly allowed the proliferation of this destructive drug to pay reparations.

My daughter has been homeless, living on the street for four years. She could be your daughter or sister. If you’ve been around Lexington, you probably saw her dance with Syncopated Inc. at the Singletary Center or in Woodland Park. Now she sleeps there sometimes. She may have served you at Alfalfas restaurant. She made huge oatmeal cookies at Everybody’s Health Food store. She went to Henry Clay High School, played basketball, and studied fiber art at UK.

But life didn’t turn out for her. And it isn’t as if she hasn’t tried. She is probably an expert in chasing down agencies, making phone calls from borrowed phones only to listen to answering machines say they will call you back. How do you call a homeless person back? Sometimes they have phones, sometimes they don’t.

I’ve called agencies. I leave messages. I don’t get a return phone call either. And if it’s a weekend, everything is closed. Once I heard a story on the radio about how people with disabilities and mental illness qualified for a room during a cold winter. She called and all they said was she didn’t qualify.

She and many others need housing first. A room to sleep in, not on the street or in somebody’s shared tent. A place where they can focus and get on a path toward getting off the street. You can’t get your life together when you’re sleeping in a culvert during a rainstorm.

Some say addiction is a disease. Others call it a choice. Maybe it’s a little of both. Providing housing and medical treatment on demand allows those addicted to opioids the help they need to address their disease and make appropriate choices for healing. This cannot be done while living on the street.

Many tell opioid addicts to go to rehab. It’s not that easy. It is very painful to detox from opioids. And if an addict has gone once and not been successful it is even harder to go again, because they know the pain they will confront. Nonetheless many go as many as seven times before a successful detox. Some are never successful and they begin to wonder if there is a difference between the rehabs that Medicare pays for and the rehabs that say Medicare is not in their network.

Some of these private rehab agencies do offer a cash plan of $30K per month. And after detox, the opioids have so altered the brain that prescription maintenance drugs need to be prescribed. Often it takes two years to rewire the brain from the damage that the opioids have caused. Detox and one month of rehab does not solve the problem. Housing, medical care, and education/job training is needed. This is what the reparations from the producers of the opioid drug crisis are supposed to pay for.

My concern is that the commission members will be afraid to draw upon the lived experiences of the addicts and their families as evidence of what is needed. My concern is that those suffering will have to remain on the street while more research is being pursued. Their lives will continue to be at risk. If we expect addicts to handle their disease, then we need to help them facilitate the complicated, maddening bureaucracy they must face in order to get the housing and medical care they need. If they are to be healed, they need to get that housing and that care now.

Laverne Zabielski, a writer and community artist, studied art at the University of Kentucky and received her MFA in Writing at Spalding University in 2004.

This piece originally appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader. It is republished with permission of the author.

Top photo: Laverne Zabielski, far left, watches a presentation at the Lexington Opioid Abatement Commission’s Special Meeting at Carver School on Friday, September 15. (The Lexington Times)