In Our Own Backyard: How United Way is Responding to the Opioid Crisis

After seven children in their programs lost parents to opioid use, the Beverly Children’s Learning Center responded with more programming and family events to provide resources and support to parents and caregivers. South Shore Stars reports 22% of their clients’ children are in foster care or living with a relative other than their parent, primarily due to substance use disorder. To help provide more support to these children, they established a peer support group for grandparents. Jewish Family and Children’s Services created a program called Project NESST, that works specifically with parents in recovery to help them rebuild relationships with their children.

In a recent survey conducted by United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, more than 70% of human service organizations who responded report the opioid crisis is a “very big problem” that has changed the way they approach their work in their communities.

Ripple Effect

Since 2013, Massachusetts has seen a 60% increase in opioid overdose deaths. There is good news to report this year: according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the rate of opioid deaths declined in 2017 by 8.4%, the first rate decrease since the opioid crisis gripped the state.  

United Way’s nonprofit partners are responding to the crisis and changing their approach.

“There are so many ripple effects of the opioid crisis for the children and teens of parents with substance use disorder,” says Katherine Kobos of the YWCA of Lowell. “Not only are these youth more likely to become addicted themselves, but they are also subject to other significant risk factors, such as educational neglect, homelessness, lack of adequate nutrition, anger management issues. It is so important to provide more one-on-one services and small group programs for these high-risk youth and teens.” In response, the YWCA of Lowell is increasing access to food during all program hours and are sending additional healthy food home with children and youth whenever possible.

The Boys and Girls Club of Lower Merrimack Valley reports they have seen many overdoses in their community in ages ranging from youth to adults. As a result, they have increased their focus on prevention and programs that build self-esteem among young people. The South Shore YMCA is redoubling prevention efforts, increasing programming to encourage safe, responsible decision-making and working to curb high-risk behaviors following an increase in opioid-related deaths among young people they serve, with some close to their staff.

The impact of the opioid crisis is being felt among organizations providing services to individuals and families experiencing homelessness.  

“As in other parts of the state, the rate of opioid use and overdose on the South Shore has grown significantly in recent years,” says John Yazwinski, President & CEO at Father Bill’s & MainSpring. “It has greatly impacted individuals experiencing homelessness in the region, and over 40% of those we serve struggle with substance use of some kind.” As a result, Father Bill’s, which rehouses and stabilizes program participants as quickly as possible, has trained all of their staff on the use of Narcan and strategies to promote safer use and has established multiple community partnerships to help participants access treatment in a timely manner.

Other nonprofits report partnering with local and state government and community-based organizations to address the issue. The Neighborhood Developers in Chelsea, saw a 62% increase in substance use disorders – from 112 overdoses in 2014 to 181 in 2015.  The impact was visible in the city’s downtown, with opioid users in distress in public spaces.

The community responded with an innovative approach, known as The Chelsea Hub, a coalition of local government and nonprofit agencies that meet weekly to strategize on ways to help individuals and families in need of services. Since its creation in 2015, overdoses in Chelsea have declined each year to 137 in 2017. The work is part of a larger effort known as Chelsea Thrives, a coordinated effort to reduce crime and improve safety in the city.  

Education and Empowerment

This month, United Way is partnering with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health,  Partners HealthCare, RIZE Massachusetts and the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Services for the City of Boston to host a free educational panel for staff at human service organizations across the region to learn more about the opioid crisis in our communities and the resources available to respond to the issue. The goal is to provide professionals on the front lines with the background and resources to better address the epidemic.  

In 2016, more than 70 staff representing over 30 human services organizations attended a similar two-day workshop at Wentworth Douglas Hospital in Dover, NH, which was organized and funded by United Way of the Greater Seacoast. Participants reported being better equipped to refer clients to treatment and recovery services and better utilize strategies to address substance use disorder with the children and families they serve.

“They reported feeling more empowered instead of overwhelmed,” says Lauren Wool, Senior Director for Community Impact at United Way of the Greater Seacoast. “They were reassured they do not need to be a treatment expert, and that they can play a critical role in connecting the individuals and families they serve to the professionals and the organizations that can help.”