Say yes on Measure S: help those living on the streets

Earlier this month I spent several afternoons walking along Telegraph and then Shattuck Avenues because I wanted to talk one-on-one with the people, particularly the young people, who are sitting and lying on the streets panhandling.  I judged that almost all of them have serious alcohol and/or drug problems and many of them are also mentally ill.

As a medical doctor specializing in addiction treatment, I know that the people on our streets are at grave risk of becoming disabled or dying as a direct result of their drug use or from the medical complications of their use and lifestyle.  Deaths from overdoses of prescription opiates, heroin, and Methadone are rapidly rising, particularly in adolescents; and alcohol, methamphetamine and cocaine overdoses remain all too frequent.

With drug and alcohol abuse so prevalent on our streets, we know that we also have another serious problem – drug dealers promoting drugs to our high school, middle school, and even elementary school kids, many of whom frequent our downtown every day.

We may think this is just a problem in Berkeley, but it is also a situation that is broadly accelerating nationally.  In 2009, the CDC released a report stating that drugs now kill more people in our country than traffic accidents. The World Health Organization announced in 2011 that alcohol and alcohol-related causes are responsible for more deaths than AIDS, tuberculosis or violence.

There is some good news on the streets in Berkeley. In the past four years the Host Ambassadors working on Shattuck and Telegraph have persuaded dozens of street people to accept the services which are so readily available in Berkeley. Many of them are now clean and sober, housed, getting good medical and mental health care and leading productive lives. Through increased interaction and education regarding the new Civil Sidewalks ordinance, Measure S will make it much easier for these outreach workers to persuade often resistant people to accept services. It’s not easy work, but the Ambassadors are good at it and they know the services well, and they care deeply. They have already saved many lives. And, in rare case where citations are written, the City or the courts will waive citations for those entering services.

Earlier in my career I worked at Oakland Children’s Hospital in Urgent Care at night and on weekends. Much of what I saw there – the accidents, abuse, and long-overlooked medical conditions – was the direct result of parental substance abuse leading to abuse and/or neglect of the child. And then there were the overdoses and drug seeking behavior in the children and adolescents themselves. It was truly heartbreaking to witness the extraordinarily vulnerable children falling into the same pattern as their addicted parents.

This experience was the reason why I changed my specialty to addiction medicine after 30 years in pediatrics. I felt the biggest need was for treatment of substance abuse, which I have come to see as the major cause of homelessness, child abuse, domestic violence and other types of violence and crime.

I was born in Berkeley, live in Berkeley and work in Berkeley. I founded Options Recovery Services 15 years ago to serve Berkeley’s homeless and indigent community and provide an alternative to incarceration for people with addiction problems. At our downtown Berkeley facility we provide state-of-the-art substance abuse treatment. Options has its own mental health clinic and 140 beds of clean and sober transitional and permanent housing for clients and graduates of the program. To date, more than 6,000 people have received treatment and we have yet to turn anyone away. There is no waiting list – everyone is taken in immediately.

Measure S will help get people to our door and, thereby, save lives. The people on our streets need help, not handouts. Measure S will get desperately ill people into treatment, mostly with the help of our Ambassadors, who are trained to reach out to the street people and case manage them into services. Substance Abuse Treatment is free and immediately accessible in Berkeley to everyone.  Help us save lives by joining me and State Senator Loni Hancock in supporting Measure S, Berkeley Civil Sidewalks.

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Davida Coady MD MPH is Founder and Medical Director, Options Recovery Service