Harm reduction and overdose prevention emphasized by Catholic Charities

Staff report

Catholic Charities of Onondaga County champions the homeless and those who suffer from substance abuse.

CCOC has been awarded a $750,000 grant over three years to help deal with the opioid crisis in the community.

Michael F. Melara, the executive director of CCOC, said the grant is funded by Onondaga County and will enable CCOC to work with nearly 800 individuals a year who are struggling with opioid addiction and are at high risk of overdosing.

Through the hiring of specialized clinical staff and the implementation of harm reduction strategies, the agency intends to prevent overdoses which, many times, can lead to hospitalization and death.

Keeping these individuals safe and alive, despite their addiction, will lead to opportunities for treatment. It is expected that most, if not all, of the target population will be housing-vulnerable and homeless individuals who are at highest risk of overdosing.

Here are questions posed by the Catholic Sun, with answers from Executive Director Melara.

What is the genesis of the grant?

Onondaga County released a Request for Proposals to distribute $3.7 million it received from settlements to lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies tied to the opioid epidemic.

The Onondaga County Legislature assigns the $750,000 over to you?

Onondaga County and Catholic Charities will enter into an expense-based contract. Catholic Charities will begin activities in the coming months and submit cost-related vouchers to the County for reimbursement.

Does “over three years,” mean you receive one-third each year? When do you get the first installment of the grant?

Contract development is underway so we do not have specifics but it is likely that the project will represent $250,000 in activities in each of three-consecutive years, for a total of $750,000.

Has anybody quantified the “opioid crisis” in our community, other than the general sense that there is a problem?

The Onondaga Health Department has been involved in tracking and understanding the community’s opioid crisis. In 2021 there were 186 unintended opioid related deaths in Onondaga County. This number is steadily increasing.

How do you find these 800 individuals who will benefit, if they are homeless or housing vulnerable? 

In recent years the Catholic Charities Men’s Shelter has served more than 700 individuals annually. Catholic Charities also provides subsidized housing and supportive services to over 330 formerly homeless households each year. The agency also serves hundreds of people through its emergency services and food distributions activities. Many of these individuals suffer from substance abuse issues or have a family member who does. This new effort will both train to identify and work with people who are at risk of overdose and otherwise struggling with opioids.

CC will hire specialized clinical staff — how many and exactly what kind of staff?

Catholic Charities will hire three credentialed, specialized staff to work in its Permanent Supportive Housing program, the Hope Connections Peer Recovery Center, and at the Men’s Shelter.

The specialized Permanent Supportive Housing Case Worker will promote harm reduction and treatment in their work with the clients who have the most severe substance abuse issues and to support recovery for clients who successfully seek treatment. This specialized Case Worker will carry a caseload of 20 formerly homeless clients.

The specialized Hope Connection Peer Recovery Coach, like all of our Peer Coaches, will have lived experienced to draw on in working with people in pursuit of recovery. This new Peer Recovery Coach will recruit and work with people overcoming opioid addiction through the agency’s Men’s Shelter, Intake Center, Emergency Services, Permanent Supportive Housing, and other programs, as applicable, and will carry a caseload of 12.

The Harm Reduction Coordinator will work out of the Catholic Charities Men’s Shelter. In addition to implementing the project throughout the agency, this person will be able to focus on and build relationships with the guests of the shelter. This will include leading overdose prevention activities and practices at the facility such as ordering/dispensing naloxone/fentanyl test strips, regular staff training and support, guest outreach/assessment/evaluation/ intervention, and treatment/recovery promotion and referrals. The Coordinator will also investigate all overdoses/naloxone-related incidents at the shelter to help develop appropriate, real-time changes to policies and procedures, as appropriate.

When you say “work with,” what does that mean exactly? Do you mean psychological counseling or job training? How do you eliminate a person’s desire to take opioids?

We cannot necessarily eliminate the desire to take opioids. Instead we are trying to keep people safe and help them begin to make healthier choices.

Much of the work is focused on harm reduction and overdose prevention. This involves distributing information, Fentanyl testing strips to help people avoid overdose, and Naloxone to prevent overdose-related deaths. Catholic Charities staff regularly saves lives by administering Naloxone. The more people in the community that have access to life-saving tools and information, the fewer overdose deaths there will be.

In terms of both promoting harm reduction and supporting the recovery of people overcoming opioid addiction, the Peer Coach will first and foremost be an individual who has lived experience in their own substance use/opioid use and/or mental health recovery journey. Peer Coaches provide guidance and empowerment to individuals striving to improve the quality of their lives. This includes establishing person centered goals around harm reduction and/or abstinence, healthy community connections, and personal, emotional, and spiritual empowerment. Working to develop healthy coping skills and emotional regulation is also critical. Peer Coaches are a unique community of individuals that empower, advocate, and mutually support people in their own recovery journeys.

When do the first beneficiaries of this program get their first “harm reduction strategies” and what would those strategies be?

Substance abuse, harm reduction and treatment support will be discussed with all clients during shelter intake. They will also receive Fentanyl testing strips and Naloxone.

Shelter workers and other agency staff will determine if their clients can benefit from a referral. Staff will be trained in various harm reduction strategies, allowing them to be implemented in real time with people who are struggling and at risk of overdose.

Harm reduction strategies that are currently used and/or will be implemented include but are not limited to low-barrier shelter and housing, Fentanyl testing strips and Naloxone distribution, clean needle exchange, readily available sharps containers, referrals to treatment and methadone, and discussions about reducing use and/or using less harmful intoxicants.

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