November 5, 2021

Paterson’s Opioid Response Team Tries Saving Lives on Drug-Ravaged Streets

Joe Malinconico | Special to the USA TODAY Network

PATERSON — Wearing a stained sweatshirt and Scooby-Doo pajama pants, a gaunt woman walked hurriedly down Broadway on Wednesday afternoon until she saw some people gathered around a sign saying “Recovery Center.”

The woman stopped at a corner at the epicenter of Paterson’s heroin scourge and asked Rachael Dean for a granola bar, can of soda and container of food — chicken with rice and green beans. She also took one of the drug treatment referral forms Dean offered.

“Rachael, I’m going to call you tomorrow,” promised the woman as she resumed her journey through the city’s ravaged streets.

Once strangers, the heroin addict had come to know the recovery specialist by name during the past two months as a result of Dean’s work with Paterson’s Opioid Response Team.

The opioid initiative is designed as a proactive attempt to combat Paterson’s narcotics problem. Instead of waiting for addicts to show up looking for help, the response team operates in the city’s most drug-plagued area to conduct its outreach efforts.

“By going out into the streets, it really feels like we’re fighting back,” said Opioid Team member John Reagan, director of the Recovery Center at the Eva’s Village social service organization.

The opioid team spends two four-hour shifts in Paterson’s 4th Ward every week. The program debuted in September and its members have given out more than 800 meals and provided 144 drug referrals through Oct. 27, officials said. About 26% of the people who got referrals described themselves as homeless, while most of the rest gave addresses in Paterson’s 4th and 5th wards, officials said.

Paterson is one of five New Jersey cities that got $150,000 grants from the state Attorney General’s Office for the program. The others are Camden, Newark, Toms River and Trenton. The grant is scheduled to end in March, but city officials and administrators at Eva’s Village said they are working on getting more funding to continue the program.

“We know we’re making a difference,” said Howard Haughton, chief executive officer at Eva’s. “We’re hopeful this program will become a standard and model for other areas.”

Before noon on Wednesday, the illicit activity that occurs day after day in Paterson’s 4th Ward already was in full swing. Drug dealers called out to possible customers on Carroll Street. A woman waved to passing motorists near a “Just Say No to Prostitution” sign on Van Houten Street. Several people stood waiting outside an Auburn Street house that has been the scene of numerous drug busts.

On the sidewalk at the corner of Broadway and Summer Street, a man with his head covered by a blanket sat sprawled on a parlor chair, his feet propped up on a milk crate. The opioid team set up their table across the street from him, on the pavement outside Paterson’s main library.

Reagan and Dean had not even finished unloading their van when a woman approached and asked for food. Dean handed her a meal and asked if she wanted a referral that could help her get Suboxone, a medication that’s supposed to block heroin addicts’ drug urges.

“No thanks,” said the woman, who wrote her name on the sign-in sheet as “Babay Sweet” and then rushed away.

By the time Reagan and Dean finished setting up, the other two members of the opioid team had arrived — Paterson Police Officer Justin Kimble and Emergency Medical Technician Johanna Ramirez, a city firefighter. Kimble was in plainclothes, but the badge and gun at his waist made it clear that he was a cop.

Reagan and Dean are steady members of the team. The slots for a police officer and EMT are filled by different people on a rotating basis.

Crafting the role of the police officers assigned to the opioid team presented challenges, officials said. Their inclusion was needed for safety reasons because the group works in a dangerous area, program organizers said. But there were concerns whether the police officers’ presence would scare away drug addicts looking for help.

“I thought having him here might be a deterrent, but it hasn’t happened,” Reagan said.

The officers have gone through special training and are told to use discretion, organizers said. Their role on the teams is not to make petty drug arrests, officials said.

Kimble said that while working with the opioid team he has run into people whom he previously encountered during his regular police duties.

“I might have dispersed them from a corner or kicked them out of an abandoned building,” the cop said. “But here, I’m a different person.

“If someone comes here looking for help and they happen to drop a piece of paraphernalia, I’m not going to arrest them for that,” he added. “I’m not supposed to stop them from getting the help they need.”

The flow of people stopping at the opioid team’s table varied during the four hours the group spent on the corner on Wednesday afternoon. Sometimes, no one came by for 10 minutes. Other times, there was a line five people long waiting for food and referrals.

“I don’t want to keep doing this,” said Jerome Stephens, 60, who said he has been on the streets of Paterson using heroin for the past six years. “I got to break this down and get some help.”

After him was a 52-year-old woman, Tamyca Barner, who said she planned to seek the Suboxone. “I have a habit I can’t break,” she said.

A man who said his name was Dee took a referral form and then called his cousin and told him about the help being offered to people without insurance or identification. “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Dee said. “I got to take advantage of this.”

The members of the opioid team have their own personal stories connecting them to the cause. Reagan and Dean are in recovery from substance abuse. Ramirez, the EMT, grew up in the same 4th Ward neighborhood in the 1990s. The change she has seen in the area bothers her.

“There were drugs back then, but it wasn’t out in the open like this,” Ramirez said.

Dean – shortly after she got into recovery – ended up living in an apartment building on Auburn Street three blocks from the library.

“The drug dealers controlled the building,” she said.

Dean described a place where users openly shot heroin and smoked crack in the hallway. Sometimes, she said, the dealers wouldn’t allow her to come into the building through the front entrance, so she would take her toddler and infant up the back stairs. Dean lives in different part of Paterson now.

“I only come back here for work,” she said.

Reagan is  from a suburban area of Central Jersey and initially found working in Paterson jarring. He recalled a client overdosing in a bathroom at the recovery center soon after he started at Eva’s.

“It shook me,” he recalled. “I walked out of the building and was shaking. I asked myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ Then I looked up, and I saw the sun shining off the cathedral, and I was comforted.”