SOS director: People criticizing recovery center reacting to fears, not reality

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SOS Recovery Community Organization is a program of Goodwin Community Health. We are a 501c3 nonprofit organization. We have a 3500 square foot recovery community center in downtown Dover at 4 Broadway and a 2000 square foot space at 63 South Main St. in the First Congregational Church.

The petition implies that SOS RCO and/or the Church provide a place for people to live or stay. We do not, SOS is open 9am - 5pm Monday thru Friday. The petition states the church and SOS encourages "drug users" to come from outside the area. SOS serves all of Strafford County with centers in both Rochester and Dover. 85% of our 319 members that are participants in our Rochester center (we have close to 700 between Rochester and Dover combined) report living in Strafford County, and well over 50% live in Rochester. Approximately 28% live in Dover and 9% live in Somersworth, we have about 6% who reside in York County, Maine and just over 2% from Rockingham County. Less then 1.5% of the 319 members who have filled out our membership forms have ever reported residing outside York County, ME or NH.

The reports we encourage out of state drug users to come to SOS is completely false. On average we show that between community sponsored meetings such as 12 step and SMART recovery meetings as well as our programming that we sponsor that we have close to 400 attendees each month attending recovery oriented programming in Rochester. The center receives about 350 visits a month and all visitors sign in when they come to the center. We require individuals using the center to participate in some sort of recovery oriented activities when they are in the center. This can also include job searches, recovery coaching, meetings or activities. We are not a drop-in center where people can come "hang-out" without being engaged. We offer no clinical services and all activities are peer based. Our volunteer recovery coaches have all completed at a minimum 30 hours of recovery coach training and another 12-16 hours of ethics training.

We average 38 individuals per month every month engaging in one on one peer recovery coaching services in Rochester. We have logged over 3100 hours of volunteer service hours in Rochester since we opened in August of 2016 and most months receive over 300 hours in Rochester, many from individuals who live in the immediate neighborhood.

Individuals struggling with homelessness have been in Rochester since long before SOS existed. The area around the church is a thoroughfare for people coming and going into town. SOS offers peer recovery coaching, telephone recovery supports, meetings such as 12-step meetings, SMART Recovery, Yoga, Art in Recovery, Music in Recovery, All-Recovery and a variety of social activities and sober engagement activities.

We've held a family friendly block party on Liberty St. We received an award from the NH Providers Association for being the "Recovery Service Provider of the Year" in 2017. We are only the 10th Recovery Community Organization in the United States to be accredited by the Council on Accreditation for Peer Recovery Support Services (CAPRSS). We are members of the Rochester and Dover Chambers of Commerce. We held our first Recovery Rocks fundraiser, a sober music event, at the Rochester Opera House in 2016. We will be bringing the third annual Recovery Rocks back to the Opera House on Sept 23rd with nationally known musician James Montgomery and his special guest, Bobby Goudreau, former lead guitarist for Boston and two other bands. This brings potential donors, supporters and the community together while putting a positive face on recovery and bringing people to a local music venue that generates economic activity.

The city has recently passed ordinances moving individuals who are homeless. The fact that more are being seen outside of those areas should come as no surprise. It does not mean those individuals are engaged in crime, and the fact that someone may not fit into a look that some neighbors don't desire does not mean they are either dangerous, criminals, engaged in illicit activities or any other conclusion, and it also does not mean they are using SOS Recovery Community Services.

We have, however, connected numerous individuals struggling with homelessness in the area to substance use disorder treatment services, case management, emergency and temporary shelter and mental health supports. We offer no apology for improving the community for the hard work we do helping individuals when they seek recovery from substance misuse or are seeking help in crisis.

On average we navigate crisis to get people into other services to assist with substance use disorder and other mental health issues 30-40 times a month. This is a valuable service that is offered to the city and the community for people to live. We were a lead agency that opened an emergency warming shelter for 14 days this winter. We organized and led volunteers that operated the shelter at no cost to the city for 14 days, 24 hours a day with 3-4 individuals per shift working 4 hour shifts all day and night.

The center was initially at the Rochester Community Center and moved to the NH National Guard armory and was visited and praised by Governor Sununu as a model he would like to see replicated based on the community and social service agency response and coordination. Resources from the State of NH Dept of Emergency Management were mobilized as a result. That shelter involved over 20 local social service agencies that created case management and resources for individuals who would have otherwise probably frozen to death in the record cold.

There has been no evidence presented that there is an "increase in crime" in area. There has been an increase in calls to the police department in the area. Numerous calls are being made that have no substance to result in arrest. The same small group of 3-4 neighbors who began this petition likely account for some of that increase. There has not been an arrest that we are aware of for any activity related to SOS. The shooting in town was completely unrelated, we have seen no evidence of gun fights, violence or sex acts. Any such acts that do occur probably occur regardless of whether we exist at 63 South Main St. and most often, outside the hours we are open. We made a clear and conscious decision to locate our services on Main St. because we recognized a need for supports such as ours in Rochester and to put a positive face on recovery in the community. We have not fallen short of our mission and goals when it comes to that.

None of the individuals making allegations have ever stopped into the center and checked out our services nor have they ever had a conversation with any of our staff or volunteers. We invite them to do so. The shooting in the area or other criminal activity has had nothing to do with SOS despite the defamatory allegations in the petition aimed at SOS. We have recently built a flower garden by over 20 volunteers behind the center and each day we have volunteers who walk around the area where we are located cleaning up trash and improving the immediate area.

Individuals do often sleep outside in the area, and we would encourage the community and the city to provide those individuals with supports and resources rather than judge them. The vast majority of us could fall on hard luck and circumstances that result in homelessness. Substance use disorder and mental health does not discriminate based on socio-economic status. We are in an addiction crisis that goes far beyond just opiates and heroin and includes alcohol and other substances. We encourage the community to treat all individuals with dignity, respect and compassion.

The rust colored truck with California plates was an individual traveling from California to Maine. She ran out of money, was awaiting funds and went to the City Welfare Director. Since she had no residence in NH he could not help and she informed us that he referred her to SOS and the Church to see if she could park her car in our lot since she was going to be receiving funds in 7 days and maybe we'd let her park the vehicle there. She did and she spent 3-4 nights sleeping in her pickup truck. This is not illegal. She spent 3-4 of those nights with nearby family in Maine who came and got her. One or two particular neighbors called the police on her several times, alleging activity that we believe was likely based in fear and not fact. The police never arrested her, in fact the worst offense she may have committed in that 7 days was utilizing a dumpster of a local business. They also called the SPCA claiming she was neglecting her pet dog. They checked it out and found the allegation unfounded. In fact, her dog was probably being fed better then she was. She was guilty only of having a few people that were homeless that hung out around the truck. We observed neighbors coming out photographing her for no apparent reason on a regular basis, and if anything, harassing her without any justification. She left peacefully on the date she had told us she'd receive funds to repair the truck and continue on her journey to Maine and was never arrested despite the police being dispatched numerous times. It seems likely if there were illicit activity they would have arrested her at least one of those times.

It is unfortunate that some individuals who have never attempted to have a conversation with us are making inflammatory and false accusations against an organization that is improving their community. We do, however, understand that when people don't understand addiction and recovery that fear usually results in stigmatizing judgments. We encourage those who might judge the recovery community to join us for coffee and conversation as most of us are leading productive, engaging lives and giving back to the community beyond their imaginations.

- John Burns,

SOS director

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