With more than 100,000 people and 15 percent of the state’s population residing in its borders, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough continues to boast growth among the usual indicators: commercial and residential real estate values, new school construction, employment gains — even a homegrown Miss Alaska. Lifelong Valley resident Angelina Klapperich is currently at the fabled Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, promoting her platform of compassion — a theme which was interwoven in recent conversations confronting a myriad of social ills in Wasilla, Palmer and the surrounding area. How must we respond to our visible and less visible neighbors in need? Local resources to combat chemical dependency and behavioral health deficits took center stage last Friday at the Glenn Massay Theatre. “Compassion that drives effective care” were the words of Eileen Davey of Mat Su Health Services, as she joined the voices calling for a stronger continuum of care, including medical detox and treatment.
While the Valley has enjoyed a considerable boom over the past three decades, attendant growing pains have emerged. They reveal a population grasping to sustain its citizens on the fringe, sketchy foot traffic in grocery store parking lots, the lone figure huddled under an overpass, panhandlers camped in ditches alongside roads. Then there are the less dramatic, but no less acute crises of mental health, with Palmer Police Department Chief Lance Ketterling describing “de-escalation” efforts being the best his force can offer without an infrastructure ready to receive citizens in need.
At a recent hearing before state officials, Ketterling explained that his officers must sometimes return to the same situation multiple times in a single shift, again applying interventions with no real solution.
“We’re talking some heavy diagnoses, independent of any (illicit) drug use,” he said.“Where do we want these people to be?”
Isolated geographically from the rest of the nation, Alaska is in no way immune to the human frailties of substance abuse and mental illness. Quite the opposite, in fact. According to the state’s most recent Recidivism Reduction Plan, Alaska’s prison population grew 27 percent in the last decade. Heather Plucinski, Business Development Officer of Alaska Regional Hospital, cited a staggering 24,000 suicide attempts in Alaska in 2015 alone.
A diverse, but committed, core of nonprofit organizations, tribal foundations and street-level evangelists are intent on answering this need. They have the ear of state and federal policymakers. They’re celebrating what works, and confronting what doesn’t, demanding a cohesive approach to stabilizing the weak amidst our bustling towns.
A well-attended, daylong exploration of chemical dependency among Alaskans and the current state of recovery resources was held at the Glenn Massay Theatre on on Aug. 25. Billed as the first Recovery Summit and hosted with support from Cook Inlet Tribal Council, MYHouse and Fiend2Clean, its focus was on networking with those poised to offer solutions for chronic alcohol and drug abuse. The theatre’s lobby hosted tables representing everyone from Bikers Against Child Abuse to Alcoholics Anonymous, each making their niche known.
The next day in Palmer, a sparkling facility awaited its ribbon-cutting ceremony, staffed by women eager to nurture healthy dynamics and a fresh foundation for addicted women and their children. Valley Oaks is housed in a former church, and fortuitously came about through the matured ministry work of two young men who had been trained there as teens.
“I have a dream for walk-in availability,” said Philip Licht, Set Free’s CEO, describing parity of care for chemical dependency with other medical conditions. The web of requirements to enter inpatient care can be daunting, even for an organized, functional person, to the say nothing of the addled brain of a compulsive drug user. They are stripped of support, after years of destroying themselves and sabotaging the help available from those who love them.
There is much to disagree about, among these entities whose services overlap but whose mission statements may not: disease methodology, needle exchanges, methadone, SB91, anonymity, the proper role of church, state, and insurers, even the ultimate causes of addiction — but there’s too much work to do, leaving little time for theorizing.
A hearing for a Behavioral Health Certificate of Need sought by Mat Su Regional Medical Center from the state of Alaska was held at Mat-Su College in Palmer on Aug. 31. This significant expansion would include 36 beds for adult substance abuse and psychiatric care. Alaska Regional is also seeking to build a 24-bed facility serving similar populations. Support was unanimously expressed.
“I assure you — every trooper would be here if they could,” said Lt. Andy Gorn with the Alaska State Troopers. “We’re spread pretty thin. The ones who aren’t working are sleeping.” His own dedication and compassion were evident in his closing comments, which summarized that, if nothing else, local inpatient care might help put “a little less strain on the families”. Anchorage Fire Department Assistant Chief Erich Scheunemann spoke to their increasing transport rate (up 47 percent in the past seven years), including effects of the “ever-present elephant in the room — alcohol.” Wasilla Mayor Bert Cottle testified, recalling his own career in Alaskan law enforcement.
“I’m old enough to remember when we deinstitutionalized mental health,” he said. “Now jail is detox? This is pathetic.”
John Lee, former CEO of Mat Su Regional, who spoke as a private citizen, emphasized the safety component of specialized care. Repeated violence against medical staff was something he witnessed during his tenure at the hospital, perpetrated by explosive or desperate patients.
Eileen Ray, an outreach case manager representing Covenant House in Anchorage, made time to testify in person on behalf of the youth shelter. She explained that vulnerable teens from the Valley were being trafficked out from under her, despite the best efforts of every agency. The Mat-Su Emergency Department 20-bed capacity is sometimes half-filled with psychiatric holds, which are limited in length by federal law, with heavy fines imposed for each day beyond the indicated timeframe. Valley residents are currently transported into Anchorage for psychiatric care, only to be discharged 50 miles from home. One such client of Covenant House was recently run over by a truck, sustaining major injuries within hours of her release onto the streets, confused and homeless. Lt. Gorn described being called upon for psych emergencies as far away as Glennallen — Anchorage facilities having the only receiving beds — 180 highway miles separate the two communities.
Especially embracing testimony came from Davey, now in her third decade of mental health social work in Alaska. She decried the patchwork, stopgap, ineffective and profit-driven system which remains dominant in the state. Her suggestion of a ‘No Wrong Door’ policy echoed Licht’s vision of a walk-in clinic, but across potential providers. Davey’s contribution to the state hearing was punctuated by a ringing cell phone, which she brandished to the nearly 100 people in a standing-room-only crowd, just before ducking into the hallway to answer it on her way out the door. It was a local crisis line, staffed around the clock by Mat-Su Health clinicians.
The fragility of the addict or the mentally unbalanced suggests that timing is crucial, and fickle — one minute they are compliant, even insistent on major life improvements and the next they’re flitting away, pursuing a different plan. If they can be captured while they’re scared or suffering enough to change, it can indeed bring lasting transformation. “Why not try?” “Who are we not to try?” “Who exactly are you, to require justification from us, for private industry to answer such an obvious need?” was the repeated prompt by a parade of impassioned testimonies before state officials. “You wouldn’t look at an oncology patient and tell them ‘better luck in 6-9 months’ for lack of bed space,” offered one weary mother and registered nurse.
The futility of this process was vividly retold by a parade of family members, corrections personnel, medical caregivers, and public servants. Support for both hospitals’ proposals was given. Among the speakers were wholesome mothers and professionals whose families’ dreams have been reduced to shrapnel, their children now little more than hollow-faced felons — modern lepers no reasonable person would willingly encounter.
Enter Karl Soderstrom and Kerby Kraus, two young men whose organization has served as a fulcrum in the local recovery machine for the past three years, attracting street kids and housewives alike, gaining the attention of Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski. They are cool without being cliquish, welcoming anyone who expresses a desire to get off drugs. Karl and Kerby’s friendship, forged in early sobriety, was the impetus for a peer support network which now includes advocacy, outreach, two transitional living houses, and links to vocational training. Soderstrom and Kraus lead an army of happy warriors who see their own victory over vice as contingent on their availability to the next addict. These are recovering folks, no longer junkies and thieves, stepping into the light to walk with the sick — squaring off against the demons of addiction who would claim another life. They are unafraid.
Fiend2Clean is named for the fiending, “dope sick” state which so often leads to relapse, and their ultimate goal for every addict or alcoholic seeking treatment: clean living. They begin with addressing the smallest details. A common obstacle to joining the civilized world is an utter lack of documentation — no driver’s license or other identification, birth certificate or social security card, long since left behind in their chaotic world. Without a paper trail or the necessary legal and medical appointments to establish new footing, returning to familiar haunts (and drug use) is tempting. The illusion of relief couples with the physical ache for more poison. It’s often logistically easier to stay in active addiction, unintentionally aided by the current system. In the words of Ketterling, “this is impotence on a systemic scale.” Fiend2Clean employs peer support specialists, funded by public dollars, who will attend court with defendants, drive them to appointments, salvaging a new life day by day.
For every 50 stories of death and despair, there are piercing reminders of the power of old-fashioned outreach. Kraus has one. Six years ago, he was drifting along, overwhelmed by hopelessness. He found himself in Nunley Park with a gun, a plan, and little else. He intended to kill himself that day, seeing no way out. Kraus was approached by a ministry team visiting from Virginia, who sensed the urgency of his plight.
“You don’t look like you’re doing so well,” began the conversation. They prayed with him. Today he is clean and sober, raising his family in Wasilla and immersed in the recovery field. He and Karl began with a cell phone number (982-HOPE) and a Facebook page, where they continue to receive inquiries from addicts and their suffering families. They have traveled to Washington, D.C. in support of legislation which infuses legal consequences with therapeutic mentoring, driven by data that shows it works.
It’s the intersection of clinical guidance, court-mandated therapy and peer support which the Mat-Su has finally begun to mobilize.
Sen. Dan Sullivan addressed the Recovery Summit with gravity.
“I leave you with the underlying theme that I’ve learned from everyone here: community,” he said and recommended the award-winning book Dreamland: the True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which focuses on the devastation addiction has wrought on Portsmouth, Ohio. “Some communities have already literally been torn apart by the heroin and opiate epidemic. That kind of total destruction has not yet happened in Alaska. But let’s not be naive, it could.”
Quoting author Sam Quinones, Sullivan continued, “I believe more strongly than ever that the antidote to heroin and addiction is community. Break down those barriers that keep people isolated. We are Americans. We just don’t sit around and take the beating.”
This clarion call which unites across disciplines was put succinctly by Michelle Overstreet, Executive Director of MyHouse. A loyal daughter of the Mat-Su Valley, she sees the potential of youth without idealizing their problems away. Having formally placed herself at the front lines six years ago, her gaze remains fixed. She is at every grassroots meeting, striding to the microphone, impeccably dressed, like the patient headmistress of a scrappy school she simply will not allow to fail.
“We are losing an entire generation,” she said. “The group my agency serves is becoming the generation who grieves. We’re working with kids in crisis. And I don’t just mean a little bit. But there’s a gaping hole, and it’s detox services; behavioral health services.”
She described plans for a memorial garden, to give tangible monument to the dead who are beloved by those fortunate enough to begin anew at her downtown Wasilla drop-in center. MyHouse now boasts a bustling bistro, resource center and thrift store just a hundred yards from where Kerby Kraus nearly ended his life.
John Green is also a reliable presence at any event that has anything to do with attacking heroin addiction. He humbly introduced himself at the state hearing as “Kellsie’s Dad,” outlining his daughter’s death in an Anchorage jail after four days of unmonitored detox last year. His family’s loss has been well-chronicled, and Overstreet credits Green with uniting multiple efforts to create the Mat-Su Opiod Task Force, begun in July 2015. They meet monthly at the Wasilla High School auditorium.
Although the incidence of addiction defies demographic stereotypes, existing local services are accessed more often by the young. Unemployed. Those with criminal justice involvement.
Kara Nelson, director of Juneau’s Haven House, shared pieces of her biography at the Recovery Summit, outlining her emergence from incarceration. “I had had careers, a family, resources. But nothing trumped that felon label.”
She is unabashedly Christian, speaking in prophetic language, eager to work for redemption in the kingdom she sees around her. It’s difficult to dismiss the strength and promise of this convergence — politicians with access to earthly power and resources, listening to and learning from those whose lives were formerly wasted, people who have tapped into a power beyond courts and cops for their restoration.
“The Mat-Su is a great community. It embodies what it means to work together,” Sullivan said in his closing remarks at the Recovery Summit.
This collaboration was also evident at the Certificate of Need hearing, where final testimonies were offered by Wasilla Mayor Bert Cottle and Palmer Mayor Edna DeVries, the latter striking a jokingly conciliatory tone.
“You’ll rarely hear me say this. On this issue, I agree entirely with Wasilla,” DeVries said.