With 'a puzzle of really shabby pieces,' St. Louis agency connects heroin users with treatment

Dec 20, 2017
Originally published on December 21, 2017 5:29 am

Chad Sabora walked up to a worker in a social services office in south St. Louis County in 2011, with a desperate plea: Where does someone get addiction treatment if they’re uninsured?

“I took off my coat to show her my track marks, like — please, help me,” Sabora recalled. “She had no idea where to send me.”

Years after his recovery, Sabora heads an organization that seeks to connect people with opioid addictions to available treatment. The Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery now serves hundreds of people a year at its offices at 4022 S. Broadway St. in Dutchtown.

The stakes are high: There were 712 opioid-related deaths in the St. Louis region last year, according to the anti-addiction advocacy group NCADA. The group estimates more will die this year. 

“The grassroots of this was just out of our phones, Starbucks,” Sabora said. “Just meeting people on the street until we were really able to get an organization together.” 

Today, the center offers tai chi classes, group counseling, and testing for HIV and Hepatitis C — two diseases that can be transmitted by shared needles that have seen a resurgence during the opioid crisis.

Once a month, Sabora loads a truck of care packages and Narcan, a medication that can reverse an overdose — and distributes them to people actively using heroin. If someone doesn't know how to use it, he gives them a quick tutorial. 

Sabora’s phone rings constantly. He offers support, advice on medication-assisted treatment, and vouches for clients trying to get into programs. If someone doesn’t have health insurance or a way to pay for it, people may lose hope, he explains. His job is to help them figure out the system when there are no other options.

“They have to go to pretty severe lengths. We have to have them lie to hospitals in order to get a bed for a couple days, just so we can work on some resources. They have to go to places that can offer sober living structures but don’t have clinical care,” Sabora said. “It’s piecing together a huge puzzle with really shabby pieces. I mean, we can do it.”

Sabora and his co-founder, Robert Riley, use their own experiences with addiction to shape the services they offer. Another friend, Phillip Wahby, assists as a peer counselor and advocate. On the two floors upstairs, the men have rehabbed an apartment to create a sober living space for six women.

“They’re going to be responsible for setting up rules regarding chores around the house,” Riley explains, while giving a tour. “We really want to build that family unit.”

The new tenants are coming from other sober living homes that didn’t work out, or from shelters. Riley hopes they can stay for two years, to get back on their feet. Unlike a lot of other sober living homes, the program does not automatically kick out residents who relapse with their addiction. Instead, Riley said, an episode would trigger a house meeting and a recovery plan.

“That’s when they need us the most, when their disease is coming at them. So we’re trying to re-engage them, and get them back to the recovery process,” Riley said. “We want to get them out of survival mode and into feeling human.”

On a recent chilly afternoon, the Missouri Network held a dinner to celebrate the holidays. Slices of pie lined one table, while another nearly buckled under crock pots of turkey and mashed potatoes.

“A lot of people with substance use disorder have burned their bridges, and really don’t have much family left,” explained Kathi Arbini, a longtime volunteer. “So we welcome them here today.”

Arbini is short, with purple, spiky hair and a big smile. She is affectionately known as one of the “moms”— a dedicated group of women who have lost children or other family members to an overdose. Her son Kevin Mullane was 21 when he died several years ago.

“Having an only child, I always thought after my boy died that I wasn’t a mom anymore. But I am. I’m a mom to all these kids,” Arbini said.

“It keeps my son’s memory alive, and that’s what I love to do.” 

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB.

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