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Housing is seen as missing link in opioid crisis

It would be foolish to expect an addict — straight out of jail, treatment, or both — to find a sober night’s sleep under a bridge, said Jared Owen, a man in recovery.

With not enough housing options in the state, Owens said recovering addicts are frequently left with the forlorn question, “What now?”

On Tuesday, public and private sector leaders from across New England and upstate New York convened in Boston to talk about substance abuse in their states, and how comprehensive housing programs could help curb the crisis.

Marylou Sudders, the state’s secretary of health and human services, called for an increased focus in Massachusetts on supportive housing programs, which combine affordable housing and services that help smooth recovery process.


“We need to focus more on the path to recovery, which is really bringing together housing and treatment and employment,” Sudders said. “One of the biggest challenges for individuals . . . is finding a safe, drug-free environment to recover in.”

Sudders told the crowd of about 60 New England public health officials that comprehensive housing should be at the forefront of the battle against opioid abuse, which has ravaged Massachusetts, claiming the lives of an average of four residents a day.

According to the Corporation for Supportive Housing, the nonprofit that hosted the event, homeless adults between the ages of 25 and 44 in New England were nine times more likely to die from an overdose than those with stable housing.

“While the scope of this epidemic is uniquely broad, affecting people across all ages, genders, geographies, races, and socioeconomic status, its effects are particularly notable and distressing among individuals experiencing homelessness,” the Corporation for Supportive Housing said in a statement.

Sudders said jails and the streets are too often the primary living option for adults struggling with addiction.


As a result, she said, the state’s opioid epidemic should have hardly been a surprise.

“In many ways, we should have seen it coming,” she said. “Folks working on the streets and who lived on the streets, and families saw it far before the state and health care providers -- except for those that are first-responders.”

Last year, 1,526 people in Massachusetts died from opioid-related overdoses, according to the state Department of Public Health. And, in the United States, a person dies of an opioid overdose every 15 minutes, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On a national scale, about 35 percent of homeless individuals are substance abusers, said Janette Kawachi, director of innovations and research at the Corporation for Supportive Housing. Within different groups of the homeless -- such as veterans -- substance abuse rates reach as high as 75 to 80 percent.

“We’ve known the correlation for a while, but the increased attention [to opioid abuse] has brought the issues to the forefront,” Kawachi said in an interview. “There has been a lot of momentum in the importance of a clean and safe living environment.”

Although Governor Charlie Baker has made combating substance abuse a priority for his administration, people are still dying at unprecedented rates in the state, said Dr. Monica Bharel, commissioner of the Department of Public Health.

Along with improving housing options for homeless people struggling with substance abuse, Bharel said the public’s view of addiction must shift.

“We haven’t really seen addiction as a medical disease overall,” Bharel said. “As society, we have thought about it much more as a choice, or as a decision that had a moral judgment around it. And what we’re working really hard on now in Massachusetts is to change that.”


Trisha Thadani can be reached at trisha.thadani@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TrishaThadani