"Struggling with drugs? We can help."
A large sign now hangs beside the front door of Fire Station 14 in north Minneapolis offering support for overcoming substance abuse.
At any hour of the day anyone who knocks will be welcomed by a firefighter with connections to a network of peer recovery coaches — people who have experienced addiction themselves and are trained to connect those in crisis to services. Those services include: the hospital emergency room, detox at 1800 Chicago Ave. S., a Suboxone clinic or a treatment site, such as Turning Point.
"It's a program that's been done in other parts of the nation, and now we are doing it right here in Minneapolis," said Fire Chief Bryan Tyner. "It is our sincere hope that after we get this ... up and running here in Fire Station 14 that we will be able to expand it to other parts of the city."
The Minneapolis Addiction Recovery Initiative, also called the Safe Station Project, has been at least two years in the making as the city of Minneapolis explored ideas to respond to homelessness, overdoses and other consequences of the nationwide opioid crisis.
Fire stations throughout history have had a role as a refuge of last resort, including for mothers in need of safely surrendering their newborns. It was the vision of Twin Cities Recovery Project founder Marc Johnigan to recreate the East and West Coast models of retooling sites as addiction resource gateways.
When Johnigan died in a car accident about two years ago, his fiancé LaTricia Tate picked up his mantle.
"He had a vision to bring it here. He connected with all the partners that are with us, and so even after his passing we just continued to work together and make this come through," Tate said.
The Twin Cities Recovery Project, in coalition with addiction service providers YourPath, KOPI (Koranda O'Tool Paramedics Inc.) and Cordata Healthcare Solutions, obtained a $1.2 million grant from the Justice Department's Comprehensive Opioid, Stimulant, and Substance Abuse Program to open Minnesota's first Safe Station in partnership with the Minneapolis Fire Department. The federal grant will fund the project for the next three years.
Thomas Young, a Twin Cities Recovery Project peer specialist who has been in recovery three years, will be the first manager of the Safe Station program.
"Many of the people that are struggling with a substance-use disorder are homeless," he said. "The best way to get from homelessness to housing, when you're dealing with substances, is to get into a treatment program that can help you heal from the inside, get back on your feet and take that walk. Because, honestly, you're not going to be able to obtain housing and keep it if you're on substances."
Minnesota has signed onto national settlements with major opioid manufacturers that are expected to funnel more than $535 million into local communities over 15 years. Minneapolis' share, comprised of settlement agreements with Johnson and Johnson, Teva, Allergen and pharmacy providers CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, is estimated to be $18.8 million.
The city has received about $2.1 million to date. Its Health Department is now developing a strategy for spending those funds, said city spokesperson Scott Wasserman.
"The strategy development will include robust community engagement," he said. "The mayor has indicated he would like the use of funds to focus on access and increased availability of evidence-based treatment options."
The community organizations behind the Safe Station Project said they have not yet received any information from the city about the opioid settlement funds but look forward to proposing more ideas.
"The more entry points that you can have into the system the better because not everybody searches for the exact same thing," said KOPI Executive Director Nathan Koranda. "Just like any sort of medical care, it needs to be person-centered. And this is just one more option that we have available for the community to come in and ask for."