CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (WIVB) — The fire training academy here played host to one of the final steps before a program unlike anything else in New York State is given the green light in Erie county.
“The war on drugs, just incarcerating people who are struggling with addiction, a disease in the brain, is not the solution,” said Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein. “It costs taxpayers a lot of money and it doesn’t help those individuals that are struggling with addition recover.”
The approach thus far to fight the opiate epidemic sweeping western New York isn’t working. The use of heroin and similar drugs remains high, and overdose deaths are following suit.
The expected roll out of three major initiatives — an addiction hotline, what’s being labeled the “angel” program and a law enforcement component — could the be change that’s needed. It’s also coming in short order, considering the task force launched in February.
Trina Wasylenko and Gloria Sanchez are what’s known as angels.
“I’ve seen the bad and I’ve seen the good,” said Wasylenko, an angel volunteer from East Amherst. “And I’ve seen what just some love will do for someone, and how that can propel someone to get into recovery.”
Starting in August, they will be on call to respond to addicts seeking help. Each will act as a one-on-one support system, getting people off the street and into the services they need.
“Being able to provide the service, being able to actually link them, sometimes they have to wait two or three days or even more before we can get them into a detox bed, so that’s been a big struggle for us,” said Sanchez, whose ministry has been providing similar services to residents in the Riverside area.
The first stop for addicts will be local police departments. Still, just 13 of them are participating in Erie County.
“Law enforcement thought for a number of years that we could arrest our way out of this problem, and that’s just not the case,” said Lt. Jeff Rinaldo, of the Buffalo Police Department. “I think everybody is recognizing that. So the approach is going to change from a law enforcement-type action to trying to get people linked with the appropriate services.”
That’s a major change in mentality.
Task force leaders say they’re hoping for early success in the hotline, the angel program and the law enforcement component, and that with that success they’ll get new volunteers and new police departments to join in the fight against the opiate epidemic.
Officials say they hope to have the three initiatives in operation the first week of August.