WATERVILLE, Maine — A program that has referred nearly 400 Mainers into opioid addiction treatment since it launched in 2017 could run out of funding after this year.
The Waterville Police Department runs Operation HOPE, or Heroin Opiate Prevention Effort, which was inspired by other programs in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and the Scarborough Police Department.
A person suffering from opioid addiction can come to the police station, turn in drugs without charges and go through an intake process that tries to place them in a detox or treatment facility in Maine or elsewhere in the country — expenses covered by the program.
Maine saw a record number of overdose deaths in 2021 — 636 deaths, a 23 percent increase from the previous year, according to researchers at the University of Maine’s Rural Drug & Alcohol Research Program. They attributed the soaring death toll to a combination of lethal drugs like fentanyl and social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. As Waterville’s Operation HOPE, which runs on donations, faces an uncertain future, the need for such services in Maine is climbing.
“From 2020 forward, all we heard about was the pandemic,” Deputy Chief William Bonney said. “What we stopped hearing about was the opiate epidemic, but it didn’t go away. It sat there, and it festered and it got worse.”
The number of people the department refers to treatment centers has risen in recent years, Williams said. In 2017, the program made 36 referrals, which jumped to 80 the following year. Referrals dropped to 60 in 2019, then climbed to 67 in 2020 and 82 in 2021, he said.
Operation HOPE — a philosophy focused on enforcement, education and treatment — runs on several fundraisers and private donations, mainly from locals and businesses. The last major boost the program received was $50,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds, which the city allocated to the department last year, Bonney said.
The program took a financial hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented the department from holding its usual fundraisers, said Robert Bouley, patrol officer and Operation HOPE coordinator.
Funds are declining during a time when the program is aiding, more than ever before, people from around the state, not just in and around Waterville, he said. Bouley hopes a fundraiser planned for November will help sustain the program.
They may have enough funding through this year, Bouley said, but not enough for next year. He has seen similar programs struggle to afford detox and treatment centers that cost thousands of dollars, and they usually dissolve.
Detox, for example, can cost from $900 to $1,800 per person for a week, and month-long stays at treatment centers are much more, Bouley said. Operation HOPE also covers smaller expenses that eat up funds quickly, he said.
“These people often don’t have a [driver’s] license or insurance,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t even have someone who can give them a ride, and we have to get some sort of transportation for them to get to the airport or treatment.”
Placing someone at a recovery center can be challenging because of the shortage of space and having to find a proper fit based on the person’s needs, said Beverley Fairchild, one of three program volunteers, also called angels. For example, she said, a faith-based program may be important to someone, or maybe they wish to recover with or without medication-assisted treatment.
“It’s all about the connection for me — when that chin lifts up and you get the eye contact,” Fairchild said. “It’s about walking them through the process of detox and the different rehab facilities that I’m going to reach out to and just seeing at some point that sense of relief.”
Operation HOPE partners with the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative to place people into one of 300 facilities across the country, according to the city’s website. They are limited to where they can make placements because most locations that offer opioid detox — which helps rid the body of drugs and maintain withdrawal symptoms — require private insurance or cash, Bouley said.
That’s why Operation HOPE works with two detox facilities in Bangor and Portland, which accept patients without insurance.
McShin Foundation in Richmond, Virginia — which offers a 28-day recovery program, sober living in recovery houses and partners with physicians for detox — is another key partner, he said.
The goal of Operation HOPE is to work with participants from the moment they enter the police station to when they’ve gone through rehabilitation and realize they can live life without relying on drugs, Bouley said.
“The hardest step is walking through this door, and I always let them know that I’m proud of them,” Fairchild said.
The program sees people with an opioid addiction from Fort Kent to York, said Roland Hughes, an AmeriCorps VISTA, or Volunteer in Service to America, who is in his third year helping to run the program, which includes maintaining a database of facilities. Sometimes, after a person has been placed, they don’t show up to treatment, so part of the job is following up to see if they’re ready, he said.
“After you’ve done a few, you can’t see yourself not doing it,” he said about working one-on-one with participants. “The most satisfying thing that can happen is when they call you after 30 or 60 days and say, ‘You saved my life.’”
Donations to Operation HOPE can be made on the city of Waterville’s website. Shawmut Chapel, 57 Bray Ave. in Shawmut, will host a concert at 6 p.m. Nov. 12 to raise funds for the program.