Richard Rawson: Safe Recovery, Compassion, and Hope

Richard Rawson sitting in front a brick wall with his hand on his chin. Richard Rawson: Howard Center’s Safe Recovery is a Place for Compassion and Hope

Howard Center’s Safe Recovery:  A Place for Compassion and Hope.

“The services provided at Safe Recovery save lives and provide people in Burlington with critically important tools to prevent the worst consequences of drug use.”

As Vermont’s (and the nation’s) overdose death crisis has dramatically worsened over recent years, the services provided by Howard Center’s Safe Recovery program in Burlington have been increasingly critical. The drug supply on the street is much more lethal in 2024 than it has ever been. The “old dangerous drugs”, including heroin and cocaine, now are much more lethal as a result of their combination with fentanyl. Further, there are reports of increasing availability of methamphetamine and xylazine, which also are combined with fentanyl. The drug supply on the street have become more diverse and immeasurably more dangerous.

Safe Recovery is an oasis of help and information for people who use drugs in Chittenden County. I have observed the work done at Safe Recovery over the past 10 years and have talked with many of the clients who receive services at Safe Recovery. As an addiction researcher and teacher at UCLA and UVM, I have spent 50 years assisting with the development of addiction services in many parts of the world. Safe Recovery is unique in my travels as a place that people who use drugs can come for help, support, connection and deep compassion. The folks who come to Safe Recovery are not always welcomed in other areas in the health care system because of the stigma of active drug use. But in Chittenden County, people know they can come to Safe Recovery, and they won’t be judged; they will be treated with respect and kindness.

Through the past 50+ years of scientific research, we have learned that addiction is a complex brain disease, and some individuals are not able to recognize that drug use is destroying their lives and hurting their communities. For these individuals, treatment doesn’t provide an answer for them at the present time. These folks continue to use drugs despite the extreme risk to themselves. At present, we don’t have the knowledge to successfully attract 100% of the people who use drugs into treatment and recovery. However, the inability of people to recognize they have an addiction and need treatment, should not be a death sentence.

Safe Recovery is a place where people who use drugs can go for help. There is no judgement at Safe Recovery concerning how clients view their drug use or if they plan to change their use.  The message provided by the staff at Safe Recovery is that “We are here for you”, “We care about you”, “We want to help you prevent illness and death that can result from drug use.”  “Please come for our services, no lectures, no judgements.”

Safe Recovery has specific services to help people who come for help. These services include: distribution of naloxone, the life-saving overdose reversal drug that has been used thousands of times in Burlington to reverse overdoses and save lives; distribution of wound care kits to help people who have open wounds that result from the use of xylazine and/or from drug injection; distribution of clean syringes that prevent the spread of infectious diseases, including HIV and Hepatitis; treatment for opioid use disorder with buprenorphine, delivered in way that puts few demands on participants and makes the medication treatment very accessible.

The staff and their “unconditional positive regard” for the clients are the heart and the “secret sauce” of Safe Recovery. The services provided at Safe Recovery save lives and provide people in Burlington with critically important tools to prevent the worst consequences of drug use. The staff at Safe Recovery have created a site where hundreds of people a week come to a place that they trust will help and respect them. This is an amazing accomplishment. Safe Recovery is a place where people who use drugs can be seen as people with problems needing help, not as “drug addicts” who are “in denial”.

In many parts of the US, a facility like Safe Recovery would not be tolerated. Howard Center’s sponsorship and support for Safe Recovery is a demonstration of a commitment to help individuals who are struggling with a serious illness and are doing their best. The compassion and connection provided to these individuals by Safe Recovery staff is truly inspirational. The folks who provide help at Safe Recovery are among the best of us.