- Associated Press - Saturday, February 18, 2017

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - “I’m gonna ask you a favor, raise your hand if you had some family relation that has been impacted by drugs.”

Making the request is Al Hill, a longtime Hoonah resident and the force behind a recent grassroots effort to rid the 760-resident city of methamphetamine and opiates.

All 30 people in a packed Hoonah City Hall raise a hand at a February city council meeting. So, too, do the attendees spilling into the hallway.

Those with hands in the air include Hoonah Mayor Kenneth K. Skaflestad; Ed Phillips, the proprietor of a local lodge; all six members of the city council; a liquor store owner; a former educator - seemingly the whole city has felt the bite of addiction.

Hoonah hasn’t seen a turnout like this at a city meeting since the city argued about the placement of a $15 million cruise ship dock in 2015, reported the Juneau Empire (https://bit.ly/2lHhx3t).

Ideas percolate around the room as Skaflestad allows discussion to continue on the topic despite other resolutions filling the agenda.

Council member Amelia Wilson suggests meeting suspected drug dealers at the ferry terminal to turn them back from the city.

Hill asks for a new police chief and the formation of a citizen task force.

Resident Greg Garrison says the community needs to stop referring to informants as “narcs.”

Phillips calls for outreach at the local schools.

Skaflestad says he hopes to testify in support of amendments to recent state criminal reform.

Nobody has a silver-bullet answer. Hoonah is facing health care and law enforcement limitations in a tough economy. In these conditions, how does a small city band together to face a big problem?

In a place where many are related by “blood or by clan,” in Hill’s words, a Hoonah problem calls for a Hoonah solution.

In other words, Hoonah has committed itself to an unconventional and long fight.

Common knowledge

Hill picked me up at the Hoonah Airport the morning before the city council meeting. I didn’t have to call him; he knew I would be there.

The retired educator has trained his laser-sharp focus on the issue for two weeks, traveling around Southeast to find out “what is and what isn’t” when it comes to addiction resources.

A wrestling, basketball and volleyball coach for 30 years, when Hill does something, he “does it to win.”

“If I don’t do it, who would?” he asked.

Since I had never been to Hoonah, Hill drove me around for a short tour, pointing out houses of those he said are drug users and dealers and whose habits are common knowledge.

“I could walk down the street and could talk to my friend about that so and so doing drugs over there. . I’d done it for years, just like the rest of us, just letting it pass right on by, partly because we’re related to so many other individuals in the community by blood or by clan, so we all just decide to let it all pass off to somebody else and do nothing,” Hill later said at the council meeting.

“Well, that is just not going to work - at least for me anymore - and I don’t think it should for us, if the community and the kids in this community are important to us.”

Everyone in the city knows one another’s business, Hill explained behind the wheel of his Dodge. When people always have money, but never have a job, suspicion arises.

Recently, somebody showed up at his tire shop - the only one in the city - brandishing a wad of cash and asking for Hill’s services. He turned the man down. Refusing service to people he suspects of using or dealing is his small way of making a statement.

To him, the “multi-pronged” issue comes down to three things: a lack of effort from the Hoonah Police Department, the absence of affordable rehab facilities and the shortage of awareness and prevention efforts from the community.

Over budget and overworked

Hill dropped me off at the Hoonah Police Department for an interview with Chief William “Dave” McKillican.

The chief said his department has been under funded every year since he arrived in Hoonah in 2014.

McKillican projected a budget of $1 million, which he said is the amount he needs to run an effective department. Hoonah PD received approval for only $600,000 of expenditures this year. That’s out of a $1.5 million city budget.

The shortfall has forced him to cut services and personnel. Though he wants to pursue new initiatives to fight drug use, McKillican said budget concerns have tied his hands.

“There are ways we can make a huge impact for our community, but I would never stand on a pedestal and say we are going to rid Hoonah of drugs,” McKillican said. “Realistically, we don’t have the resources to even be that ambitious.”

McKillican stressed that he has some of the most dedicated police in the state in his employ, and Hill’s charge that they aren’t doing enough is unfounded.

One of his officers paid for “90 percent” of his gear out of pocket, McKillican said, not because he was compelled by the department, but because he wants to do the job right.

He estimated that his force works 20 unpaid hours a week. Hoonah has a police force of three officers and chief McKillican.

Due to budget concerns, the department recently had to eliminate a 24-hour dispatcher position and now sends 911 calls directly to officer’s cellphones.

The city’s drug-sniffing canine, Jack, whose $15,000 training could provide the city with revenue from cash seizures, has sat idle, having lost his job because of complications from the legalization of marijuana.

McKillican has been keeping the dog fed and healthy with his own money.

In addition to budget concerns, new state laws have hampered McKillican’s drug-enforcement abilities.

Senate Bill 91, a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill aimed at reducing recidivism but which has garnered criticism from law enforcement, lessens the penalties for possession of meth or heroin under 2.5 grams - worth between $1,500 and $2,500 on the street. State Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, has written an op-ed piece for the Empire detailing law enforcement issues with SB 91.

Hoonah typically doesn’t see drugs over this amount. Consequently, the bill has hampered McKillican’s ability to aggressively pursue drug offenders.

“That’s something that every department and every community has had to deal with. It’s hit us in the fact that we don’t have the ability to continue to hold people accountable on serious matters, such as drug offenses,” McKillican said.

The chief said that Hoonah doesn’t have any worse a problem than Juneau or the rest of Southeast. He says the department does suffer from under-reporting by the community.

Officers receive about three or four drug-related tips per month, which is “not at all” as much as he would expect with the drug problem perceived as widely pervasive.

At the meeting, the council passed an ordinance by unanimous consent that would renew Hoonah’s commitment to Southeast Alaska Cities Against Drugs, or SEACAD. The multi-agency task force has been somewhat dormant since the retirement of a head organizer based out of Sitka.

Even though Hill has called for a new police chief, McKillican said the ordinance and the turnout from community members at the meeting make him feel like he “wants to be hopeful” about renewed anti-drug efforts.

The stigma of treatment

Hoonah does have outpatient addiction and mental health treatment resources, located in a relatively new clinic in the city.

SouthEast Regional Health Consortium employs a full-time behavioral health clinician in Hoonah, as well as a full-time community family service worker who functions as a behavioral health aide, according to Mary Teachout, SEARHC’s director of behavioral health based out of Juneau.

All of SEARHC’s services are free to Alaska Native tribal beneficiaries. The clinic is available to everyone on a first-come, first-served basis, but Alaska Natives have their health care provided through federal funds.

Teachout said the notion that health care providers would inform police on an individual’s drug habits is false. Several national laws prevent all health care providers from sharing information.

“We often experience that (distrust) in places where we don’t have an Alaska Native working in the community,” she said. “Someone might not share everything with their behavioral health providers because they think it’s a small community and everyone knows each other. . It is a true confidential source, we have to keep confidence because it’s part of our licensure.”

Addiction treatment is moving to a new paradigm, Teachout said. SEARHC now treats addiction as a mental health issue, not a moral failure.

Health care providers now “meet clients where they are at,” only providing them the treatment they request. That could mean simply getting an addict to work with a nutritionist to get them to eat better.

“The issue is really sometimes people say they want services, but when the services are offered and a bed is waiting, people say, ‘oh, I don’t want to go right now.’ Or that may exacerbate the substance abuse because people want to use before they go in,” she said. “It’s often the family members that want the person to get clean, not the person, and as an adult you have a choice to seek services or not seek services. Therein lies the problem.”

Inpatient treatment can be key to people in small communities, where getting away from old habits can be difficult, Teachout said.

SEARHC currently doesn’t operate any inpatient treatment services for adults. Raven’s Way, for adolescents only, is the sole inpatient treatment center. It’s based in Sitka, has 14 beds and currently isn’t full.

Rainforest Recovery Center is the only inpatient clinic in Juneau, but it’s not a free service to tribal beneficiaries. Teachout said SEARHC does help clients apply for Medicare and Medicaid to help pay for what can be prohibitively expensive inpatient services.

What next?

Mayor Skaflestad will join Hill in starting a citizen-led task force in Hoonah. Hill has already gotten calls for donations, which he won’t accept until the group has direction.

Hill said he’s also pursuing a “pie-in-the-sky” initiative to bring an inpatient treatment center to Hoonah. The city has zoned a plot of land next to SEARHC for such a facility, which could be used as collateral against grants for the project.

Skaflestad “lamented” the fact that the city doesn’t have more ordinances in front of it to address the problem immediately. Though he had to adjourn the council meeting around 10:30 p.m., (it started at 7) he urged the public to keep this issue on their minds on a daily basis.

Skaflestad said in an earlier interview, “A little storm can create a big ripple in a small pond.”


Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, https://www.juneauempire.com

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