Danielle Dextradeur

Danielle Dextradeur is a peer recovery specialist at the Safe Haven drop-in center on Main Street in Woonsocket, where she helps others recovering from drug use and homelessness.

WOONSOCKET – When Danielle Dextradeur arrives to work in the morning, she knows she’s in for a long day. As a peer recovery specialist and team lead at Community Care Alliance’s Safe Haven drop-in center on Main Street, she oversees a space that attracts dozens of visitors every day.

“We get between 40 and 65 people a day here,” she said during an interview in her office at the center on Monday. “Sometimes it gets overwhelming because we get so many people; we’re so short staffed.”

Safe Haven, opened by CCA last February, offers a space where homeless and other individuals can go during the day to access resources and escape the elements on the streets. In one room, couches offer a place where people can sleep, while in another, staff members help clients apply for services such as food stamps, housing assistance and appointments at the DMV. A sign in Dextradeur’s office reads “365 new days, 365 new chances,” a mantra for everyone who walks in the door.

Dextradeur, who has faced her own challenges with drug use and homelessness, is uniquely equipped to handle the barrage of needs that flood her office daily. Growing up in Providence, she dropped out of school at 16 and became estranged from her dad’s side of the family. A year later, she had a baby, and eventually found herself entangled in an abusive relationship and a cycle of drug use and stealing.

“Nobody ever expects to be out on the streets and be disowned by their family,” she said.

In 2017, Dextradeur said she had a wake-up call when she overdosed on heroine. It was her first time using the drug, and she didn’t know the batch had been laced with fentanyl.

“It took me 45 minutes to come back and about 10 Narcans,” she said.

Now 29, Dextradeur said she spent four years self-healing before she felt ready to help others confront the same issues she faced. Last spring, she applied for the peer recovery specialist job, which allows her to work with people coming out of similar situations. She hopes to obtain a degree in social work to continue in the profession.

“It makes me feel good at the end of the day, but it makes me feel sad because you can’t help everyone,” she said.

As Dextradeur described her situation, a man wandered into her office to grab a Kit Kat from a bowl on her desk. Clients at the Safe Haven center sign in and have free reign to use the space. Noticing the blood on his face, she asked him why he was bleeding. He replied he’d been fighting with others out on the streets.

According to Michelle Taylor, vice president of social health services for CCA, drug use is a common theme for those who pass through the agency’s drop-in centers, though not everyone on the streets is dealing with addiction. Taylor told members of the City Council during a presentation about the agency’s services last month she is seeing an increase in people who would not otherwise be homeless, including families and those dealing with medical issues.

For those trying to recover from drug use, the agency has two peer recovery centers to help them access resources. In 2019, CCA opened the Serenity Center in a storefront on Social Street to create a sober environment for those looking to stop using substances. The center worked as a resource for clients, Taylor said, but it also attracted another type of individual who had nowhere else to go during the day.

“There are people who are actively using who have no interest right now in not using. They’re not in a place where they’re ready to change their life,” she said. “The challenge with that is being around people who are using can be very triggering.”

To solve the issue, CCA opened Safe Haven as a second peer recovery center that welcomes a wider array of clients. Though the center is not a supervised injection site and does not condone drug use, Taylor said they provide supplies that can help people stay alive, including clean syringes, alcohol swabs and test strips that detect the presence of fentanyl.

“At Safe Haven, we have a lot more tolerance for that, simply because they have no place else to go,” she said.

Last week, staff members and clients were reminded just how close to the edge many of their participants live when a maintenance worker discovered the body of a woman who had overdosed in the bathroom. Taylor said they believe the woman hid in a stairwell while staff members were locking up for the day and emerged after hours once everyone had left.

“She was fairly new to us,” she said. “We do know that she did have an interest in detox. She was coming to Safe Haven maybe a couple of times a week. Someone who was very quiet and unassuming.”

Others at the center said they knew the woman and had seen her spending time there during the day. Francisco, a regular visitor who used to be homeless (clients’ last names have been omitted at CCA’s request,) compared her situation to his own struggles with substance abuse.

“She was a good person, it was just a drug addiction,” he said. “And I know the addiction side of it, it’s terrible. It’ll grab hold of you and swallow you.”

Originally from New Jersey, Francisco said he got involved with drugs after his son was born. At the time, he said, his wife was suffering from postpartum depression.

“I didn’t know how to help her, and there wasn’t really a lot of resources for that. She did the right thing and she left,” he said.

He eventually reunited with his wife, following her to Rhode Island where she’d moved to be closer to family. Today, he’s been clean for close to 50 days and is residing in a sober living community in Woonsocket.

Francisco said he understands why people get frustrated when they see drug users doing the same things over and over again, but for many, the situation can seem hopeless.

“I look at my son. I’m like, I don’t want to die like that,” he said. “Him and (my wife) are my motivation to want to stay sober, stay clean.”

For others, medical problems can complicate life on the streets. Joey, another client, said he was homeless for two or three years before CCA got him and his girlfriend a voucher to stay in a hotel. While on the streets, he said, he lost his birth certificate and other documents, making it difficult to apply for benefits.

“They’ve been working with me for awhile, trying to get me off the streets for awhile. It sucks. I’ve got MS, so it’s hard sleeping out in a tent,” he said.

The hotel vouchers are one of several programs the state uses to offer emergency housing assistance. In November, Gov. Dan McKee announced an additional $5 million in funding to help agencies like CCA increase shelter capacity this winter, but homelessness advocates say the state isn’t doing enough. Last Tuesday, a group of demonstrators began sleeping in tents in front of the State House, calling for McKee and state legislators to take greater action to address the homelessness crisis.

Christa Thomas-Sowers is a community outreach coordinator for CCA who works out of the Safe Haven center. She said emergency hotel vouchers can be a lifesaver for people who need them, but often the resources are not enough.

“To me, it’s a total system failure when we have people with disabilities who are sleeping on the streets,” she said. “People who’ve never experienced it have no idea what it’s like to claw your way out of it.”

On Monday, Thomas-Sowers was returning from New Beginnings with takeout meals for the agency’s clients. The Rathbun Street soup kitchen is one of several agencies that provides lunch for visitors to Safe Haven. Thomas-Sowers said staff at the drop-in center try to find out what people need and provide them with the resources that will make a difference.

“We try our best to connect people with what they can, but there’s not always a lot to go around,” she said.

For Dextradeur, it’s a situation that’s all too familiar. Some people who were previously homeless or using drugs, she said, can’t do peer recovery work because there are too many triggers from their former life. For her, she uses her experience and learns from the people she interacts with every day.

“You never thought it would be you, but it could be you. None of us thought it would be us, but it was,” she said.

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