Summit focuses on housing hurdles faced by those with addiction

  • The Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region and the North Quabbin Community Coalition hosted the fourth annual Sober Housing Summit via Zoom on Friday. SCREENSHOT

Staff Writer
Published: 12/12/2021 3:51:43 PM
Modified: 12/12/2021 3:51:07 PM

Two women in recovery candidly told their stories as a way to illustrate the housing hurdles faced by those with addiction during the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region and the North Quabbin Community Coalition’s fourth annual Sober Housing Summit on Friday morning.

“The Ties That Bind: What is the Safety Net for Unhoused Individuals with a History of Substance Misuse?” was held via the online video conferencing platform Zoom from 10 a.m. to noon. The majority of the summit consisted of a panel of experts who spoke on the housing crisis Massachusetts faces, but opening remarks were made by the Opioid Task Force co-chairs — Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan, Register of Probate John Merrigan and Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan.

The district attorney said housing, while not the task force’s primary focus, is a vital part of the mission because people recovering from addiction who are released from jail and experience housing insecurity are more likely to wind up back in the criminal justice system. Judy Raper, associate dean of student development at Greenfield Community College, where the summit is typically held, and co-chair of the Housing & Workforce Development Committee, said it is disheartening to know this problem could be eradicated in the United States if there was the political will to do so.

“I hope the day will come when this summit is not … necessary,” she said.

The first woman in recovery to speak was Michelina Balsavich, who said she has been sober since Jan. 2, 2019. She said securing housing was the largest obstacle for her once she completed her recovery program as landlords are wary about renting to people with a history of drug use.

A solution to this problem, Balsavich said, is a system that does not judge a person by their past and views them as a human being. She said it is difficult to focus on sobriety when you are worried about where you will sleep at night.

The Worcester native came to Greenfield in 2017 to attend Two Rivers Recovery Center for Women when she was pregnant and had just gotten out of Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee.

“I came out here and I was introduced to what recovery was. I, prior to that, had never been in recovery,” Balsavich said. “My life consisted of using drugs and thinking that that was how the rest of my life was going to be.”

This sentiment was shared by Tabitha Rantanen, who explained she was raised by parents who struggled with addiction. She mentioned she has lived in her house for three years, and that is the longest span of time she has lived in one place. For two years of her youth, her family lived in a tent in a campground.

“That was pretty traumatic for me,” Rantanen said.

She said her addiction started at a young age and she was first sent to a juvenile detention center at 12 years old.

“This is an issue that is very close to my heart,” Rantanen said.

According to information shared via Zoom, the state Department of Public Health reported that 2020 saw 33 opioid overdose deaths in Franklin County, with Athol included. This is the most reported since 2012, though additional cases from 2019 to 2020 are still being confirmed by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Also, a lack of housing can result in poor health and a decreased life expectancy, generational trauma, an increased risk of substance use, and an increased risk of mental health issues.

Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Mass. Network to End Homelessness, said the pandemic and the economic fallout that resulted from it have exacerbated an eviction and foreclosure crisis in the nation. She reported that 27,000 new eviction cases have been filed in Mass. since the eviction moratorium ended in October 2020. The number of eviction filings for non-payment of rent add up to 3,673 across Franklin, Hampshire, Hampden and Berkshire counties.

Brooke Murphy, the homelessness services and billing manager at Community Action Pioneer Valley’s Three County Continuum of Care, advocated for using a “housing-first, harm-reduction, person-center model” for tackling this problem. The idea is that all people experiencing homelessness are believed to be housing-ready, and are provided with permanent housing immediately and with few to no protections, behavioral contingencies or barriers. However, “Housing First” involves prioritizing people with the highest needs and vulnerabilities, engaging more landlords and property owners, and making projects client-centered spaces without barriers to entering and remaining in the project.

In contrast to more traditional housing approaches, “Housing First” does not require compliance with sobriety or treatment/service as a condition for program entry or service continuation.

Reach Domenic Poli at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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