Help for the Homeless, Stranded and Addicted

Page City Manager Darren Coldwell leads a meeting in early August to discuss the community's homeless, stranded, and substance abuse problem. Photo by Bob Hembree

'The problem the City of Page faces is a daunting one'

Page summers and winters are brutal for the homeless and stranded, sometimes deadly. Couple extreme weather with alcohol, the danger increases.

Page Chief of Police, Drew Sanders said there were four deaths this summer exhibiting signs of alcohol poisoning, overexposure to heat or both, including a 50-year-old man found in the Page City Park July 20, and a 43-year-old man found in the desert July 26 near U.S. Route 89.

Sanders said helping people get medical treatment or to the emergency room, is always an ongoing concern. Arrests for substance abuse related crimes are routine in downtown Page.

Page has tried for decades to solve the downtown problem, and now, vigorous efforts have ramped up again. A task force has formed, and it’s got the backing of people and organizations with experience and resources to get it moving.

Before the pandemic, meetings were underway with representatives from local medical and mental health professionals, the police department, city officials, and council members. While the regular group meetings were on hold temporarily, it didn’t stop discussions and making essential contacts through networking.

Page City Manager Darren Coldwell told the Chronicle, “[The] problem the City of Page faces is a daunting one, and one that has been facing the residents and the affected for as long as most can remember.” Coldwell said the decision to help was the concern for safety. He said, “It was our fear that with the continued heat we could potentially see an uptick in hospitalizations and even deaths. Those have both come to fruition this summer.”

Coldwell said about 40 percent of all emergency service calls involve intoxicated individuals, “We have seen three deaths in three weeks from alcohol poisoning and exposure.” The Page Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services reported 338 calls for intoxicated individuals over the last six months. Page Hospital said 231 ethanol and alcohol patients were admitted to the emergency room in the last three months. Police, fire, courts and medical services see the same people week after week, month after month. Over 80 percent of court prosecuted cases involve alcohol. Encompass estimates they serve between 1,000 and 2,000 patients annually.

Sander’s presentation on the subject said arrests only add debt to poverty. “It’s not solution-based. No solution plan will be complete without robust treatment plans.”

So, what is being done?

Coldwell said, “It was the decision of city staff to attempt to make a difference in the problem, be it successful or not we were going to at least try. With myself, (Page City Attorney) Josh Smith, (Police) Chief Sanders, Chief (Jeff) Reed, (Community Development Director) Tim Suan, (Economic Development Coordinator) Gregg Martinez, and direction from Mayor (Levi) Tappan we decided to re-establish the Substance Abuse Committee. With this core group we then decided to extend invitations to Banner Health, Coconino County, Canyon Lands, Encompass, Page Unified School District, Catholic Charities, and the Navajo Nation.”

A significant step forward grew from a group teleconference. Gregg Martinez spoke with Sandra Flores, Sr. Programs Director for Catholic Charities. From there, concrete plans began. Catholic Charities was granted funds through the CARES Act. This put them in a better position to extend a helping hand to Page. Coldwell and Sanders welcomed them with open arms. The city is providing Catholic Charities office space and utilities. This will give their two employees assigned to Page a place to work from near the city park. Sanders told the Chronicle, "It's not a silver bullet. We've got to have treatment options. We can’t arrest our way out of the problem."

Coldwell said, “Catholic Charities will play a very important part in the outreach to those that are most affected. They will be seen daily working directly with the individuals affected. They will offer food, water, a ride home or even short-term hotel rooms to get them out of the extreme weather our area faces daily. They will be working directly with Encompass to get them the necessary help and hopefully long-term care.”

Short-term care is available, but Coldwell said long-term care is something Page has never had. He’s working to make this happen with the help of Encompass and Catholic Charities and he’s pursuing permanent funding through the Governor’s Office. Coldwell said, “Currently we have had verbal commitments from all of those to help, we now are in the process of providing the documentation needed to be eligible for the funding.”

What makes this latest attempt to solve the problem different?

Page City Council committed $25,000 to get it started. The driving force is Coldwell and team. They’ve managed to gather influential leaders together to discuss and join forces. An historic meeting took place at city hall Aug. 6. It was a mix of face to face in the council chambers and video conferencing. Coldwell led the meeting that included Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Arizona Rep. Arlando Teller, Coconino County District 5 Supervisor Lena Fowler, Encompass CEO Joe Wright, and representatives from Banner Health, CareFirst, Catholic Charities, Page Lake Powell Chamber of Commerce, Health Choice Arizona, and Navajo Nation Division of Behavioral and Mental Health Services.

Page is also introducing a drug court to Page. Coldwell said, “The court will include a combination of probation, mental health, substance abuse counseling, and social services to make a long-term commitment to the addicted individual. The goal of the court is continuous treatment for individuals who need it. We are hoping this will end the never-ending revolving door that the court currently sees. This is a model that has been used very successfully in other communities such as ours.”

Coldwell said, “I do want to mention Rep. Teller and the commitment he has made to the success of this endeavor. It is because of him that the Navajo Nation, led by President Nez, has decided to come to the table. I can’t stress the importance of the working relationship that is needed in order for this to succeed. For President Nez and his staff to attend the initial informational meeting was of the utmost importance to begin to solve this problem.”

Teller said, “Our people, our constituents, our families. our friends, some people we know personally are in our streets and may feel like there is no other way to get out of the situation that they’re in.”

Teller continued, “With this group of folks, professionals, we can do something today, if not continually, in addressing not only this homelessness issue and the substance abuse issue and the resources that we are all limited by, we can work together in addressing this as a team, as a coalition.”

Teller offered to work with stakeholders to address drafting appropriation funding for legislation. This includes collecting data and evaluating past efforts to learn where improvements can be made.

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