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St. Louis Group Uses Retired Ambulance To Fight Addiction On The Street

Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery Executive Director stands beside the nonprofit's mobile outreach van. The decal on the back window represents the molecule naloxone, a chemical that can reverse and overdose.
File photo | Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery Executive Director Chad Sabora stands beside the nonprofit's mobile-outreach van. The decal on the back window represents the molecule naloxone, a chemical that can reverse an overdose.

A St. Louis nonprofit is sending outreach workers to city streets to dispense life-saving treatment from a newly refurbished ambulance.

The Missouri Network For Opiate Reform and Recovery will use the vehicle to dispense the overdose-reversal drug naloxone to active drug users and those in recovery. It also provides testing for sexually transmitted diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV and information about treatment programs.

The mobile unit extends the nonprofit’s reach beyond its headquarters at 4022 S. Broadway.

Many people with addiction “are homeless; many still don’t know we’re here,” said Chad Sabora, the group's executive director. “The mobile-outreach vehicle will reach people who can’t get to south city for whatever reasons, help to engage them in harm-reduction service and get them into treatment and recovery.”

But it’s important for health workers to provide services for people even before they decide to quit using, Sabora said.

“If we don’t get to them as soon as possible and reach every active user to provide these services, too many people will die, and we need to stop that,” he said.

The nonprofit bought the ambulance for $5,000 raised through donations. It started its rounds last week. On its first day out, the group distributed more than 50 naloxone kits, Sabora said.

Each day, the ambulance will travel to different neighborhoods or homeless camps where it knows people in need gather. Building a rapport with people is important, Sabora said. He wants people to know that police won’t arrest them for using the group’s services.

The Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery has built a reputation as an organization people can trust, he said. It was a driving force behind a law that made naloxone available over the counter to Missourians. The van has a large decal of a naloxone molecule on its back window.

Although some low-cost health clinics in St. Louis have mobile health units, the ambulance is the first to focus on addicted people, Sabora said. Other cities such as Chicago and Bloomington, Indiana, have had mobile-outreach units for years, he added.

In other states, mobile addiction-support clinics also distribute clean syringes and discard used ones in an effort to cut rates of disease in drug users. In Missouri, it’s still illegal to possess drug paraphernalia, even in the confines of a syringe-exchange service.

One of the most important services the unit will offer is a listening ear, said Sabora.

“Everybody on the ambulance has lived experience [with drug use],” Sabora said. “Our peer specialists can do quasi-roadside counseling for people, discuss options for them and just treat them like a human being.”

The group will post the location of the ambulance every day on its Facebook page, he said.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @Petit_Smudge

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.