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A city fights to take back its neighborhoods from drugs

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RUTLAND, Vt. — It took rock bottom for this city of 17,500 to start taking back its community. Now, initially fueled by grief and fury, its self-resuscitation program is a model other drug-weary communities can follow.

The achievements of Project Vision, the name of its drug-fighting campaign that’s gaining attention nationwide, don’t stem from government-appointed task forces and special committees. Project Vision’s composition is almost opposite of the politically appointed task force the N.H. Legislature created just this week.

Project Vision doesn’t have a budget. It isn’t political. Its committees are every-other-week meetings of various individuals interested in particular topics directly or indirectly related to the scourge of drugs in the city. Project Vision commits to direct contact with the people and neighborhoods most affected by drugs. And it’s working.

Having hit rock bottom, the city about 70 miles from Keene didn’t want another talking-heads committee of potential future actions, a subject N.H. Sen. Molly Kelly, D-Harrisville, spoke directly about this week.

“The talking and the studying about this epidemic has been done over and over and over,” Kelly said before the N.H. Legislature appointed a 26-member task force consisting of only House and Senate members. “There is not anywhere that I go that I do not hear and see the suffering that this devastating epidemic has had on New Hampshire.”

Rutland felt the same way after the shocking death of one of its most prominent young citizens, caused by a drug user.

The Rutland Police Department devotes itself to Project Vision daily, even converting the second floor of its station to the “Vision Center,” the project’s headquarters. Several social agency representatives have their own cubicles there and mingle with police, advice and services flowing freely back and forth.

Most importantly, Project Vision has the cooperation of the city’s leaders and residents, police officers to mental health specialists, united in a desperate yearning to clean out the city’s drug culture. It’s grassroots to its core.

For instance, mental health crisis counselors are embedded in the police department, riding shotgun with the officers. A situation that likely would have ended with an arrest may now end with intervention, a road-map to treatment for a suspect/drug user. Police say it’s sometimes counterintuitive to their own training, yet they’ve learned the hard way: You can’t arrest your way out of the drug epidemic.

More than 300 people representing about 100 agencies have been involved in Project Vision since its inception three years ago.

“Everybody’s got a little skin in the game — that’s what I love about it,” said Sgt. Matt Prouty, a veteran in the Rutland Police Department and part of its community response team.

Rutland has long been ensnared by drugs, beaten down by the opioid and heroin epidemic that all communities are experiencing in some form. By all accounts, Rutland’s woes are more acute than in most cities its size. One of its most visible districts, a multi-block square with about 6,000 residents called Northwest, is smothered in drugs.

You can gaze into Northwest from the heart of downtown — or take a short walk across the railroad tracks and you’re there. It feels like walking into urban decay found in major cities, not a rural community nestled under the bucolic canopy of the Green Mountains.

People live, work and shop in Northwest, interspersed with drug addicts and dealers. Tidy three-story houses with fresh paint and attractive lawns — suggestive of once-thriving neighborhoods — stand next to unkempt structures subdivided into multi-family units. Visitors walking by reasonably ask: People live there?

It used to be worse.

Prouty was on duty as incident commander on that evening of Sept. 12, 2012. Now, on a sun-splashed late Wednesday afternoon, he’s seated at his desk in the Vision Center. Prouty’s sturdy voice inflects anger as he relates the story he’s told many times.

Rutland High School senior Carly Ferro was leaving her part-time job at the Discount Food & Liquidation Center, walking toward her father who came to pick her up. Carly, 17, had a bright future. She was an excellent scholar, top-notch golfer, varsity basketball player, member of the Key Club, musician in the district orchestra.

As Carly started to walk toward her father, whose car was parked in front of the store on Cleveland Avenue in the Northwest district, a vehicle driven by Alex Spanos of Rutland crashed into the driver’s side door. Carly and her father, Ron, were pinned against the store’s brick wall. Carly died that night in the hospital. Her father suffered a head injury.

Police estimated Spanos, 23, was driving 80 mph on the residential street, allegedly high from inhaling chemicals out of aerosol cans. He was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but acquitted of second-degree murder.

Carly’s death generated enough anger that Project Vision lifted off before the end of 2012.

“We’re really ahead of most communities because we hit rock bottom,” Prouty said. “Everybody had had it. The police had had it; we were fed up. This is rural Vermont. A shining star in our neighborhood is coming out of work, being picked up by her best friend — her father. ... And then she’s gone.”

Her death resonated through the entire city, still does more than three years later. Jason Swett was tying red Christmas bows atop street lamps Wednesday as an owner of Professional Decorators of Vermont. A native of Rutland, Swett has returned to the city after living elsewhere to raise his young family.

“The biggest thing is getting out the drugs,” Swett said. “I know we’re headed in the right direction. It’s good to see that type of leadership in the city getting after it.”

Prouty says the infrastructure was already in place for Project Vision to take root. “Vision” is actually an acronym standing for Viable Initiatives and Solutions through Involvement of Neighborhoods.

Almost all local and regional agencies have thrust themselves into the project: police, corrections officers, housing advocates, addiction specialists, church leaders, domestic abuse groups and neighborhood activists. They meet regularly in the Vision Center, where the main room has a large screen for multi-media presentations, and plenty of tables and chairs.

Typically, the meetings draw several dozen people who break into individual groups. One group may be discussing how to expand a needle exchange program, another may be wondering how to help needy families with winter clothing and a third is mulling options available to police when addicts ask for treatment.

Meanwhile, on a daily basis, police officers can turn to a housing specialist, drug counselor, women’s shelter worker, domestic violence representative and other professional specialists when confronted with a dilemma that needs a particular expert. Each agency is responsible for compensating its own workers. And the number of volunteer hours is substantial.

The “water cooler” effect is also in play. Prouty explains that having various agency representatives allows for an easy exchange of ideas with police officers. All those elements existed before, Prouty says, but thanks to Project Vision they converge under one roof.

“We don’t want to get bogged down in bureaucracy — we want it to be a working group,” Prouty said. “We want outcomes — bold outcomes.”

Police heavily patrol Northwest, concentrating on the worst areas. Prouty says they’re unrelenting in watching the home of a suspected dealer, hoping their presence discourages deals from taking place. They go door to door to talk to residents. It’s slow, grinding work. Of the 13,000 service calls that come in annually, police say, about 75 percent come from the Northwest district.

The city will also try to take houses suspected of drug activities either through tax and foreclosure sales, entering them into neighborhood rehabilitation programs or community land trusts. Only 32 percent of the homes in Northwest are owner-occupied, with most belonging to absentee landlords. A modest goal is to raise owner-occupied homes to 50 percent, Prouty says.

The lack of attention at landlord-owned properties propagates drug traffic, and blight affects all surrounding homes. Project Vision targets houses individually, aiming toward having dilapidated buildings rehabilitated or razed, and replaced by a playground or community garden.

Recently, the city received a $1.25-million community development grant through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that targeted 11 blighted multi-family dwellings neglected in an area hit hard by drugs. NeighborWorks of Western Vermont, a nonprofit agency, can offer buyers advice on sustainable home ownership.

“When some people see blighted properties, we see opportunity and action. When some people see boarded up buildings that have been abandoned, we see home ownership,” Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras told Vermont Public Radio.

Numbers show that Project Vision is working. Police say statistics show that over the last two years crimes related to drugs are down substantially: burglaries down 53 percent, car-related thefts down 31 percent, vandalism down 49 percent and disorderly conduct charges down 37 percent.

Meanwhile, downtown itself has undergone a bit of a renaissance, with several formerly vacant stores now occupied. Lyz Tomsuden, marketing coordinator and special events assistant for Downtown Rutland Partnership, says the trend is positive.

“Good things are happening in the city and that’s been encouraging,” said Tomsuden, who was recently honored by Vermont Business Magazine as one of the state’s 40 Rising Stars that recognizes top young professionals around the state. “Several businesses have come in (in recent years).”

Despite the gains, Northwest still has many unsightly housing blocks and drugs continue to flow. Overdoses are far too common. Wednesday night, neighboring town Brandon held a free distribution and training session for Narcan, the drug that reverses heroin overdoses.

A walk around Northwest reveals a toddler playing dangerously close to a busy street, not an adult in sight. Walkers are advised to beware of used needles, especially in less-traveled areas. People stare out from second-floor balconies or windows. A local resident pointing out the sights, who asked to not be identified, says it’s easy to spot users and sellers.

Just as Interstate 91 is considered a conduit for drugs coming into western New Hampshire from Springfield and Holyoke, Mass., police finger Brooklyn, N.Y., as a prime source for the drug supply in western Vermont. Interstate 87 passes just to the west in New York.

Sheila Anagnos, owner of Burnham Hollow Baker Café & Catering Co., has been on State Street in the Northwest district for 2½ years. She says her car has been broken into three times, and she recently shooed away a man shooting up heroin in the alley behind her store.

“Scared the living daylights out of me. I don’t want him here,” Anagnos said. “It’s a whole different ballgame here. It’s sketchy.”

Anagnos is putting two sons through college, so she leaves her job at the bakery at 5 p.m. for an overnight full-time job at Specialized Community Care in Middlebury. The economics in Rutland are awful, she says, contributing to the drug culture. But she says she’s encouraged by the inroads Project Vision is making.

Jane Newell owns Green Mountain Fresh, which sells seafood, and says just about everyone knows someone in the city affected by drugs. She says the son of a friend recently died of a heroin overdose. It’s a 12-minute walk from her house in Northwest to the store.

“I grew up in New York City, so to me — my friends are afraid to walk alone at night — to me it’s nothing,” Newell said.

The successes of Project Vision haven’t gone unnoticed. Among other media, The Boston Globe and New York Times have sent reporters to the city. Rutland Herald editor Rob Mitchell has written many stories and serves on the housing revitalization subcommittee.

Other cities have inquired about Project Vision, so the police department put together a PowerPoint presentation. Hartford, Londonderry, St. Johnsbury and Swanton are among the Vermont communities that have brought in Rutland officers to talk about it.

The department also presented at the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago last month.

In conducting the presentations, Prouty says it’s important to note that “everybody’s at a different spot” in their efforts to rid their own communities of drugs. He says they simply try to show what’s worked and what hasn’t in Rutland.

No one will forget Carly Ferro, the symbol of a drug culture at its nadir. The discount grocery store where she worked is a popular spot — cans of tomato paste that would cost $1.59 most places go for 59 cents here.

An intricate mural painted in Carly’s memory adorns the side of the store today, based in purple, her favorite color. Painted within the mural are striking images of her life, centered by a heart with her outlined inside swinging a golf club. An inscription reads, “Be kinder than necessary.”

Her legacy encompasses a much wider sweep, the final straw in a city’s frustration with drugs and its first building block in its determination to rescue itself from that culture.

It’s being replaced by a culture of hope.

Steve Gilbert is a columnist for The Sentinel.

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