CHESTERFIELD, Va. – Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the word “PEER,” Joy Bogese approaches people struggling with drug addiction the way a teacher might approach a reluctant student — gently, calmly and armed with experience in a subject that has stymied each of them.
Bogese, a recovering heroin addict, breaks the ice by telling them a bit about herself.
"I've been homeless, I did time in jail. I remember thinking, there's no hope. I'm always going to be a junkie," she tells a homeless man while standing next to a uniformed police officer. “I made it and you can, too,” she quickly adds.
Bogese is one of four peer recovery specialists who have been working in central Virginia this year as part of "Project Recover." The specialists are embedded with ambulance crews and police officers so they can offer guidance and resources to victims during one of the most difficult times of their lives — immediately following an overdose.
The program began after Courtney Nunnally, a recovering addict who founded a nonprofit organization to help get people into treatment, partnered with the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of Virginia. For its first year, the project received a $302,000 federal grant to hire peer recovery specialists who have turned their lives around after waging long battles with addiction. The program's supporters are currently searching for funding for a second year.
Most days, Bogese and Nunnally are out on patrol with police in Richmond and Chesterfield. They respond to 911 overdose calls and also patrol areas around abandoned buildings, cheap motels and parking lots, looking for the signs of addiction.
On a recent Monday, Bogese spots Adam Hall, a homeless man she first met two weeks earlier, in the parking lot of a shuttered shopping plaza. She and Chesterfield Patrol Officer Travis Adams reintroduce themselves and ask him how he's been.
Hall, 49, tells her he was shaken recently after a young man who stayed at the same campsite he stays at died of a drug overdose.
“Did you think about what we talked about?” Bogese asks, reminding him about some treatment options she suggested during their first meeting.
"It's not something I'm into yet, but I'm definitely thinking about it," Hall says.
Bogese says she respects his honesty and hands him some naloxone nasal spray, a prescription medicine used to treat opioid overdose emergencies.
“He has those ideas and options we talked about, and those seeds are planted,” she says as she walks away.
On this particular day, Adams and Bogese are not called to the scene of any overdoses during several hours of patrol. But they know it probably won't be long before they will. Like many communities around the country, Chesterfield County has struggled with the opioid addiction crisis.
In 2021, police here responded to 308 calls for overdoses of heroin, fentanyl or a combination of both; 77 of those calls involved fatal overdoses. So far this year, they've responded to 161 overdoses; 27 of them have been fatal, said Lt. Edward Pierpont.
The use of peer recovery specialists gained popularity in the late 1990s, when the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration began to fund grant programs specifically focused on peer recovery support services.
During the opioid crisis over the last decade, peer recovery specialists have become even more prevalent. In 2015, a police chief in Massachusetts announced that opiate addicts who walked into the police station for help would not be charged with a crime. Former Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello's Facebook post received national attention and led to the creation of the Police Assisted Addiction & Recovery Initiative, a nonprofit that helps law enforcement agencies create early diversion and other “non-arrest” programs to reduce overdose deaths and expand access to treatment.
Since its inception seven years ago, the initiative has grown to a national network of nearly 700 police departments in 34 states.
Some departments encourage people to self-report to police stations, while others, like Project Recover, focus on outreach to addicts.
“The goal is to get people into a treatment program rather than arrest their way out of the problem,” said Zoe Grover, PAARI's executive director.
In Berea, Ohio, a city of about 20,000 just outside Cleveland, the police department created Safe Passages, a program that encourages people to walk in the front door of the police station. There, they meet with an officer and then a peer support specialist who helps determine placement for detox or treatment services. The program also helps participants with issues that can often hinder their ability to get treatment, including transportation, insurance and child care.
From 2016 to 2020, about 150 people reported to the police station and sought help, said Sgt. Patrick Greenhill. Another 13 area police departments also participated, providing services to hundreds more.
“People didn’t believe it at first — that they wouldn’t get arrested — but then people started bringing their friends to us for help,” Greenhill said.
In Chesterfield, Adams says having Bogese with him on patrol sometimes eases the fear and distrust people struggling with addiction have of police.
“It's important for them to be able to see that she's been through what they have,” he said.
Bogese grew up wanting to be a police officer and got her bachelor's and master's degrees in criminal justice. But she struggled with alcohol and prescription drugs for two decades and then became addicted to heroin.
After nine months of increasing heroin use, Bogese was arrested, an event she said saved her life. During more than four years in jail, she trained to become a certified peer recovery specialist and began working for Project Recover in April. She's been clean for seven years.
“I was so focused on myself before, and the emptiness of feeling, ‘Why am I here? What’s my purpose?'" she said. “I definitely (still) have struggles and challenges, but having that meaning and purpose of helping people gives me that sense of direction so I don't feel lost.”