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With Help from Police Department, Scherer Found Sobriety and a Home

December 16, 2018

LEOMINSTER -- Michaela Scherer was homeless for about five years total.

She’s lost count of the number of detox programs she’s gone through and the number of times she came close to dying. The arrests blur together, too. At one point, she became what interim Police Chief Michael Goldman described as “one of the city’s two most aggressive panhandlers.”

Between her and her boyfriend, Scherer was able to make as much as $400 a day panhandling, nearly all of which went to support expensive addictions to heroin and crack cocaine.

“There are rules,” she said. “You don’t ask people going into a store because they’ll tell on you. You don’t use a sign because that’s an automatic way to get caught. You don’t chase people down. Out of respect, you don’t ask people with kids.”

Scherer did have contact with children, but not to ask for money. On more than one occasion, she was approached while panhandling by mothers who asked if they could show her to their children as an “example” of the risks of drug use -- she let them.

“It’s happened to me a few times,” said Scherer. “It hurts, but in the back of my head I know that maybe I can scare this kid enough not to get high.”

On Friday, Dec. 14, Scherer celebrated four months of sobriety and she thanks the Leominster Police Department for making it possible for her.

It’s no coincidence that the number of homeless people living in and around downtown Leominster has dropped in the year since Jennessa McQuade was hired at the police department.

When she started working as the department’s homelessness and substance abuse outreach coordinator in October 2017, there was a core group of about 25 people she was working with on a regular basis. As of this month, it’s dropped to about 15 through placements in housing and treatment programs she’s been able to facilitate.

The work is largely built around what she calls “walk and talks” that are biweekly trips through the downtown area she makes with an accompanying police officer. She’s made a lot of progress in the last 12 months.

“They have their own code and you have to forge a relationship with them. They’re not going to trust you if you’re just anyone,” said McQuade. “When I first started going down there, everyone would just disperse.”

That was what happened every time she tried to approach Michaela Scherer.

“She would see me and take off a lot. She would always say things like ‘I need to catch this bus!’ and whatever bus was coming, she was jumping on,” she said. “She was a runner and a hider.”

Scherer started experimenting with drugs as a teenager, but it was a bad break-up with an ex-boyfriend six years ago that she said that really pushed into the despair of addiction. That was around the time she first started doing crack cocaine.

“Crack cocaine is the kind of drug that takes your money all at once. Heroin is the type of drug that takes your soul because you’ll do anything not to be sick,” she explained. “Meth takes both of those.”

The boyfriend she had, while homeless, had many of the same addictions and the majority of their time was spent trying to find money to support their habits. She describes the relationship as codependent, which was helpful in surviving outdoors but made it harder for them to seek help. There were times when both of them would want to find treatment or housing, but they didn’t want to be separated and coed programming is even harder to find.

“We always ended up choosing the streets because we knew we could survive out there,” she said.

There were places they liked staying more than others and they kept rotating between them to evade the police. Until recently, Scherer spent a lot of time sleeping on the front steps of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on West Street where the railing was high enough to hide her from the police if they happened to drive by.

That’s where Scherer was sleeping when police told her that they had issued a Section 35 warrant for her, meaning the department was involuntarily committing her to substance abuse treatment.

Originally only family members were able to involuntarily commit people through Section 35, but a recent change in the state’s law now gives that option to police departments.

It’s become something of a standard practice for the Leominster Police Department, though McQuade said it’s far from a first resort.

Instead, she focuses on building a relationship with each person she’s working with and tries to persuade them to seek help. McQuade’s head is full of memorized biographies of every homeless person in Leominster. They have her phone number if they need help and it’s gotten to the point where she has many of theirs.

Often times, she can tell who is squatting in a vacant building just by the trash left behind.

On a recent walk and talk through a wooded area running parallel to Main Street, she noted the empty liquor bottles on the ground. A path cut through the trees and the red twist-off caps from discarded bottles of whiskey dotted the ground like chicken pox. McQuade followed the trail into the trees, leading her to a spot where the number of nip-sized bottles rivaled the fallen leaves.

“We get a lot of Fireball and we know who that’s from,” she said. “We started to see a lot of nips of SKYY vodka and we thought we had a new person but it turned out these were just on sale for 50 cents.”

It was thanks to this wealth of knowledge that officers were able to successfully take Scherer into custody.

When an officer woke her up on the steps of St. Mark’s to serve her the Section 35 warrant, Scherer tried to prove that she wasn’t using drugs by pointing out that there weren’t any fresh track marks on her arms.

“Then she told me, ’Well, Jennessa tells us you use a vein on your ankles so let’s see your ankles,” said Scherer. The track marks were there.

She was placed in a detox facility where she jokes that she was put with the “bad people” because she punched a window, but it was there that she started to rediscover her interest in art. Seeing that her section of the facility didn’t have the same arts program that other clients had access to, she created her own and started teaching other people in recovery how to build dream catchers out of popsicle sticks.

Upon release from detox, McQuade was able to help Scherer into sober housing in Fitchburg where she currently resides.

“Now I have a huge room, huge bed, a desk. I have two windows, a bureau for my clothes,” she said. “My house is wicked cool. We have house meetings and house AA meetings. I have friends there who care about me.”

When asked why recovery seems to be working out better this time, Scherer said it’s a combination of things.

“You just get sick of it. Your legs are tired. Your feet. You get sick of begging. You get sick of people looking at you like you’re scum,” she said. “Being sectioned was definitely one of the main differences.”

In some ways, the Leominster Police Department has had to morph into a social services agency and it’s a change Chief Goldman said wasn’t expected or even planned.

“I never thought we’d be in this territory. I never even thought officers would be carrying Narcan,” he said. “The thing in this country right now is more and more is being put on the police because we’re the ones out there 24/7. We’re the ones who see these people first.”

Seeing the need to have someone specifically tasked with regularly engaging with the homeless population, the department created McQuade’s position last year, which led to even further involvement in the issue. The department now coordinates the Combating Homelessness Committee, which gathers representatives of area social services agencies regularly to strategize how best to tackle the homelessness problem. They’ve also raised money for a new fund to pay for trips to detox facilities and homeless shelters throughout the state, replacing the rides officers had been regularly providing those needing help with their addictions.

From a law enforcement perspective, Goldman said the department’s efforts are working. With more people enrolled in programs and off the street, fewer people are congregating in Monument Square.

“They are sometimes intoxicated or under the influence of a substance. They can have these raging domestics or fights right down in the square... It’s not overwhelming, but it’s absolutely a public safety concern,” he said. “But it is dropping. We’re not seeing the constant calls for service down there.”

Scherer has a photo of her mugshot tacked to the wall of her bedroom. She keeps it there as a reminder for when she wakes up in the morning.

“I don’t have the same problems now,” she explained. “Now my problems are ‘Am I going to wake up in time for work?’ Before my problems were ‘Who am I going to sell my food stamps to? Where am I going to sleep where the cops don’t see me? How long will this pair of shoes last before that hole goes completely through?’”

She has a job and is selling homemade dream catchers on the side. She’s still with the same boyfriend, who, like her, is also living in sober housing and employed. They spend their free time volunteering at Ginny’s Helping Hand and the Spanish American Center, which Scherer said is them trying to return the favor for the help each nonprofit gave them when homeless.

Scherer has been thinking about art a lot lately, particularly the things she learned from an art therapist during her first try at recovery.

“I loved that program and that’s what I want to be,” she said, explaining that she wants to go back to school. “I want to be an art therapist for addicts or mentally disabled people.”

She also regularly visits the police station to meet with McQuade and updates her on her progress.

“We work on different goals for her and she’s 100 percent working on it,” said McQuade. “It’s just about keeping her focused and making sure she knows that support is still here and that I’m not going anywhere.”

McQuade and Goldman hope to keep whittling away at the city’s homeless population, but a long-term solution to the problem is still in the works.

The department plans to implement the first downtown walking beat in 32 years that will see an officer daily patrolling Leominster on foot, which Goldman expects to start early next year.

“We think some type of shelter in Leominster would be appropriate, but there’s kind of a ‘If you build it, they will come’ attitude,” said Goldman. “If there’s going to be a homeless population that won’t diminish to the bare minimum, and there will continue to be this flow of people, then you have to start looking for something.”

There are days where Scherer ventures back outside, seeking out the friends who still live there. She takes them warm clothes and sometimes takes them out to lunch now that she find’s herself on the other side of panhandling.

“I hate to see them hungry but I don’t like to give them money because I know where it’s going,” she said.

Some days she visits her sister and tries to convince her to get help.

“I pray that she gets picked up like me every single day, but she’s a good hider,” she said. “I hope she gets help because she has a 13-year-old daughter... She’s the age I was when I started getting high. I wonder how she’s going to turn out.”

Follow Peter Jasinski on Twitter @PeterJasinski53

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