Carl Alves: 'Live in gratitude, even during the dark times.’

Even as he approaches the milestone of 30 years as chief executive officer at Positive Action Against Chemical Addiction, Carl Alves still has a passion for his work.

“It’s about living in gratitude, and I think that’s the No. 1 thing that I’ve learned in my experience here, is to live in gratitude, even during the dark times. It does help you get through. Because a lot of times people say ‘Well, people continue to die … why do you keep doing this?’

“It’s the value of developing new friendships and new people who are interested in this. I’m not worried about dollars under management,” said the former financial planner. “I’m focused on lives touched.”

At its core, PAACA, based in the Agnes S. Braz/Hope S. Bean Memorial Community Center at 360 Coggeshall St. in New Bedford, is a non-profit organization that provides access to treatment and services for those suffering from addiction. However, through its nearly 40 years of existence, PAACA’s mission has grown to include alleviating poverty, food insecurity, and homelessness; operating the commonwealth’s first youth court, a diversionary program for young offenders; and more recently, providing outreach and information during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alves, who earned a bachelor of science degree in business administration and management at UMass Amherst, also is a consultant to Southcoast Behavioral Health, providing support to the business development office by organizing community initiatives and outreach. He serves on the board of Learn to Cope, a peer-led support group for families dealing with addiction and recovery, as well as the New Bedford Homeless Service Providers Network. 

Here, Alves talks about the challenges at PAACA, how the outlook for those battling addiction has changed over his three decades with the organization, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and more.

New Bedford Light: How did you come to head up PAACA?

Carl Alves: I’ve been here since 1991. I started off as a volunteer and served on the board. August 4 will make 30 years that I’ve been here. I was part time, and there was another part-time person. We’ve got just under 50 employees now. It’s been a labor of love. I’ve enjoyed myself. … You know, we say ‘Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day.’

Before doing this work, I worked for American Express financial planning and that sort of thing, and I was a buyer for Pratt & Whitney for a little while. My focus was business, and I [lived] in Connecticut, but then relocated.

I came to the agency to look for help for a friend who was struggling. And I was so captivated by the volunteers and people willing to help … they didn’t ask anything from me other than ‘Can you help us?’ I liked that because my whole [work] experience [was] transactional. So I joined the board and I’ve been here ever since. …

I have lost a lot of people as a result of addiction in my life. Although I was addicted to cigarettes, I fortunately was not drug addicted. But I’ve always been an ally and I consider myself a person in recovery because I belong to the fellowship of Al-Anon [Family Groups]. That’s been a big driving point for me, for family members and loved ones of people that are struggling.

Carl Alves came to PAACA years ago looking for help for a friend who was struggling. “I was so captivated by the volunteers and people willing to help.” Credit: Joanna McQuillan Weeks / The New Bedford Light

NBL: How have things changed over those 30 years? What’s better? What’s worse?

CA: When I first started, HIV was … taking a lot of lives, and especially in this population that we serve here at PAACA. So that was very difficult seeing a lot of folks pass [due to AIDS] in addition to addiction. Fast forward through the ’90s, we saw the advent of prescription drug emergence and dependency, and then that folded into the suburbs having bigger problems. That’s when I think more governmental attention was paid to it, which led to more work being done to try to stem that tide.

The early 2000s were very difficult. We were seeing a lot of young people impacted, dying tragically. However, there was enough outcry because it affected enough people, especially enough people with money, to do more, which was exciting. A lot of good work was being done on the national level in terms of treatment options and access, which was terrific.

In the mid-2010s, we actually saw a reduction in the amount of prescribing by regular physicians. A lot of people [had been] getting caught up in the opioid crisis because they got a conventional prescription and that turned into a dependency, which then turned into an addiction. …

From 2012 to 2015, we actually saw a leveling off. But what’s been happening now and what’s really projecting things is that the fentanyl and now even methamphetamines are being put in pill form, so it’s easier to transport, easier to sell. It’s perceived as less harmful. And so we’re seeing the numbers trend back up. Fentanyl [use] has really gone up. We’re seeing that on a regular basis. [Nationally] 100,000 people died last year from overdoses. About 70,000 of them were opioid-related.

So it’s very difficult. We don’t have a heroin problem anymore, we have a fentanyl problem. And that transition happened in the 2010s. Unfortunately, it’s just getting more and more difficult. Couple that with increased mental health issues brought on by the pandemic, isolation, all those kinds of things. It’s been a real recipe for a challenge for many people. …

I think that is the challenge for us now — just like climate change — is that some people can adjust more easily than others. And, you know, I think we as a community, we will survive if we respond and adjust to the environment that we’re living in. That’s part of what PAACA has done [since it started in 1983]: We’ve adjusted to match the needs of the people that we serve.

We’re not a large SouthCoast institution. We don’t have a big parent agency. We’re just a consumer-driven organization dedicated to prevention and harm-reduction recovery support services, trying to help people where they are. We try to help people get jobs, that sort of thing. So, helping people to stay engaged, find their purpose, understand that there is life after addiction.

Some of the finest people that I know are people that are in recovery, because they’ve lived that hell. They understand what that is, and they’ve been able to find a better way of life.

NBL: What’s the biggest challenge PAACA faces?

CA: The challenge right now is housing or residential options for people. Hence, the reason why we’re trying to develop a housing coalition throughout the community to support the work that government is doing, but also inform the community and mobilize the community to open their eyes and discover new approaches to and options for people to live. Whether it’s that elder who is living in their home, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to maintain that home — what happens there? Or the elder that has a rental and the rental has gone up. [For example], Adriana in the article in the New Bedford Light, a 74-year-old woman living in a car who has really kind of lived life the right way. These are the challenges.

It’s not necessarily the responsibility of a landlord or a particular agency, but it is the responsibility of society to be able to look at these kinds of conditions and … find some new approaches to make it dignified and supportive for all people, not just the elder but folks that might have mental health conditions. Just because they’re not being rented to doesn’t mean that they go away. It’s evident in the encampments and people on the streets as well as living in cars and doubling and tripling up in apartments. …

To me, the biggest problem is the lack of supply. We haven’t built any affordable — or enough — housing, whether it’s luxury or supportive, right? That’s the full spectrum. … We haven’t been building enough and we’re starting to pay the piper. …

It’s also difficult for first-time homebuyers to get into the market, too. And so I think that there’s got to be a better way to … help elders who want to let go of their home and for a safer and better place for them to live, but also leveraging those units to make them available for first-time homeowners. 

[Alves also serves on the executive board of the New Bedford Homeless Service Providers Network, through which the City of New Bedford aims to coordinate a comprehensive response to homelessness. PAACA is among the more than 70 organizations, agencies, and individuals working to address this critical challenge.]

The Homeless Service Providers Network [applies] for federal dollars to help with homeless-specific projects. PAACA is a recipient of some of those funds. We provide [supportive] housing for folks that are transitioning from homelessness, that are also experiencing some sort of disability, mental health, addiction, or physical disability. … You know, millions of dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it really isn’t. It doesn’t go that far these days.

NBL: Regarding current terminology, do you prefer substance use disorder to addiction, or are they interchangeable?

CA: ‘Addiction’ is fine. I think we were trying to get away from it, because language is important. [You want to avoid] labeling the person an addict … he or she is a person who’s struggling with addiction. So you don’t lose that humanity. Because the war on drugs, we know, was really a war on people that were addicted. That’s been part of the challenge. We’re trying to change some of that. So substance use disorder is the condition. Addiction is one of the consequences of the disorder — sometimes — so that’s some new terminology just to try to soften, but also better explain what we’re talking about.

NBL: What misconceptions do people have about addiction/substance use?

CA: That it’s fatal. That there’s no hope. People do recover. Treatment works. Sometimes it takes a little while. It might not work on the first try. Sometimes it doesn’t work in time. 

When I first started here, it was jails, institutions, and death, unless you found recovery. And that means something different for everybody now. That’s one of the things that’s changed in my experience, is that broadly, when I first started, it was ‘You’ve got to let the person hit bottom before they can fight.’ That’s tough for a mom to digest. It’s tough for an 18-year-old who might be struggling right now: ‘What, I’ve got to do this for the rest of my life?’

But you know, there are principles — one day at a time, living in gratitude, those kinds of things — that help you along that way.

NBL: What impact did the pandemic have on persons struggling with substance use?

CA: For some, it was actually a pathway to help, because the advent of all the Zoom and distance counseling was really good for some. But for many, it was very perilous, especially in recovery. People like to have that one-on-one, personal contact, and that was essentially eliminated over an extended period of time.

So we saw a lot of folks who ended up isolating and having some significant difficulty. Again, I would guess that it splits up based on resources, just like most other things [during] the pandemic. So those who had fewer resources probably suffered the most, as opposed to those who had more. And unfortunately, that is the way of the world these days. 

NBL: It seems like every other billboard you see along the highway is for recreational marijuana dispensaries. What’s your opinion on the proliferation of these shops?

CA: Well, it’s difficult, because more people die from the legal substances than the illegal ones — smoking, alcohol — and not marijuana. My problem with it is the commercialization, meaning that if people don’t perceive a risk, they’re more likely to do it, and it’ll have some negative consequences.

I think there’s a positive that at least the supply is being vetted, and there’s oversight. Because part of what we’re seeing is that street marijuana is getting mixed in with fentanyl, because sometimes the dealers are selling both products. And it’s cross-contaminated. It only takes a speck of fentanyl … and that’s why we’ve seen some cases of psychosis and that sort of thing in emergency departments.

There is tax revenue [from the shops]. We’ve actually partnered with some dispensaries that, because they have to make contributions as part of their licensing, that’s helped support some of the food work that we’ve done. So there’s been some positives with that. …

I’m not in favor of locking people up because of marijuana. I am concerned about people publicizing and marketing … billboards may reduce the perception of harm, and so that oftentimes increases usage and experimentation, and that sort of thing.

Just like anything else: Used as prescribed? Hey, OK. We’re not prohibitionists. We want to recognize the realities: People are going to use. It’s not a problem — unless it becomes a problem. And the more it’s commercialized, the more the problem.

NBL: I understand you’re involved in the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, which is coming up August 4 to 7. 

CA: It’s interesting, because they say to whom much is given, much is required. I felt that way, because I’ve been blessed with a great family. My grandmother was a single mom. Her husband died, leaving her with 11 children. So I understand the importance of family and pulling together.

Both sides of my family are Madeiran, so we’re very connected to the Feast. As a matter of fact, my grandparents on my father’s side lived right across from the Feast grounds on Earle Street. It’s funny, because I had taken a little sabbatical away from the Feast. You know, college, it was fun meeting your friends [at the Feast]. It wasn’t until 20, 30 years later my cousin nominated me to serve as a festeiro. So I’m a late bloomer on this thing, but I’ve been there ever since. … We’ve been able to raise thousands of dollars in scholarships.

Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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