The following column by state Rep. Julie Alexander was originally published by MLive on November 3, 2019 and is available here.
In April, the Jackson County community came together to offer hope to families with loved ones battling opioid addiction. It was a day to celebrate the power and importance of public-private partnerships working together for positive change.
The ceremonial groundbreaking for Andy’s Place drew attention from the highest levels of Michigan’s state government. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was there, saying the unique transitional housing project “is going to be one of those places that changes lives and improves them for the better.”
The governor betrayed those sentiments and the Jackson community on September 30th, when she eliminated $750,000 the Michigan Legislature had approved in one-time funding for Andy’s Place. The money vetoed by the governor is needed to implement a security system at the site – without it, lenders won’t approve the private financing necessary to move construction forward.
Today, construction is stalled on this project that offers so much promise to save and transform lives – and the governor alone is responsible.
She is using people facing opioid addiction as political pawns in her quest to raise Michigan’s gas tax to the highest in the nation. But make no mistake – funding for Andy’s Place should have absolutely nothing to do with politics. Opioid addiction does not discriminate based on politics, race, age or anything else.
The veto does more than hold up financial support needed for the project — it endangers lives. More than six Jackson County residents die of drug-related overdoses each month, part of a growing epidemic that Andy’s Place seeks to reverse. Drug-related deaths in Jackson County and statewide nearly doubled from 2014 to 2017.
We cannot sit idly and let lives be risked in our community. That’s why I am part of a team fighting to get this vital one-time funding restored.
We are fighting alongside Mike Hirst, who founded Andy’s Angels after the death of his son, Andy, from an opioid overdose in 2010 at the age of 24. Hirst’s mission is to provide assistance to those who are struggling with addiction – and Andy’s Place is the important next step, offering a one-of-a-kind residential rehab and treatment facility our community desperately needs. Andy’s Place would provide 50 housing units while incorporating other important services such as drug courts and community action services on-site.
We are fighting alongside the family of Christopher Risner, who died last year at the age of 29. His battle with addiction started by popping a single Vicodin pill in a high school hallway – soon he was taking 22 a day just to feel normal. His fight ended last November with a fatal dose of fentanyl.
Chris was a former East Jackson High basketball star – popular, kind and beloved. He was no different than thousands of kids from Jackson County with loving families and loads of potential. He is proof addiction can happen to anyone at any time, at any age and from any background.
In the last two years of his life, Chris worked diligently with Mike Hirst to help others avoid a similar fate. His obituary said it well: He spent several of his adult years working with Andy’s Angels and local, state and national government officials to help battle the devastating opioid epidemic. Chris was a soldier in the war against addiction; he fought an uphill battle against his own addiction and helped lead the charge in the community hoping to prevent other young people and their families from facing the struggles that he had. By bravely sharing his story he hoped to save lives.
As we work to restore state funding to Andy’s Place, I think of the Hirst and Risner families every single day. A photo of Chris Risner sits on my desk at the state Capitol, with a T-shirt borrowed from his mother that reads: Do something today to make a better tomorrow. The future will thank you.
I hope Gov. Whitmer gets the message.
(Rep. Julie Alexander of Hanover represents the 64th District in the Michigan House, covering much of Jackson County.)