Housing for Addicts- Are Harm Reduction Services or Sober Housing the Way to Go
Whether its alcoholism or drug addiction, when it comes to recovery, everyone can agree on one thing; proper housing is vital if a person is to have even a chance at returning to a place in society.
More than a roof and a bed, after the completion of a treatment program, recovering addicts need the structure, guidance, compassion, and support these sober houses, safe houses, or whatever name you want to call them, should provide.
Unfortunately, there appears to be no overall, comprehensive approach.
Yes, there are private facilities that offer treatment and safe housing for a year afterwards, but when you consider that these costs can be as much as $200,000 a year, the fact is most people simply don’t have the means to afford this option.
So, what is an addict or alcoholic to do? While some may have families that are willing to help them out with the funds for an apartment or they might let them sleep in a shed for a summer, many addicts return to their drug of choice or they opt for harm reduction services, such as supervised injection.
The Current Options for Those in Recovery
You might think that some government agency has become involved in the safety standards and requirements for safe houses, but there isn’t.
This allows individuals or groups to operate their half-way house or recovery support home in any manner they see fit.
Some recovery homes provide decent housing, food, even therapy or continuing health programs, but these are rare when they should be the norm.
Here in Canada, you will generally find that locations that use the words “Recovery Home” tend to be better structured. These have a limited number of residents, more programs, and better staffing.
Those which use the label “Recovery Support Services”, however, often have little or no staffing, no license, and no sense of direction. One mother visited her son at one of these housing options, she was surprised to see him with 19 other recovering addicts in a two-bedroom duplex. This is what she also said, “Most residents are still using. Recently, there was a grease fire in the dirty kitchen. Someone slashed his wrists. Things are stolen. One of the house members got stabbed in the neck for crossing his dealer. My son doesn’t have a real bed, but says it’s better than being homeless or in a shelter.”
Under these circumstances, who wouldn’t return to the relative peace and quiet of a supervised injection site?
While the recovery homes often had strict 12-step type rules, if a random urine test said a person had been using, this person isn’t counselled, they are thrown out of the facility, day or night, rain or snow.
Why Isn’t There More Safe, Healthy Housing for Recovering Addicts?
When an addict is still using, they often ruin the relationships they had with their friends, neighbours, co-workers, even parents and grandparents. Once a drug user finishes a treatment program, these same people are distrustful and often are not willing to offer shelter.
So where is a recovering addict to go?
As we mentioned above, a few families might offer to pay the cost of housing, but most don’t want them living in their home.
There are a few single-room occupancy buildings on the Eastside of Vancouver. The area is overcrowded, however, with recovering addicts, those with mental health issues, and those who are still using drugs. This is hardly a supportive environment for someone who recently got out of a treatment program.
Without safe housing that offers some type of support, addicts often return to drugs, young women to the streets, and theft becomes rampant.
Why isn’t there more or better housing for those just out of recovery? We believe this is a two-fold problem. First, those who are not addicts, who don’t know anyone who is, or who have never been involved with these problems simply don’t understand them.
This causes some to believe that, once a person successfully goes through rehab, they are “cured”, and they won’t use again, so why do we (as taxpayers) need to pay for special housing?
The second problem is those who believe that all substance abusers are worthless, that they never really “recover” and that if they can’t “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”, they aren’t worth anything, let alone safe housing.
Double Trouble- Mental Health Issues and Substance Abuse
Alcohol and drug abuse can be both the cause and consequence of homelessness. Combine this with mental health problems and finding stable housing becomes nearly impossible.
One service model is called the linear mode; where a treatment program must be completed before housing and mental health issues are properly addressed. The other method is known as “Housing First”. As the name suggests, stable and supportive housing is a priority, using the harm reduction strategy to hope that addicts will move on to recovery services.
Research done in the United States over several years shows support for both methods, however, these studies also demonstrate that more research should be done before a definite conclusion can be reached.
Perhaps the answer lies in using both methods, depending on the individual. It is generally accepted that some people learn better through visual aids and others through hands-on training. What if we were to assess each individual and be able to determine whether the linear model or the housing first model would work best for them?
We understand that funding is always an issue, but as with everything, we know that Canadians can be quite resourceful and address this issue if we choose to. The Public Health Agency last year invested $30 million over the following 5 years to prevent and control infectious disease. Imagine if that same amount of money was invested in stable housing for substance abusers and the mentally ill?
Canada needs to invest in large scale substance abuse and housing-related issues to determine what program(s) would work best and providing evidence for those in government who will ultimately decide funding.
Substance abuse, homelessness, and the mentally ill are not problems for “other people”. These issues affect the life of every Canadian, in one manner or another. Dealing with problems as a society is a far better option than playing ostrich with our head in the sand, hoping it goes away.
We will continue to support our governments’ efforts to create innovative research initiatives so Canadians can address the multi-faceted issues that are continuing to plague our citizens.