Reprinted from "Housing" issue of Visions Journal, 2013, 8 (1), pp. 15-17
We are parents brought together through our children, who have struggled with drug addiction and are now young adults. The experience, frustration, sadness and wisdom we’ve gained over the years led us to form the non-profit support and advocacy group called From Grief to Action (FGTA).
We have lived the nightmare of trying to support our children while trying to “detach with compassion” to maintain our own health and well-being. When a loved one is in addiction, they are often abusive and profoundly self-centred. To be engaged in the eye of their storm is destructive. But you can’t just walk away, because you love them. So we work at finding that well of human compassion to understand what they are going through, while disengaging ourselves from all the harm that their behaviour brings.
Many of our children also have mental health issues. Research indicates that at least half of people suffering from addiction also have a mental illness—a “concurrent disorder.”1
As members of FGTA, we have all learned the brutal truth about the lack of universality in our health care system. When we have sought treatment for our loved ones, mental health professionals have told our children: “Come back when you’re clean. You must deal with your substance use first.” This is unrealistic, and it causes many extremely vulnerable children to increase their drug use in an effort to self-medicate for their mental health conditions. This worsens their addiction and causes their lives to become increasingly chaotic.
We believe addiction and mental illness are health issues, not criminal justice issues, and they should be treated within the health care system. But treatment for addiction occurs largely in private, often expensive facilities outside the health care system, where often, little or no professional attention is paid to concurrent disorders.
Supportive housing is vital to recovery
Housing is a vital factor in the recovery of a person struggling with addiction, especially after the completion of a treatment program. It’s not just the roof over their head that matters, but the support, assistance and structure that may be available under that roof. Moving back home may be an option for some; however, in many cases, moving home is not an option because there is just too much guilt and hurt from years of lying, stealing and other difficult and abusive behaviours.
We know that the best chance for our children to achieve success happens when a coordinated approach to diagnosis, treatment and post-treatment support exists. A fundamental component of a coordinated approach is post-treatment safe housing that supports and includes family involvement whenever possible.
Sadly, such a comprehensive approach is not an option in our public health care system. There are some private facilities that provide this approach, but these can easily cost up to $200,000 a year for a full round of treatment, which would certainly bankrupt most families.
So where do people go following their round of residential treatment? Some families can pay for decent housing for their loved one, while others find whatever basement suites and shared housing they can afford. Many of these people luck into a good basement unit and continue to see an addictions (but not mental health) counsellor once a month for an hour. Others try to go into recovery houses.
“My son spent several years in and out of treatment and in and out of recovery houses. The best one provided a regular program, daily schedule (including exercise and group meetings) and well-thought-out rules, which give the clients an opportunity to get their lives back together and move on. I wish there were more of such places.”
The ‘Wild West’ of recovery housing
When it comes to ‘recovery houses,’ as one of the families said, “It’s the Wild West out there” in terms of what to expect and what you get. The language is all over the place: “recovery houses,” “recovery support houses,” “half-way houses,” “second-stage houses” . . . Some seem to be accredited; many are not. It’s extremely difficult to find out what you get with your room in any of these places.
While there are some recovery home options that provide decent beds, food and health programs—sometimes even backyard gardens—most housing options for people recovering from addictions are not supportive.
FGTA is currently working with a couple of other non-profit agencies to try to make some sense of all this. There does seem to be a difference between “recovery homes” and “recovery support residences.” Both types of housing are privately operated and usually based on a 12-Step sobriety model. The differences:
Recovery homes have fewer residents, better staffing and more programs. They often require you to be 30 days clean and sober before moving in. You must manage those 30 days on your own, perhaps in a shelter or recovery support residence where drug use is not well monitored.
Recovery support residences have virtually no staffing, regulatory requirements or licensing. There are hundreds of these in Metro Vancouver—180 in Surrey alone. Recovery support residences will take almost anybody. As one parent recently told us:
“My son is jammed in with 19 other addicts in a duplex. 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.
There was so much hope for our sweet boy when he came out of five months of treatment. It must be hard not to relapse when you’re living in havoc.”
Many of the houses, based on stringent 12-step sobriety rules, will turn someone out the minute it’s discovered (often through a urine test) that they used drugs or alcohol.
“My son was two months in a ‘treatment’ recovery house. We hadn’t been able to talk to him for the two months—the usual no-contact with families rule—but one Sunday night at 8:30 he called to say he’d been kicked out because he’d used on Friday and it showed up in his Sunday night urine sample. He had no money, bus tickets or clothes— so we went and got him. I understand that this ‘hard-core’ treatment works for some people, but what if my 20-year-old didn’t have someone to come and pick him up? I have to say that he has been ‘treatment averse’ after his stay at that ‘treatment’ centre.”
Barriers to a safe, healthy housing environment
The irrational behaviour that usually accompanies addiction and concurrent disorders can make it extremely difficult for people to secure safe and affordable housing. Many addicts do not have the option of moving back home or in with a healthy friend.
Whenever our FGTA parent group gets together, the subject of our children stealing comes up. Parents have to hide everything, take valuables to neighbours, carry purses and keys around in their pajamas, lock their bedroom doors . . .
“He stole so many things [from us]: precious irreplaceable things, as well as tools, computers and, of course, money. We got into the habit of hiding everything, but then we’d forget where we put things. It was very disorienting.”
Safety comes up frequently in our conversations about housing. Many parents say they are fearful of the unpredictable behaviour of the family member if they let him or her live at home. When someone in addiction is absolutely and utterly driven to take drugs, they will do many things. As well as stealing, there’s the lying, punching holes in the walls, kicking doors in, carting weapons, talking about who they are either “going to get” or “who is trying to get” them at skytrains or bus stops. And, there’s people’s lovely daughters, with diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illnesses, making quick cash in the sex trade so they can self-medicate.
“It’s a very sad occasion when you need to change the locks, arm the alarm system and not let your own son or daughter into your house.”
Parents are in danger if they have their kids at home, but they are even more afraid of the predators and chaos on the street. Some families pay the cost of housing their addicted offspring in a basement suite or a room in a shared house—anywhere that will provide a relatively safe place for their child.
“My son was trying desperately to get off methadone, but that can take a long time. So he kept using heroin and cocaine, which made his behaviour very unpredictable. I feared for my own safety; I couldn’t let him in the house. So we let him live under the sundeck, providing an old mattress, sleeping bag and food. At least I knew he was safe.”
Some of our children end up living in single room occupancy (SRO) residences in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Some SROs are safer than others. But the concentration of so many people with addiction and mental health challenges in single buildings in a single neighbourhood creates an extremely chaotic environment. This does little to support healthy living and reintegration into mainstream society.
How can our children be expected to get healthy in such stressful and violent circumstances? As one parent said:
“My daughter’s at the Sunrise Hotel, but at least someone is at the front desk so I think she’s somewhat safe and I can leave messages for her.”
Organized crime infiltrates many housing sites and exploits addicts’ need for drugs. Sexual predators take full advantage of these vulnerable people. Everyone is encouraged to steal, sell drugs and become even more entrenched in the illegal drug world.
Without safe supportive housing, this is what many of us see happening to our children.
Funded housing with good support is crucial
Our group realizes that society is slowly coming to understand that addiction and mental illness have many causes: biochemical, neurological, genetic, socio-economic and environmental. We also know that addiction and mental illness are treatable. With a supportive, multidisciplinary, long-term approach, our children can become healthy, contributing members of society.
We believe housing must be safe and include “wrap around” support services—that is, provide food, counselling, life skills training, reintegration through contact with healthy peers, and educational and work support. These services must include access to mental health assessment, addiction treatment, support services for addiction recovery and management of mental illness. There should be public as well as private services. All should be covered by the Medical Services Plan of BC. Such an approach will enable our children—and all who are struggling with these issues—to rebuild relationships with friends, family and the so-called ‘normal’ others in society. This will support them to continue their recovery process and reintegrate into society.
About the authors
From Grief to Action is a voice and a support network for families and friends affected by drug use and concurrent disorders. It began in the late ’90s when a group of parents, struggling with the tragedy of family members suffering from addiction, met to support each other in their feelings of shame, guilt, helplessness and grief. Eventually the group decided to raise awareness about this increasingly pervasive problem, and moved “from grief to action.” Learn more at www.fgta.ca
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2007). Comorbid drug use and mental illness: A research update from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Bethesda, MD: author.