Men recovering from addiction can find shelter and support to help them move forward in life through the Nanaimo branch of the Victoria Human Exchange Society.
Mary Gordon House, named for one of the society’s founders who died in 2011, opened in December of last year at 1435 Waddington Rd.
The home offers seven beds and augments Esther’s House, a six-bed home created by the Nanaimo Transitional Housing Society – a division of the human exchange society – that opened at the corner of Kennedy and Albert streets in downtown Nanaimo in 2011.
The organization searches for affordable properties that can be converted into men’s shelters and will even take over rental homes that have become nuisance properties, saving the home and providing a steady rental income for property owners.
Debbie Scott, a society volunteer who works in Nanaimo, cites Esther’s House as an example.
“It was a crack house before we took it over,” Scott said. “There was practically nothing left of it and the city was just about ready to burn it down they were so fed up with it, but there have been no calls since we took it over.”
Men move into the homes for a number of reasons. They might have come from broken homes, been recently released from prison, unemployed or under employed. Those recovering from addiction must be clean and sober for at least three months prior to moving in and attend sobriety meetings while living there.
Residents must pay rent, buy their own food and look after the property, which includes doing minor repairs around the house to help keep rental costs down. Insurance, utilities and other expenses are paid for by the society from the tenants’ rent.
The society’s homes – there are houses throughout the Island – also provide rooms, space permitting, for one- or two-night stays for men travelling for medical treatments or for other reasons. Length of stay can vary from a few months to much longer, depending on need.
In her 22 years working with the justice ministry, Scott said she has seen the downward spiral of addiction to the point where people commit crimes to support the addiction, end up in jail, get out, stay clean for a while but without peer and program support, they slide back into the spiral and prison. Few ever escape the vortex.
Most of the men at Mary Gordon House and Esther’s House have been through the Guthrie House at Nanaimo Correctional Centre. The programs there are designed to break the addiction cycle and encourage the men to take responsibility for their lives and to be accountable to others and themselves. The efforts are showing results, but like all people recovering from addiction, the men need continual peer support when they’re released from prison, plus they need work and places to live.
“We prefer the Guthrie program because they’ve already gone through a treatment program and they all understand they’re playing by the same rules,” Scott said. “We have absolute zero tolerance, so if there’s anybody in here and they use, out you go. There’s no second chances.”
Tim, the house facilitator – only the residents’ first names are given unless they choose otherwise – has been through the Guthrie program and is part of the structure and support the residents provide one another to make the transition from prison and addiction to functioning in society as smooth as possible.
“This is our home,” Tim said. “It’s not just a bed. When we walk through that door our defences come down and we can just be ourselves. We really rely on each other for support.”
The residents provide everything in the house, including food and furnishings, also get out to find jobs and generate donations to support the home. When something breaks down, they’ve got to find a way to repair or replace it.
“It’s tough because a lot of the gentlemen coming out, they don’t really have anything,” Tim said. “So food is big one. For some of them, clothing. Anything that we can do to help is really appreciated.”
Esther’s and Mary Gordon houses get some support from the Sisters of St. Ann, based in Victoria and sometimes the public chips in too. One elderly couple, dubbed the house grandparents, has taken Esther’s House under its wing and regularly goes out and fills a car with groceries for the residents.
Mitch, 31, spent 14 months at Guthrie House and is now attending university, working toward his social services diploma. From there he plans to go to the University of Victoria to earn his bachelor’s degree in social work. He also gives talks at local high schools, telling students his story.
“It was drugs,” Mitch said. “It’s what’s underneath the drugs. That was just our coping mechanism – a way of coping with stressors in life. Abuse, neglect, abandonment and all that kind of stuff.”
Mitch knows to the day how long he has been clean, which has been more than 17 months.
“You can’t just change one aspect of your life and expect results,” Tim said. “You have to change everything … Mary Gordon House and the Guthrie program. You almost can’t have one without the other.”
Richard Carlton, who has been previously profiled in the Bulletin, is another recent arrival at Mary Gordon House.
“I was staying at a friend’s, well, couch surfing, pretty well, so I was kind of losing focus,” Carlton said.
Carlton saw the warning signs of being drawn back toward his former life when the things that were supporting his recovery started dropping out from under him, which included the loss of a job and a friend who died.
“I should have reached out a little more and I did eventually,” Carlton said. “There’s help if you ask for it. Things are going good now. Having the support around definitely makes a difference.”
Unfortunately Mary Gordon House and Esther’s House can only offer about a dozen beds for men who, without the support the program provides, often never survive the addiction cycle.
“If I didn’t have Esther’s House and then here, I’d probably be dead,” Tim said.
For more information, please visit the society’s website at http://humanx.org.