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Stamping it out: New programs helping the homeless beat substance abuse

Published: Wednesday, May 8 2013 5:52 p.m. MDT

According to the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, more than 80 percent of homeless people have experienced drug and/or alcohol problems throughout their lives. At the same time, national homelessness has increased in part because of the rise of home foreclosure, NSHAPC reported. This puts stress on shelters that cannot accommodate the need. (Shutterstock) According to the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, more than 80 percent of homeless people have experienced drug and/or alcohol problems throughout their lives. At the same time, national homelessness has increased in part because of the rise of home foreclosure, NSHAPC reported. This puts stress on shelters that cannot accommodate the need. (Shutterstock)

SALT LAKE CITY — Dennis Bailey stood outside Salt Lake’s Road Home shelter with a pair of brown sunglasses concealing his steady eyes. Amid the surrounding voices and city noise, a sort of solemnity emanated from Bailey. He stared at the sun-drenched mountains, and a look of concern crossed his dark face. Bailey contemplated if he would make it his last day on earth.

“Sometimes, you just wanna take that one hit that ends the whole thing,” he said.

Bailey and dozens of other homeless people crowded the sidewalk outside the shelter, talking with each other and smoking cigarettes. Bailey was quiet at first, but suddenly opened up and began to tell his story in a slow, almost calming voice.

“I went to the other side of town, across the railroad tracks. I was doing good, had great friends, went water skiing, camping, everything, loved life,” he said. “Then I went across the tracks and started getting high. Then I went out to prison.”

Bailey, 53, moved to Salt Lake City from Arkansas when he was 8 years old. Years later, after stepping into drugs, Bailey dropped his enrollment at Salt Lake Community College and joined the Navy. But his drug dependence left him sitting in jail with a bad conduct report and subsequent dismissal from his service. Bailey’s mother was the only one who reached out to him once he was released from prison. But when he overstayed his welcome, she also kicked him out. Bailey ended up on the streets, depressed, hungry, wondering if the homeless lifestyle was any sort of life at all.

With just the clothes on his back and with dreams left unfulfilled, Bailey looked up at the blue evening sky, and sighed. Would he hang himself that night as he had attempted twice before while in prison?

“Just tired, tired of this life. I figure there’s gotta be something better on the other side,” he said. “I think right now I’m on the stairway to heaven.”

According to the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, more than 80 percent of homeless people have experienced drug and/or alcohol problems throughout their lives. At the same time, national homelessness has increased in part because of the rise of home foreclosure, NSHAPC reported. This puts stress on shelters that cannot accommodate the need.

“I only have a finite amount of beds and spaces. The demand always stays high,” said Les Doyle, director at the Tacoma, Wash., Rescue Mission.

Drug use and homelessness

But when looking at root causes, two questions must be asked: Does the homeless lifestyle lead to drug and alcohol use? Or, does drug and alcohol use lead to homelessness?

“It works both ways, from what we’ve seen here,” said Patty Turnberg, executive director of Immanuel Community Services in Seattle. “But typically, the drug abuse will start and then you end up homeless because all your money goes to support your habits.”

While drug involvement led Bailey to homelessness, others say it is not the cause. Josh, another homeless man in Salt Lake, grew up in Canada and began hitchhiking across the states soon after high school. He now sits outside the Road Home shelter in Salt Lake, smoking a cigarette with his girlfriend Jennifer while sipping gas station coffee.

“It’s not the drugs and alcohol. It’s the lack of hope, the lack of something to work towards. It’s the mindset, and the government can’t do nothing about that,” he said, his piercing blue eyes panning the street.

Other shelter directors said homelessness is the result of unemployment, mental illness, dysfunctional families, domestic abuse — just to name a few. Tammy Holder, executive director of the Beach House shelter in Toledo, Ohio, said there are many culprits.

“Unemployment has been a huge one, lack of education, sometimes it’s been alcohol abuse, sometimes it’s been generational poverty. It’s not always the same,” she said.

Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the United States Conference of Mayors in 2008 sought to pinpoint the root causes of homelessness. The survey asked 25 U.S. cities their top three causes of homelessness. Substance abuse topped the list every time.

A recent trend has shown an increase in the number of young people ending up homeless.

“Our population has also become much younger in terms of who we have in residence here,” said Lisa Hamilton, a substance abuse counselor in Boston. “We have a heavy population of 20- to 35-year-olds. Drug use has become something that people are starting younger.”

Hamilton said drug addiction for youth begins in the home. Teenagers have access to their parents’ prescription medications. From there, interest in harder drugs, like heroin, emerges.

Les Doyle of the Tacoma Rescue Mission has also noticed the transition.

“The face of homelessness is changing somewhat. It used to be the old crusty dude down on the corner panhandling,” he said. Within the next few years, Doyle believes OxyContin will be the next big drug to rope in young people. The drug currently costs about $65 a pill, and he believes youth will begin to steal from their families in order to cover the cost.

“We are not going to see the results of the oxycotton use for a while yet,” he said. “But when it hits, I think it is going to be pretty crazy as far as how devastating it is.”

Many professionals believe addictions trap people in a cycle, keeping them from escaping street life. That was certainly the case with Big Mike, a white-bearded homeless man in Salt Lake City. Big Mike served 22 years in a Missouri prison for robbery and home invasion. Upon begin released, he hit the road to Portland.

“Portland is a hub; everybody goes to Portland,” he explained as he stretched out on a sidewalk in downtown Salt Lake. “There’s like a route, and Portland is it ‘cause of the lax drug laws and the marijuana thing.”

Big Mike spent nearly eight years in Portland, hooked on heroin and methamphetamine, trapped in the cycle.

“So to get away from that (the drugs) I hitchhiked here. I heard a lot about Salt Lake, that it had resources,” he said.

Big Mike recently finished out his application for veteran housing through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. For Big Mike, the end of the cycle entails having a permanent place to live, a place with a roof overhead. However, experts on homelessness have found for transients with drug/alcohol struggles, it entails a recovery program as well.

Many shelters today have also noticed this and are facilitating the solution. As a case in point, the Tacoma Rescue Mission in Washington provides not only meals and overnight sleeping provisions but also a recovery program called New Life. The yearlong program is founded on Christian ideals in combination with therapy, skills training and hard work. The program reaches an average of 100 to 150 men a year. Participants fill each day with religious devotions, counseling and group meetings. They are allowed to stay for free at the shelter but they are required to help operate the facilities, whether it be cooking in the kitchen or working in the warehouse.

Doyle said the place is always at full capacity and much success has been observed over the years. He said the program doesn’t simply give people a meal and doesn’t thrust the Bible into their lives.

“We want to teach them (the participants) to feed themselves, so we are looking for that life transformation,” he explained. “The people who come in here have no coping skills. Their coping means are using drugs and alcohol. We want to have them begin to see their identity and value in something that is healthy.”

The success of such organizations is not only dependent on reliable funding and volunteers but also the efforts of participants. Many recovery programs for homeless people report a lower success rate than they would like but say strides are still being made. According to Bary Hanson, housing manager of the Drexel House in Washington State, the increase in need pushes in on all angles of the shelter.

“We are always full, and we always have people ready to move in, I just think that the idea is more of an overwhelming need than we first anticipated,” he said. “We are trying to make sure we have a better system in place.”

In addition, many small shelters don’t keep statistical records or might not have a way to accurately measure success as people constantly come in and out of programs. At the Tacoma Rescue Mission, the belief is that overcoming addictions and escaping homelessness rests on the shoulders of those going through the program.

“If they haven’t made a real hard change in them, sometimes they go out and just don’t last,” Doyle said.

According to this statement, substance abuse and subsequent homelessness comes down to choice. So does the decision to beat it.

For Big Mike, it was the decision to pick up drugs in Portland that left him homeless. But now he is choosing to get his life on track; aside from securing housing, he is planning on returning to school.

In the case of Dennis Bailey, homelessness began with an inching across the railroad track and a fast downfall into drugs. But unlike Big Mike, the choice Bailey made on that night in Salt Lake City might have been his last: Life was in one hand, suicide in the other.

When asked why his life was not worth living, Bailey looked at the shelter and the swarms of people waiting in line for dinner. He responded, “Down here, this ain’t nothing. I mean, you see so much. ... Once you reach your point, you get so tired, just had enough.”

Megan Noack is a communications student at Brigham Young University and a native of Tacoma, Wash.

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