After six years of homelessness and substance abuse, a Bloomington man decided that getting clean was matter of life or death. He managed sobriety on the streets for several weeks, a statistically unlikely feat. But knowing his only chance for long-term success was a stable living environment, he sought the help of local recovery programs.
He found a program called Courage to Change, and today he has celebrated a year of sobriety, is renting his own home, and was recently married.
Courage to Change is a housing project co-founded by Brandon Drake, a recovery coach, and Marilyn Burrus of New Leaf – New Life, a nonprofit that promotes therapeutic justice during and after incarceration. The two started the program just over a year ago on a shoestring budget in response to current concerns for people experiencing homelessness locally.
Courage to Change offers a low-barrier, sober-living environment, meaning that individuals who wish to participate need only to commit to sobriety but are not required to submit to a rigorous application process. This helps a wider range of people get into housing as quickly as possible. In contrast, many other local ally programs working with recovery and housing have a lengthy admissions protocol.
“‘Substance use disorder’ is the new term in the addictions world,” says Drake. “Because the stigma lies in the language we use, we’re trying to change the language. When you call someone a junkie, you are actually feeding into the stigma. At Courage to Change, we house people with substance use disorders, because you can’t do an intervention if there is nowhere to house people.
“I have a private practice,” says Drake, “an intervention business, and I do recovery coaching. If you look at everything that is happening in the community right now, I couldn’t get people help. It’s devastating what people are going through. I had a woman screaming on the phone because her son was using heroin and dying a slow death, and no one would listen to her. I started getting discouraged, and thought, what the hell do I do?”
“I can’t overstate it enough,” Drake says. “It’s 30 to 50 calls like that a day in my line of work.”
At one point, Burrus approached Drake about purchasing a house in Green County to open to people in recovery. But Drake kept his focus on Bloomington.
“We needed something in Bloomington because there are people here who want to get clean but they can’t,” he says. “However, I knew the city ordinances restrict the number of unrelated people that can live together in one place.”
Drake began to investigate solutions. He contacted a friend at the Monroe County Drug Treatment Court to determine where the greatest need lies. He found that women were most vulnerable, spending longer in jail than they were sentenced, Drake says, “because the courts won’t release her until she has a safe place to go.” Drake went back to Burrus, and said, “Ok, let’s open a one-bedroom apartment and put two women in it.”
Drake found a one-bedroom unit available at his own complex and then began asking people for help. “I’ve done a lot of work in the community with addictions and have helped a lot of people get off heroin and other substances,” Drake says. “Many of the parents whose children I’ve helped donated some money for the deposit, then others donated furniture. We put out a Facebook post and soon the whole apartment was furnished.”
Two women moved into the apartment and Courage to Change was born.
Housing is harm reduction
According to Drake, the single most important step toward ending substance use disorder is providing shelter. Addiction and mental health disorders often exist in tandem, both of which are exacerbated by homelessness. “Without a safe and stable environment,” says Drake, “you don’t have a chance at recovery.”
A 2004 study by researchers at the American Public Health Association concluded that housing stability is the first step toward successful treatment of substance and psychiatric symptoms. Individuals make better life choices and are more likely to engage in recovery programs after having found a stable living environment.
Having grown from the initial one-bedroom apartment a year ago, today there are 18 available units across south-central Indiana. Tenants are asked to commit to staying at least 90 days, and each person is required to pay a portion of the rent, work together as a community, and participate in recovery programs.
“One guy came to us straight from prison,” says Drake. “All he had were his prison clothes. He had over twenty combined years in prison and he had felonies. These are real obstacles. You can’t get a job. We put out a Facebook post and people started donating clothes for him.
“We don’t have money, we don’t have funding, we don’t get grants. We survive by the clients paying rent. So, I told him to get whatever job he could. He went to work for Goodwill, went to meetings and other recovery services, and within a year he is back to his former career as a contractor.”
Though government grants are available, Courage to Change board members have generally resisted them. Government aid means government intervention, which would put restrictions on who is admitted and would affect its low-barrier status. However, Drake says, the Monroe County government has given them land to build housing on in the future, and Courage to Change gets funding from individual donations and other sources. A new company in Bloomington called Sober Joe, for example, sells coffee at cost to groups such as Courage to Change, which then resell the coffee at a profit.
“There is this idea that people don’t want to get clean,” says Drake. “People think [addicts] are the way they are because they choose to be, but they don’t understand. I am a former drug user, and to quote Gabor Mate, a distinguished Canadian physician who specializes in addiction and recovery, it isn’t ‘why the addiction, but why the pain?’”
Why the pain?
Drake believes that the desire to escape unbearable pain is at the root of most people’s addictions. He shares his own story. The son of addicts, he began using at an early age, and as a young father with a disabled child, he struggled to stay sober. After failing to take his daughter to a doctor’s appointment, the Department of Child Services took her. “I watched them drive away with her and I will never forget that moment,” he says. “And that’s the moment I knew I was beat.”
“It wasn’t until I started addressing the pain of my childhood trauma,” says Drake, “that I could start loving myself and stop putting drugs into my body.”
Drake explains that the spectrum of recovery ranges from chaotic drug use — where people are putting needles into their arms and are prone to spreading diseases such as HIV — to abstinence, and everything in between.
All along the spectrum are positive changes that can be made toward abstinence, says Drake. “Some [people] will never make it there. It’s not our job to assume that everyone with substance use disorder wants to get out of it, but it is our job to stop the chaos.”
Change society’s view of addiction
In time, Drake would like for Courage to Change to expand into a whole housing community with people working on various levels of recovery within the spectrum. His end goal is to model the Portland Hotel Society founded in 1991 in Vancouver, Canada, by a psychiatric ER nurse who set out to provide services to people who suffered across the spectrum of addiction.
PHS began in the abandoned Portland Hotel in downtown Vancouver and housed active drug users living in desperate poverty. Residents had faced judgment and exclusion, and many had mental or physical health concerns and had been involved with the criminal justice system. Today, thousands of PHS residents are housed in multiple locations in Vancouver and Victoria.
“The Portland Hotel model is a compassionate approach to housing the ‘unhousable,’” says Drake. “Like PHS, I would want the housing here to be compassionate and loving, [to] give them services and let them move along the spectrum of recovery.” PHS does not require abstinence but rather provides services that meet individual needs. In partnership with private citizens, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and academic organizations, it has been a successful program.
“Courage to Change has some of that model in it,” says Drake. “What we are doing does not cost the community much money, but keeping someone in prison does.”
“If you look at the guy who was homeless for six years and is now married, and you look at the guy who was in prison for 20 years and is working as a contractor, both are sober,” says Drake. “There is another guy who was reunited with his son, has a girlfriend with children, and has a job making $40,000 a year. It’s all because they had stability.
“What I really want people to know,” says Drake, “is that we [society] have treated these people, people like me, as criminals, but what people don’t understand is that we are the most loving, kind people you will ever meet in your life. When we get clean, we change the world.”
To donate to Courage to Change, visit couragetochangehouse.com.
[Editor’s note: You can learn more about our area’s opioid crisis at the First Annual South Central Opioid Summit at the Monroe County Convention Center on September 28. The free, one-day summit intends to educate and collaborate with the community to provide innovative solutions, with speakers and breakout sessions on a variety of topics relating to the opioid crisis.]