Building hope: Group pushes for transitional housing for addicts
ALPENA — “If the community wants to do something, this is what we need,” said Lesli Poultney, sitting on a lawn chair in a peaceful Alpena back yard, surrounded by recovering addicts.
Gathered over hot dogs and potato chips, a group of men and women sharing a common struggle talked about what it takes to escape from drug and alcohol addiction.
Number one on their list — and the thing most lacking in Alpena, they said — is transitional housing.
So-called “sober living houses” meant to help addicts transition from a life of addiction to a life of recovery are not licensed or funded by state or local governments. Most are privately owned or provided by a business or charity.
Residents pay costs, set rules, and tend to chores. Sobriety is required and expected.
Everyone in transitional housing is in recovery. And, with the support of people who know what addiction is all about, Poultney said, it’s possible to stay strong, stay together, and figure out how to change your life.
The Sunrise Centre, Alpena’s residential addiction treatment facility, helps people through the first phases of cracking their addictions.
It’s not a long-term solution, though.
Eventually, the recovering addicts have to leave, and often they have to choose between lodging in the homeless shelter, bunking with family who may not be supportive, or going back into the environment that led them to addiction in the first place.
The rate of addicts returning to drug or alcohol use is high — 40% to 60% of recovering drug addicts and 50% to 90% of recovering alcoholics relapse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Research published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Council for Behavioral Health, and others shows a strong correlation between the availability of transitional housing and a reduction in substance abuse and incarceration rates.
“We’re not bad people,” said Jay Nelson, sober for eight years after a life of addiction. “We’re just caught in this thing. When the going gets rough, we don’t necessarily buckle up and want to get the garden going again. We just mess it up.”
That’s why he’s building a tiny house in his back yard.
Starting with a pre-built garden shed, Nelson wants to install the necessary plumbing and electrical connections to make the shed into a small but functional home that could house two people.
The tiny house-to-be, and another he hopes to install nearby, are to provide a working model of one way Alpena could help its addicts recover and help itself, as a community, be healthier and safer.
After a time of deep addiction in alcohol and drugs, Michael Knight has been sober for 16 years.
A large part of his success, he said, was his time in a sober living home downstate.
Transitional housing isn’t owned by anyone, and it’s owned by everyone, he explained. Nobody is the boss, but everyone takes care of each other.
When someone moves in, they are making a pledge to stay sober. Everyone in the residence has the same experience of addiction, and the same goal of breaking it.
When someone begins to slide, others recognize the signs, because they’ve been there. They offer each other resources. They intervene. They fix the problem before it turns into a full relapse.
“You don’t feel so unique,” said Pam Taulbee, who has been sober 34 years but still needs the daily support of others who have walked in her shoes. “And you don’t feel so lonely.”
When surrounded by people trying to accomplish the same goal, living every day with other recovering addicts who know all the tricks and accept no excuses, an addict can admit their weaknesses and start to plan for the future knowing they have the help they need to get there, Taulbee said.
Transitional housing is the only thing that worked for her, Poultney said. She did many stints at the Sunrise Centre to try to kick her heroin addiction, but, each time, she went back to using.
“In rehab, you have everything dictated for you,” Poultney said. “When you’re going to eat, when there’s going to be meetings. And then you’re just thrown out into the real world. And it’s horrifying.”
Not until she got into a downstate sober living home did sobriety stick.
Poultney, who is no longer living in a sober living environment, was arraigned this week on drunk and disorderly charges, according to court records.
Alpena offers a number of addiction-recovery resources, from drug court to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings to church services just for people trying to fight addiction.
What it doesn’t offer, Nelson said, is a safe place for people to live while they’re trying to get better.
Tiny houses are one part of his vision. People with property could create living spaces for people who can’t go back to the environment that sparked their addiction. Small places to live, to gather, to be among those walking the same walk, would be enough to make a large difference, Nelson said.
There are a lot of houses sitting empty around the city, Knight added.
Those houses, which nobody is calling home, could be donated as a transitional home to give people fighting for their lives a fighting chance.
The community makes sure there’s housing for low-income people and for seniors. Why, he wondered, couldn’t it also get behind transitional housing to help its recovering addicts stay sober?
Nelson knows addiction. He drank since he was 11 and was a lifelong petty criminal, he said.
With the eyes of experience, he sees the signs of drug and alcohol abuse in people he encounters in Alpena, sees kids he can tell are being pulled into a life like his.
The key to fighting addiction is to help people get away from it, the group said. And that could be as simple as providing a place to live where addicts can get the help they need.
“I hope that this community starts demonstrating the possibilities they have,” Nelson said. “You can’t complain about the people in your community if you’re not trying to lift them out of it.”