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Window on recovery: People seeking addictions help face 'tons of barriers'

In a wood-paneled dining room filled with plants and natural light, Miles Hayes tells his 10 roommates about his plans to attend a yoga or kickboxing class later that afternoon. The other men share their plans to go golfing, fishing or run errands.
Miles Hayes, 31, lives in a heritage house owned by the Umbrella Society, a non-profit organization that supports people struggling with substance use. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

In a wood-paneled dining room filled with plants and natural light, Miles Hayes tells his 10 roommates about his plans to attend a yoga or kickboxing class later that afternoon. The other men share their plans to go golfing, fishing or run errands.

It might sound mundane. But for Hayes, this new routine — of working out and making dinner in an addictions recovery home — is a world away from the time he spent living on the street, gripped by an addiction to heroin.

Hayes has been through detox and stabilization more times than he cares to mention. He said he relapsed because being high was the only way to cope with living on the streets in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and in Victoria.

“What helps you deal with that lifestyle is the dope,” he said.

The 31-year-old is now sober and living in a heritage house owned by the Umbrella Society, a non-profit organization that supports people struggling with substance use.

Foundation House is a second-stage recovery home where 11 men — and one rescue dog named Lyca — can connect with drug and alcohol counsellors, attend group meetings, make family-style dinners and support each other in their recovery. It’s a “dry” facility, and most of the men have gone through a 30-day stabilization or residential treatment program, often called the first stage.

Hayes said the biggest challenge in accessing addictions treatment is the long wait lists that prevent people from getting help immediately.

“There’s such a small window between an addict or an alcoholic being ready to go to recovery and then changing their mind again — it’s as quick as an emotion, almost,” he said, underscoring his point with a quick snap of his fingers. “If you have to wait three weeks, you could be dead.”

Despite recent funding announcements for addictions treatment — $36 million for 123 new beds for youth; $13.5 million for 50 to 70 new beds for adults — addictions experts say the government is playing catch-up and the new beds are just one part of the continuum of care for addictions.

“I think there’s a myth that if people want help they can get it, but the reality is there’s not a government-funded treatment centre in Victoria,” said Evan James, Umbrella Society’s team lead.

“If people want to get help and want to get into treatment, there’s a ton of barriers as far as wait times and the whole referral process.”

For people with serious substance-use dependency, the first step is getting into a detox bed, typically a seven-day stay where medical professionals can monitor withdrawal symptoms. There are 21 adult withdrawal management beds, also called detox beds, at the Eric Martin Pavilion in Victoria, where there is a wait-list of about two weeks, according to Island Health. There are another 11 detox beds on the north Island.

After detox, addictions specialists often recommend people go into stabilization — 30-day program also available at the Eric Martin Pavilion.

In a perfect world, said James, the day someone decides they want to stop using drugs, they could go into detox, followed by stabilization, followed by residential treatment, followed by stable housing such as a recovery home. However, things rarely line up that seamlessly, due in part to the limited number of publicly funded beds.

James said the options on Vancouver Island are very limited. The Comox Valley Recovery Centre, for example, has 11 publicly funded intensive residential treatment beds — and a four-week wait-list.

Cedars, a 76-bed private addictions treatment facility in Cobble Hill, has 10 publicly funded beds. Hayes was lucky enough to get one of them, as he could not afford the hundreds of dollars a day for a private bed during his 2 1/2-month stay.

There are no publicly funded treatment beds on Vancouver Island for women, James said. There are nine supportive recovery beds for women in Amethyst House in Courtenay, a facility similar to Foundation House where people are expected to have achieved a level of sobriety before being offered a spot.

The limited government-funded options on the Island mean people often go to the Lower Mainland for residential treatment, which James said removes people from their community and support network. When they return to the Island, they’re also disconnected to the addictions support community they built in treatment.

“We’ve seen a million times that people go to treatment [on the Lower Mainland], come back here, isolate and relapse,” said James, who experienced that exact scenario when he was battling a drug and alcohol addiction more than a decade ago. “That’s why we have houses like [Foundation House], so we can work on a game plan for supporting people when they get back.”

Rent paid by the 11 tenants — $850 for a shared room and $1,000 for a single room — covers all of their meals and utilities and funds the daily operations and staff at Foundation House.

Umbrella Society also runs a smaller, four-person recovery house called Cooper House, where residents have a bit more independence and fewer staff check-ins, and a recovery house for women in Sidney called Hudson House.

If someone relapses, Umbrella staff works with the individual to bring them back to the recovery house when they’re sober again.

“We work on bringing them back to the house when they want to come back,” James said. “If someone has a slip or a relapse, they need more support, not less.

Addictions Minister Judy Darcy said treatment beds are only one part of the “continuum of care” for people with addictions, which includes harm-reduction measures such as safe-consumption sites, providing people with a safe supply of drugs to prevent overdose from toxic street drugs, drug and alcohol counselling, and community-based support programs.

“Beds are one piece on a continuum of care and some people are ready to go into a treatment bed, others are not,” Darcy said during a recent press conference. “What all of the medical experts, what all the addictions experts tell us and what our experience tells us is that we need to be able to meet people where they’re at and give them the supports wherever they are on their journey.”

Sue Donaldson runs Pegasus Recovery Solutions, a private out-patient addictions treatment service. It allows people to attend an eight-week intensive program while they live at home, followed by a six-month after-care program that includes counselling.

She said she often hears from desperate parents who can’t afford the $6,500 cost but are looking for government-funded options to help their addicted child. Donaldson said she’s frustrated that there’s few low-cost options she can point people to.

The result is a two-tiered system where people with money can get help right away while people with lower incomes face long wait lists and revolving doors, she said.

“It’s such a shame that if you don’t have that money to spend on treatment, then you’re just caught up in a system that’s really hard to access, rife with wait lists and isn’t tremendously accessible,” she said.

The four-pillars approach to drug addiction, first implemented in Europe in the 1990s, requires a focus on harm prevention — often through education programs that prevent at-risk youth from becoming addicted in the first place — harm reduction, treatment/recovery and enforcement.

“There’s been a huge emphasis on supporting harm reduction and nowhere near the emphasis needed to support treatment. That pillar was all but sawed off, frankly,” Donaldson said. “If you don’t provide people an exit ramp, someone may not overdose and die tomorrow or this week, but the outcome for an untreated addictive disorder is death.”

She hopes the promised treatment beds provide the continuum of care the province has long touted, with publicly funded detox, stabilization, addictions treatment and out-patient addictions counselling offered through a streamlined service so that the recovery process is not interrupted because of wait lists.

The failure to invest in addictions treatment taxes the health care, the child welfare and the criminal justice systems and has social costs for communities, Donaldson said.

“The costs of not treating addiction are horrendous.”