New residential program helps addicts get back on their feet

Dana Tough smudges a communal room as he prepares to lead a talking circle for a new supportive recovery program in the Douglas Street Community building.

“It’s always good to cleanse the room,” said Tough, an Aboriginal harm-reduction counsellor at AIDS Vancouver Island and a recovering drug user.

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“We do this in a circle because no one is greater or less than another in a circle. That’s where we start.”

The 22-unit residential program opened in July and takes up the second floor of the former Super 8 Motel on Douglas Street. The 51-unit building was purchased by the province last year to help house more than 100 homeless people who had been staying in a tent city outside the Victoria courthouse.

The program is one of several new approaches to opioid-addiction recovery being tried as the province grapples with a worsening overdose crisis. Almost 1,000 people died from illicit drug overdoses in B.C. last year, and 2017 is on pace to surpass that total.

Supportive recovery provides a safe place to live where people can have “slips and lapses,” said Jackie Rumble from PHS Community Services Society, the organization managing the Douglas Street Community building. “We work through those to see what happened.”

Rumble said the model differs from abstinence-based recovery programs, in which participants might lose their supports and bed if they use drugs or alcohol. Substance use is not permitted at the Douglas site, but if someone uses outside, they are encouraged to come clean and talk about it.

“We will not discharge anyone back to the street,” said Trudy Chyzowski from Island Health, which operates the recovery program in partnership with PHS and B.C. Housing. “That is not the idea here.

“Building relationships and trust are so important when people might need multiple attempts at recovery.”

Success looks different for everyone, Chyzowski said. “For some, it’s getting stable and getting their own apartment or going back to work. For others, it might be reconnecting with family.”

The majority of participants come to the 90-day recovery program after completing detox and being placed on an opioid-replacement therapy, such as methadone or suboxone. Each resident has a small bachelor studio suite and pays $575 to $900 a month, with meals included.

Every day starts with breakfast and a communal meeting for residents to check in with each other and staff.

There’s a physician, nurse and outreach workers on staff for support. A bulletin board in the hallway has a daily calendar of support groups in the community — something Rumble and Chyzowski said are hugely popular.

There are also in-house programs offering acupuncture, yoga, art therapy, sports and creative writing.

Tough explained how he uses the talking circle to support participants in the program.

“We introduce who we are and where we come from,” he said. “Then I ask: What is the worst part of your day?”

Tough said that when people share a story about something bad in their lives, they inevitably include some detail about what they did to cope.

“I’ll point that out to them, how they have that ability already,” said Tough, who uses this as an entry to counselling “blended with Indigenous cultural teachings.”

He said it’s also important to ask: “What was the good part of your day?” and look at how participants cope with the positive aspects of their lives, “which can also be challenging when you’re new to recovery.”

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