Mar 29, 2017
By Jennifer Wertz
I recently listened to the story of a 29 year-old recovering meth addict, who we decided to call “Joe” to keep him anonymous. He had a bright smile, and a kind and gentle demeanor. He seemed a little nervous to tell me, a complete stranger taking notes for a newspaper, the most personal details of his life. But he was anxious to share his story to help someone else living a hopeless and desperate life on the streets due to the imprisonment of addiction.
Like many addicts, Joe came from a broken home, with an alcoholic father, and a mother addicted to opioids. His parents divorced when he was in the 5th grade, and he moved with his mother to Sebastopol from Mendocino County. He started using drugs and alcohol, beginning with meth at about 13.
By the time he was 14 years old, he was arrested for the first of what would become 35-40 times by the age of 24, mostly for minor drug charges and thefts to support his drug habit. Within a short time he had become an intravenous meth addict who didn’t care about anything other than what it took to get his next fix. He never had sex, unless it was for drugs, because that’s all he cared about, and even shared syringes with someone he knew was H.I.V. positive.
Joe said about five or six of his arrests occurred in Sebastopol. “This is why Sebastopol doesn’t have many homeless people. If you’re on drugs, you’re going to jail, period.”
One particular officer had arrested Joe about three times, each time telling him“I’m saving your life.” Never once, after 35-40 arrests, was Joe ever offered substance abuse treatment until he finally got tired of going to jail and requested it. The judge granted his request for treatment, and he was released to seek treatment on his own, with no particular treatment minimum specified.
He tried to go to Turning Point, but the fee was $300 he did not have, the waiting list was four months, and he didn’t have any place to live while he waited. Since he had become completely indigent and had “burned all his bridges” with everyone he knew, he sought treatment at the Redwood Gospel Mission, which is a free faith-based program that would take him in.
Joe said the Gospel Mission program was 6-12 months, and though he wasn’t religious, he tried to make the best of it. He was just happy to have a warm bed, and was immediately assigned a job, which he had never had before. He had to work at cleaning and serving food, and was particularly impacted by cleaning up the vomit of other addicts/alcoholics coming in for detox. It opened his eyes to what he no longer wanted to be, and taught him structure and responsibility.
At the end of the program, he was back living on the streets and homeless once more. During a very cold winter, Joe lost control and started using again. Using made him feel guilty this time. He eventually found his way to an Narcotics Anonymous meeting where he found a “friend” who took him to the Salvation Army’s Lytton Springs rehab center north of Healdsburg. It took him about four attempts to get accepted because he had to stay clean long enough to pass the required drug screening.
Once again, Joe was immediately given a job, this time working in the thrift store, from which the proceeds were used to support the treatment program. Transitional housing was also available to those that successfully complete treatment. He enjoyed working in the thrift store, and thought he had learned skills that he could use to find a job after he completed treatment.
Joe spent seven months at Lytton Springs and left without graduating the program, but he hasn’t gone back to using meth. He now has a job, a home, a car, is in a healthy relationship with a supportive and loving partner, and is enjoying a “normal” life. He’s living among people who show him love and support, has been clean from meth for 5 years, has a good outlook on life, and is doing well.He ran into the police officer in Sebastopol that used to arrest him all the time and he thanked the officer for saving his life.
Lytton Springs was sold in January by the Salvation Army who had owned the property since 1904. The sale forced the closure of the thrift store and rehabilitation program, which had a 100 bed capacity and offered treatment to about 250 men like Joe every year. The property was purchased by a local Native American tribe, the Lytton Band of Pomos, seeking to establish a Homeland in Windsor. They are planning to build a luxury resort hotel, winery, and plant a vineyard on the property.
Georgia Berland from Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless said that a new program called “Sober Sonoma” has been started this year to encourage homeless people with addiction issues into treatment. An outreach worker has been hired by the county, and the goal of the program is to have 10-20 people a year placed into residential addiction treatment at Turning Point. Berland said there is a lack of available residential treatment within the county, which limits the number of people that could be processed through the program. “Sober Sonoma” only has five beds reserved at Turning Point, which are already filled, for the next six months, assuming no one drops. Sources reported that there is a need for at least 100 more beds that could easily be filled by indigent people who want to go through treatment, however there is no treatment available for them.
There are approximately 2,900 homeless people in our county, about 600 who are located in unincorporated areas. The best national average statistic I could pin down from the 2014 HUD Count was that about 20% of homeless people have chronic substance abuse disorders, which would be about 600+/- people for the entire county, or about 120+/- for the unincorporated areas. Severe mental health illness is also estimated at about 20%. For the Lower River homeless population of about 200+/-, that translates to about 40+/- people that need treatment for chronic substance abuse, and about 40+/- people that need treatment for severe mental illness.
For a service provider in Sonoma County to provide substance abuse treatment, they must have a specific license from the State of California to do so.West County Health Centers has been exclusively providing health care services in the lower river and West County area; however they do not currently hold a license from the state to provide substance abuse treatment, which is desperately needed.
With the possibility of a new homeless service center being established in the lower river area, it seems appropriate to address the need for substance abuse treatment if we are to solve the problem. Lynda Hopkins has welcomed new ideas, possible solutions, and has requested statistical data. Here it is. We would like this obvious need to be a consideration in the planning process. Treatment saved Joe’s life, and could save many more like him. It would go a long way in restoring the health of our community.
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