Recovery houses offer path to a new life; if you can find a bed

Contact ReporterHoward County Times

The brick split level house on Donleigh Drive in Columbia looks like every other home on the street, with a garden out front and a sweeping lawn with a swing set out back. Photos line the bookcases, and a new plasma TV hangs in the living room.

Inside lives a family of eight men, each in recovery from substance abuse.

With different stories of addiction and journeys to sobriety, the men live together, sharing responsibility for the upkeep of their house and paying a weekly rent of $140 for their space. Perhaps most important, they hold one another accountable for their sobriety, helping each other embark on a new life free from drugs or alcohol.

Privately owned and operated by husband and wife Mike and Joanie Elder, the “three-quarters” house serves as a stable, supportive environment for those in recovery. Mike Elder, a recovered alcoholic with more than 30 years of sobriety, said the recovery house serves a vital function for those who have already successfully completed treatment in a detox facility and who may have already lived in a more typical halfway house, but aren’t yet ready to live on their own.

Long-term housing like the Donleigh Recovery House is an often overlooked yet integral part of recovery from substance abuse, a multi-step process that a growing number of Howard County residents are becoming familiar with as the opioid epidemic continues to grow in the area.

Individuals who live in recovery housing while continuing outpatient treatment are 10 times more likely to remain sober, according to a 2012 study by Johns Hopkins University. Yet bed spots at houses like the Elders’ Donleigh Recovery House are hard to come by in a county that many say lacks recovery housing resources.

The Elders bought the home in 2004 for $440,000, and rent goes toward the house’s monthly mortgage payments. The Elders have opted not to seek state or county funding for either of the two recovery houses they operate, according to Mike Elder; and because they do not offer therapy, counseling or treatment services in-house, they do not require any licensing.

The Elders don’t keep any staff at either house, and live at their own residence in Columbia, where they run a real estate company. While none of the men live at the Elders’ home, the two keep an “open door” policy, and welcome men to come by anytime if they need assistance or simply someone to talk with, Joanie Elder said.

“Once you come into this house, that stigma of being an addict is lifted, because you’re trusted by Mike and Joanie,” said another resident Tom M., who’s lived in Donleigh house for three years, said. “We feel at home, we’ve finally found someone who cares.”

Life at the house

The Elders established the eight-bed, all-male Donleigh Recovery House in 2004, and now have the operation “down to a science,” Mike Elder said.They opened a second house on Beechwood Drive three years ago to house six more men.

Residents interviewed did not want to give their names because they participate in groups such as Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous.

Spots in what one resident called the “Taj Mahal” of sober houses, are coveted. The Elders require residents to be recommended to them by others in the Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous community; residents must have at least four months of sobriety and must attend at least four NA or AA meetings a week.

One resident said the popularity from the house comes from the environment the Elders foster of a close-knit community that doesn’t let residents fall through the cracks. As a resident of the house for two years, he said part of that community is built on the fact that the average stay in Donleigh or Beechwood house is longer than many other recovery houses, at just under three years.

The resident, who said he has a dual diagnosis of depression and substance abuse, said he isolated himself in his room when living at other houses, but not at Donleigh, where the men check in on each other daily, and attend house meetings with the Elders every week to talk about their progress.

Mike and Joanie Elder said they work hard to ensure the men feel supported and have the tools necessary to succeed, whether it’s lending someone money to buy a car or connecting him with a job. Joanie Elder makes personalized stockings at Christmas and bakes each resident a cake for his sobriety date anniversaries, having now baked hundreds of cakes over the last 13 years.

Mike Elder said the two put so much of themselves into the house because they’ve seen the success their work can have. They’ve now helped nearly 100 men find jobs and transportation and put them on the road to long-term sobriety, he said.

A 36-year-old resident said moving into the house was the best thing that ever happened to him. After recently celebrating two years of sobriety, he is now saving to buy a house.

“It’s crazy, two years ago I couldn’t even save up to buy a bike,” he said.

The two-year resident lauded the house’s welcoming environment, and said it was unlike any other sober house he’d heard about. He’s lived in the house for two years and said he learned about the house from others in recovery groups who spoke highly of it.

“We’re like a family here; I’ve been in other houses and they’re not,” he said. “We don’t have to lock our doors, we don’t even write our names on our food. We trust each other.”

Overlooked importance

Despite this camaraderie and a track record for producing successful resident outcomes that is described as “great” by Howard County Bureau of Behavioral Health Director Roe Rodgers-Bonaccorsy, Mike Elder said many people, including officials in the county, don’t understand the importance of long-term recovery housing, instead focusing on detox, which often comes in the form of a 21- or 28-day stay in a facility before sending people out on their own.

The Donleigh and Beechwood houses are part of a small network of sober houses in the county, most of which run at nearly 100 percent capacity. In its resource materials, Howard County’s Bureau of Behavioral Health includes six transitional housing organizations, some of which operate multiple individual facilities in the county, including Donleigh Recovery House.

Four of the other residential facilities in the county are operated by a nonprofit, Living in Recovery.

Unlike the Elders, who only take in residents with well-established sobriety, most Living in Recovery residents are fresh out of rehab, co-founder and treasurer Joe Willmott said. Approximately one in three residents will relapse while living in the house. Willmott’s facilities use a different approach to sober housing, but still holds residents to an intensive schedule, requiring residents to attend 90 meetings in their first 90 days at any of the houses.

Living in Recovery also runs one of the few houses for women in the area. Those in the recovery world, including Wanda Semies, owner of the nonprofit women’s residence Maddie’s House in Carroll County, say finding local recovery housing for women in the area is an even bigger challenge, with only a handful of available houses, and even fewer that will accept women and their children. The Safe Harbor Program operated by Mountain Manor Treatment Center in Frederick County and Chrysalis House in Anne Arundel County are two of the few residential facilities in the region for mothers and their children.

Semies, whose house includes eight beds, said women often face more challenges in recovery than men, something she attributes to an immense amount of guilt she said women carry about their addiction, as well as the added responsibility of childcare.

“For women it becomes, what happens to my kids? Who’s gonna watch them?” Semies said. “As much as people like to lump us all together, women have different needs than men.”

Semies said that in one recent week, she received eight calls for bed spots in her house, underscoring the need for more space in the region for long-term resources. The average woman takes nine months to complete Semies’ intensive program.

“The beds are not available, and this is what we need,” she said. “They need to slowly acclimate themselves back into the community. This is not drive-through recovery, it takes time.”

Elder, Semies and Willmott each said they’ve seen a growing need for housing in recent years and months as opioids continue to seep into the area.

Willmott said he receives an average of two or three applications for bed spots a week, but can only accept two or three new residents per month because of limited space. Living in Recovery currently has 23 residents among its four houses, and Willmott said he doesn’t keep an active wait list for bed spots because turnover in the houses isn’t on a set schedule.

“We have aspirations to open up more houses but don’t have the resources at this time,” Willmott said. “I think that there’s a need to double the capacity at least.”

Rodgers-Bonaccorsy said Howard County has doubled its number of contracts with recovery houses in the area this year from two to four, including Living in Recovery, in order to help more people get beds in houses quickly as part of its efforts to combat the opioid crisis. Each contract is between $3,000 and $5,000, and can be put towards rent, staffing or other needs, Rodgers-Bonaccorsy said.

This year the county established contracts with Evolve Life Centers and Stepping Stone Recovery House, both located in Anne Arundel County, adding to Living in Recovery and Project Encompass a four-bed, all-women house in Laurel.

Rodgers-Bonaccorsy said the county does not currently keep population statistics for all of the houses in the county. The Bureau of Behavioral Health, however, is working to request population information from recovery houses in the county, according to Rodgers-Bonaccorsy.

Project Encompass founder Claryn Burnett said her house is currently at full capacity, and that at any given time she has a wait list of three to six women. Associate Director of Evolve Life Centers Sara Burden said the organization runs six houses with more than 100 beds, all of which are filled. Burden said the center does keep a wait list, but that it changes often as, like Living in Recovery, turnover is not on a specific schedule.

While the county has no specific plans to open its own recovery houses, Rodgers-Bonaccorsy said the county could choose to do so as part of its larger plan to provide substance abuse recovery resources and a continuum of care, led by the county’s promise to build Howard County’s first residential detox facility. She said the county “welcomes” private recovery houses to open in Howard County, but that the county does not offer tax breaks, incentives or other forms of support to centers.

Rodgers-Bonaccorsy said she “values” the work that private individuals like the Elders do, and that the department is looking to partner with them more in the future. Mike Elder recently spoke at a panel as part of a county workshop about ways to combat the opioid crisis, which Rodgers-Bonaccorsy said is the type of collaboration she’d like to continue.

A chance to move forward

Even as more families in the county learn about the issue of substance abuse, the stigma and misunderstanding remains surrounding the disease and those affected by it.

Elder said neighbors have been weary at first of having a recovery house next door, with some people claiming it poses a danger to their children.

Elder said he’s combated that by placing fliers in neighbors’ mailboxes explaining the house’s purpose and by talking individually with concerned neighbors.Residents of the house have also offered to mow neighbors’ lawns.

One Donleigh resident said forming positive relationships with neighbors is one way to help erase the stigma he wants to overcome, and helpsmore people tounderstand the far reaches of substance abuse.

Elder and MacDonald both said many of their former residents will move out of the house and into a place on their own together. Elder said he’s now getting to attend weddings and other celebrations for men who have successfully rebuilt their lives, with their stay at Donleigh or Beechwood house a key part of that.

At the heart of the Elders’ philosophy in operating their houses is to “teach a man how to fish,” Elder said, and lead them on a path to take positive actions in their lives. Joanie Elder said that boils down to a simple idea, “if you want self esteem, do esteemable things.”

“They have to feel trust, have to feel respect, have to feel loved,” Joanie Elder said. “The ripple effect goes beyond the guys in the house.”

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