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Recovery houses in Oregon provide crucial transition in path toward drug-free life

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Recovery houses in Oregon provide crucial transition in path toward drug-free life

Mar 04, 2024 | 9:00 am ET
By Ben Botkin
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Recovery houses in Oregon provide crucial transition in path toward drug-free life
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Sara Barger, executive manager and policy liaison for 4D Recovery, visits with Mitch Wright, 31, in a recovery house in Gresham on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. Wright, one of the house's residents, said the house's structure helped him turn his life around after drug addiction. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

In a Gresham neighborhood, a sprawling 11-bedroom house is a refuge for a dozen people as they make the long, winding journey out of drug addiction. 

Some have spent time in the criminal justice system and others have stayed in a residential addiction treatment facility before finding comfort in this recovery house, which provides another step towards an independent and successful life in the community.

These homes play a key role for people in recovery by providing a transition from intensive treatment to independent living. Recovery houses keep people off the streets and away from the environments that lured them into drug addiction in the first place, and they encourage accountability, requiring residents to pitch in with household chores and meet with visiting staff to tell them how they’re progressing.

Oregon has about 500 recovery houses for hundreds of people, but with thousands of people in the state struggling with addiction, experts say many more are needed to address the state’s addiction and overdose crisis. Lawmakers hope to help this session by allocating $18 million through Senate Bill 1530, which would fund new recovery houses and expand those that exist, opening up another 500 to 600 beds for people throughout the state. 

People in recovery houses usually don’t need intensive treatment like that provided in residential facilities. But residents are often not yet ready to live on their own and need like-minded roommates to resist the temptation of drug addiction so they can get their lives on track.

In recovery houses, they are sheltered from the ready access of drugs on the streets, and they have a safe place to make career plans, get jobs, return to school and map out the next chapter in their lives. 

“It’s like a war zone out there,” said Andrew Early, 35, who is recovering from a fentanyl addiction and lives in the Gresham house, run by 4D Recovery, which provides mentoring and other services. “Every day, I drive down the street and see people getting high. So it’s definitely nice to have a safe spot to come back to.”

A sense of community

In some ways, the house is like any other with roommates.

People come and go to their jobs, outpatient addiction treatment and other appointments. They cook and prepare their own meals or share one together as a group, depending on their schedules, as several of them did on a recent weekday when they ordered pizza.They may play a game of chess on the board set up on the coffee table in the living room.

But the recovery house, located on a quiet side street in Gresham, is not a place for people to simply do as they please. A white board on a dining room wall lists household chores and the initials of residents who are responsible: sweeping and mopping floors, setting trash out on Wednesday nights and wiping down countertops.

4D Recovery’s peer recovery mentors, people who have been through addiction themselves, work with residents in the home and make regular visits. The frequency of in-person visits depends on the person they serve. Some residents in a recovery house may need to talk to someone every day. Others may need to visit someone once a month. 

They discuss steps residents are taking to stay off drugs, like joining a support group or regular church attendance. The mentors give residents flexibility to make their own plans for recovery. 

The environment helps them establish a routine, which is crucial in recovery, including work or school, group support sessions, outpatient treatment and even gym workouts. 

Not everyone is at the same point in their journey. Some may leave an addiction treatment residential facility and enter a recovery house as they continue to get outpatient treatment and participate in group sessions. Or they may leave a detox facility and enter a recovery house. 

Each resident has their own story. 

Left to right: Mitch Wright, 31, and Andrew Early, 35, talk about their experiences of living in a recovery house in Gresham.
Left to right: Mitch Wright, 31, and Andrew Early, 35, talk about their experiences of living in a recovery house in Gresham. Both of them are rebuilding their lives after falling into drug addiction as teenagers. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Mitch Wright, 31, is another resident in recovery alongside Early. His addiction began when he was 13 with prescription opioids and progressed to heroin. He arrived at the home last May. 

He said people struggling to get off drugs need time to recover. 

A cook and server at a restaurant, he also volunteers with Portland Night Strike, which does outreach work to homeless people around the Burnside Bridge. 

At the house, he works on being responsible. 

“There’s chores to be done in a house, and it teaches you how to uphold the standards in a household,” he said. “It teaches people that have no idea or haven’t been taught this themselves.”

The residents, who’ve often tread the same path, grow close, often sharing experiences and thoughts about how to improve their lives. 

“This is a safe environment to get a little emotional with the people you live with and get down to the level of actually talking about who we are and why we’re here and how we can become better,” he said.

Early has lived in the house even longer – about 18 months. He, too, became hooked on drugs as a teenager. He bounced in and out of jail on drug-related charges while in his twenties. Even while incarcerated, Early said, he managed to get drugs. 

After he went through a residential treatment program, he transitioned to a recovery house. Now, he works in a bakery and sanitizes equipment used to bake bread. 

“It’s helpful when you’re having a hard time just to be able to open your door and go knock on somebody’s door and be like, ‘Hey, man, I’m having a hard time,’” he said. “It’s been really helpful to me to be here just to reacquaint myself into everyday life, to be able to get on my feet.”

On a recent weekday, as the residents shared pizza, they visited with staffers, who have clawed their way out of addiction and now work with people pursuing recovery.

Adrian Burris, 33, director of operations for 4D Recovery, stayed in a Portland recovery house for about four years and lives independently in a house he purchased. He said he needed the stability that comes with living alongside people who have the same goal of recovery.

“Some people have no choice but to go back to the environment that ultimately could have contributed to their addiction in the first place,” he said.

He said people in recovery have different needs than other people and can’t go from an intensive treatment program to a life without structure or responsibility. He said sending someone from a residential treatment facility to their former living situation is like sending a liver transplant patient home from the hospital with a bottle of alcohol.

“I feel like sending somebody straight to the environment they came from right after going through inpatient treatment is the equivalent of that,” he said.

Recovery houses in Oregon provide crucial transition in path toward drug-free life
Adrian Burris, operations manager for 4D Recovery, talks in the company’s Gresham recovery house, which helps people who are leaving a life of addiction. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

High need in Oregon

There are 10,358 recovery homes across the U.S. including the ones  in Oregon, according to a 2022 national study

About 3,200 people live in them statewide, but a 2022 study by Oregon Health & Science University estimates that nearly 3,900 more beds are needed. 

Also called sober living, or sober housing, recovery houses are often rent-free or offer lower rent than elsewhere, making residents less likely to live on the streets. 

The housing helps the addiction treatment system, Tony Vezina, executive director of 4D Recovery, said. When people stay in a detox or a treatment facility longer because they don’t have a place to go, that clogs up the system, Vezina said. 

“It’s kind of a low hanging fruit for the state to invest in,” Vezina said. 

Sen. Kayse Jama, D–Portland and chair of the Senate Housing and Development Committee, said the recovery home model helps the state.

“Oregon is facing both a housing crisis with homelessness as well as a behavioral health and addiction crisis,” Jama said in an interview. “You cannot separate the two. They are intertwined.”

A whiteboard lists the chores and responsibilities for residents in 4D Recovery's recovery house, where people stay to regain independence as they leave drug addiction.
A whiteboard lists the chores and responsibilities for residents in 4D Recovery’s recovery house, where people stay to regain independence as they leave drug addiction. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Recovery houses across Oregon

Recovery housing stretches beyond the Portland area and to rural and coastal regions of the state. 

Bay Area First Step, which started in 1995, offers recovery apartments and rooms in a converted hotel for about 130 people in Coos Bay and North Bend.

Steve Sanden, the organization’s executive director, said recovery houses can be a place for people to stay while they wait for a bed to open up in a treatment facility. Or it can house them after they’ve left a residential treatment program. 

“Recovery housing is a really needed thing in Oregon,” Sanden said. “When people try to get into treatment, especially residential treatment, there’s no place that can get them in quickly.”

The group has about 35 staffers, all of them peer-certified recovery mentors who have experienced similar crises and can relate to the people they work with. 

Like 4D Recovery, Bay Area First Step participates in a voluntary certification program based on standards set by the National Alliance for Recovery Residences, a nonprofit focused on quality recovery houses. 

The accreditation, which more than half of Oregon’s recovery homes have, establishes the conditions of the housing, expectations for residents and how to support them in recovery. The Mental Health & Addiction Certification Board of Oregon, the alliance’s Oregon affiliate, oversees that work, which includes an initial site visit and a review of the house’s policies, procedures, insurance and other paperwork. 

The standards guide the homes on how to work with someone if they have a relapse – and how to give them another chance.

“None of them that I know of evict people instantly the first time they slip up,” Sanden said. 

Gabriel Tankersley, house manager for a recovery house in Gresham ran by 4D Recovery, talks about the responsibilities of residents on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.
Gabriel Tankersley, house manager for a recovery house in Gresham ran by 4D Recovery, talks about the responsibilities of residents on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Path to recovery

Staff members play a crucial role in residents’ lives. At the Gresham house, Gabriel Tankersley, the house manager, said he needs to trust residents, know they are committed and will get along well with each other. 

“I don’t live here,” he said. “I’m gonna have to be able to trust every individual that lives here when I go home.”

Different recovery houses can have different levels of staffing and oversight, based on the residents. In some cases, a recovery house may have a house manager or other staff member present around the clock.

“If the people are fresh off the street, it’s going to be staffed up all day,” Vezina said. 

In the Gresham house, Tankersley doesn’t put a time limit on how long people can stay there, but longer-term residents are expected to help newcomers and make them feel safe. 

“I can lay my head down at night and actually feel safe,” Early said.