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How to Win the War on Drugs

Picnics, dancing, bowling--these are all part of a local program for convicted drug offenders that's cheaper and more effective than prison.

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Nelson, a former drug addict with a shaved head and piercing eyes, has the arrest record to back up his looks. In 2002, when he was caught with $100 worth of crack, he was out on an I-bond from an arrest two months earlier for possession of $40 worth of crack, a stolen Dodge Neon, and three credit cards that weren't his. He was looking at several years in the state penitentiary, but after ten months in Cook County Jail, Nelson was sentenced to 24 months' probation and sent to live in this brick courtyard building on far North Damen. It doesn't look much different from the other three- and four-flats in Rogers Park: the gate's not locked, and there are no bars on the windows. Nothing on the outside hints that all the residents are drug offenders doing court-ordered rehab in place of prison time.

Inside, six women and two men have just been brought from Cook County Jail, all convicted of nonviolent offenses involving drugs or alcohol. In each case the judge has ordered an assessment by the nonprofit Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC), which has in turn recommended treatment and long-term recovery through A Safe Haven, the private, for-profit chain of recovery homes that owns this building. If the offenders complete the program, their sentences will be struck. If they don't, they'll go back before a judge, who'll most likely return them to prison.

They sit in a meeting room furnished with several chairs and a white desk. Three women in the front row smile nervously. "It's nice and clean," one says with approval. But behind her a woman in an orange jacket wears a skeptical expression, and it's mirrored on other faces in the back of the room. Mostly middle-aged, the new arrivals have been around long enough to know that things are rarely as good as advertised.

Ira Barnet, a big man in a white shirt and earring whose size is made less daunting by his hearty manner, takes a seat behind the desk and begins orientation with a promise. "You'll have some Thanksgiving dinner here. It ain't no more sliced turkeys like you get inside."

"Or baloney," the woman in the orange jacket adds.

Barnet gives everyone pens and forms. "This is a very relaxed environment," he tells them. "This is not no extension of your bid." A Safe Haven organizes trips to skating rinks, bowling alleys, the movies. There are picnics in the summer and dances year-round. "You will have fun," Barnet says. If they don't, they can leave at any time--though of course that means going back to jail. And the amenities are such that they'll probably want to stay for the full 120 days: each of the 24 two-bedroom apartments houses three or four people and has a living room, dining room, kitchen, and bathroom. "We got cable," Barnet adds.

The residents are watched closely, are subject to random drug testing, and have 26 rules to follow. No violence or threats of violence are allowed. There's no smoking in the apartments, which must be kept clean; residents must do assigned maintenance tasks in common areas as well. Visits to other apartments are not allowed, and there are curfews--lights out at 11 during the week, 12:30 on weekends.

The woman in the orange jacket raises her hand. "Can I ask you something? I just had a death in my family while I was in jail, and the funeral is this weekend. I know I can't go out of town, but I'm just asking you, is it possible I could see my dad? He's 99."

Is this a ploy just to get out and go get high? It's not uncommon for substance abusers who've gotten clean on the inside to look for dope the minute they're out. Barnet tells the woman he's not the one who decides yes or no, but if she does go, he says, "Don't come back and say, 'I got depressed and I needed a drink.'"

"You can come with me when I go see my dad," the woman says.

"No, we ain't gonna go with you," he says. "We expect you to be responsible. I'll let you talk to the program manager on that and we'll see what y'all can work out."

This may seem a bit unorthodox, but A Safe Haven claims that more than 75 percent of its residents complete the program, staying drug and alcohol free for at least four months. Services it provides include individualized recovery plans, life skills training, counseling, on-site AA meetings, and referrals to community programs. The chain's motto is "Housing Is Healthcare."

But the facility on Damen is the only one of A Safe Haven's ten recovery homes that houses a prison population. And it can only hold 85 people at a time. Drug possession is now the number one cause of incarceration in Illinois--and recidivism is on the rise. Of 44,379 adult prisoners in Illinois in 2003, 11,292 were in for drug offenses, and drugs and/or alcohol played a role in most of the others. A study by TASC found that 82 percent of male and 84 percent of female arrestees screened for drugs and alcohol after being taken into custody by Chicago police tested positive. And incarceration isn't solving the problem of drug abuse or related crimes: more than half the Illinois inmates released in 2001 were back in jail by 2004.

On November 2, Cook County voters found this question on the last page of their ballots: "Shall the Illinois State Government provide adequate funding for comprehensive and appropriate substance abuse treatment for any Illinois state resident requesting services from a licensed provider, community-based organization or medical care facility within the state?"

Almost 1,200,000 voters said yes, about 380,000 no--good numbers for a referendum asking for money to help drug addicts.

It's cheaper and more effective, say advocates of the referendum, to reform an addict than to put one in jail: the average cost of housing an inmate in an Illinois prison for a year is $23,000, the average cost of treatment $5,000. But treatment is a broad term, encompassing several options with varying rates of success. The best-known is the 28-day residential program also called the Minnesota Model (after the Hazelden clinic in Minnesota, which pioneered it in 1948), but few such programs are part of the public health system, and they rarely accept people referred by the criminal justice system.

Residential programs that last upward of 90 days are more effective, according to the Drug Abuse Treatment Outcomes Study (DATOS), the most comprehensive national look at treatment options and outcomes. In this study, long-term residential programs showed declines of 67 percent in the number of cocaine users, 53 percent in the number of heavy drinkers, and 61 percent in instances of illegal activity a year after graduation from the program, compared with 42, 31, and 36 percent declines for those in outpatient programs. But every treatment program has to turn people away for lack of funding, and of course long-term treatment is more expensive: A Safe Haven houses its residents for anywhere from four months to two years; the average cost of a stay is $8,000, at $550 per month.

So if Illinois addicts were to demand treatment under the terms of the referendum, what exactly would they get? The cheapest (and therefore most likely) option is outpatient treatment, but it's too soon to say for sure. The referendum is nonbinding, and the legislation it calls for could take anywhere from two to five years to go through the pipeline, says Congressman Danny Davis, who spearheaded the effort to get the question on the ballot. Illinois senate bill 480, which calls for adequate state funding to provide treatment on demand, was introduced in February by Third District senator Mattie Hunter, but it's since been sent back to the rules committee, and considering the state's current budget woes, government-funded substance-abuse treatment might seem like a luxury right now.

When Davis appealed to agencies around the state to gather signatures to get the treatment-on-demand initiative on the ballot, A Safe Haven turned to its residents and was able to raise a small army of canvassers for the cause, eventually bringing in 26,000 of the 118,000 signatures collected. Nelson says he spent weeks in the Loop telling people, "If you lock somebody up and you don't treat him, he's just gonna go out and do it again. He'll get worse, he'll pump up, and he's gonna be a monster."

Alison, who's 24, was homeless when she was caught buying five bags of heroin labeled "Bottom of the Ninth" on New Year's Day 2004. Released to the Damen facility last April, she at first left the premises only for daily counseling at the Family Guidance Center, one of A Safe Haven's partners, which offers an intensive outpatient treatment program. "You work your way up to more freedom and movement," she explains. When we met in the fall she was planning to leave the Damen facility in the spring, and it worried her--"It's kind of scary to think about leaving a community like this," she said. In February she did move, into another A Safe Haven apartment building, on North Clark Street, where she's now living as an independent renter. Her $750 rent there includes access to counseling. She's holding down two jobs.

The Damen facility is the only one like it in Chicago and maybe in the country, says A Safe Haven's COO, Allen "Skip" Land. "You won't find this anywhere else where somebody's sitting in a courtyard building instead of sitting in jail." (Brad Olson, a social scientist with DePaul's Center for Community Research, says that though "nationally, it's not a one-of-a-kind thing, good recovery settings where people can get out in the community and leave incarceration earlier are quite rare.")

Other A Safe Haven buildings are inhabited by the homeless and indigent, paroled women, and people with HIV and AIDS. A courtyard building on Jarvis houses single mothers with substance-abuse problems who've been referred by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. There, a three-bedroom apartment holds, at most, three adults and two children up to five years old. "The rule of thumb is that we try to never have more than five people," says Brian Rowland, A Safe Haven's CEO. "Never more than four adults in any program, and never more than five, including kids, in an apartment." Currently the wait for these spots is two years.

Brian Rowland and his wife, Neli Vasquez-Rowland, started A Safe Haven ten years ago. At the time, he made a comfortable living setting up corporate pension funds and she owned a construction company. When he wanted to buy a vintage 13-unit building in Logan Square, she thought it would be a good investment.

"It needed some work," she recalls, "and I'm thinking, OK, great, what do you do, you put an ad in the paper, you look for tenants." But her husband had other plans: "He said, 'Oh no no no, that's not what I want to do.'" Before they married, Brian had been in short-term treatment for alcohol abuse several times. He knew the limitations of such programs, and thought this building could be the start of something better. "He was like, You've got to work with me on this, this is something that's really needed," says Neli.

"This" was a new kind of recovery program. Movement is strictly regulated in halfway houses and in 28-day programs, but the Rowlands used assisted-living communities as their model. "It's about living independently and having support in the community," says Neli. They also offered nicer quarters than most treatment facilities. Within a few weeks the building was full, and applicants were still coming--some even offered to pay to sleep on couches in the lobby. So the pair bought more buildings. "After 18 months I had eight buildings and waiting lists, and it took on a life of its own," Brian says. "I was in the delivery room having a baby," Neli adds, "and he was in the hallway on the phone trying to figure out how to get someone from a treatment center to Safe Haven."

They discovered that going for-profit would save them time, if not money. Nonprofits "have to jump through too many hoops," Brian says. "We bought these two buildings [on Damen and Jarvis], rehabbed them, and had them full in a year. If I'd used government financing or TIFs or any of that, it would have been a three-to-five-year process. And we had a waiting list."

A Safe Haven got a license from the state in 1995--the first privately owned recovery program to do so. "That was what we needed to go to the funded programs and say, OK, this is what we're showing as far as our success," says Neli. A study by Northwestern University published in the American Journal of Public Health in 1999 called the program "effective," and it has since drawn funding from the state as well as from private sources. Because A Safe Haven is private, the company doesn't have to reveal its annual budget, but Brian will say that only 20 percent of the chain's beds are government funded--80 percent of the clients pay for themselves.

In danger of becoming a victim of success, Rowland realized, A Safe Haven needed to bring in someone who specialized in recovery. "I started asking around," he says, "and everyone I talked to said a guy named Skip Land was the man." Land was a past president of the Association of Halfway House Alcoholism Programs of America and the Illinois Association of Extended Care, so Rowland was surprised to find him a bit less than formal. "I met him at Zephyr's, and he's this guy with fluorescent pink glasses and these striped pants, but at that lunch I hired him as a consultant. I couldn't afford him otherwise." After funding started coming in, A Safe Haven was able to hire Land full-time. He oversees the ten locations and the residents' recovery plans.

Land, who's 62, started in the recovery field 25 years ago, when a friend offered him a weekend job in a halfway house. "I was so infatuated with it that I made it a career," he says. "Now I consider myself an advocate. I get to places where some of these clients won't get. I can speak for them as to what their needs are." He's been to the White House and testified on Senate panels.

Though he started out in short-term programs, Land says he's come to see long-term programs as essential. "If you went into treatment today you'd be out in 28 days with no place to go, no money, no job, nothing. They're trying to put a 28-day solution on a 28-year problem. It's a Band-Aid."

Daily life in the drug world revolves around two tasks: scoring dope and doing dope. Cleaning up complicates matters--especially for addicts with felonies, for whom finding work is extremely difficult. Neli has hired clients to do maintenance work for her construction company, but most residents are sent to job-training programs and employment agencies. "At the end of four months here 50 percent of them would be employable and 25 percent would be employed," Land says.

Many get jobs in the recovery industry--about half of A Safe Haven's own staff is comprised of former clients. Sherise Smith, an administrator in the Jarvis facility, was a heroin and coke user who went to prison for forgery before she was remanded to the Damen building in 2002. After four months there, she moved to the single mothers' facility on Jarvis for another four, then remained there while attending a recovery internship program. She moved out just a year ago.

Smith had been through treatment before, at Haymarket Center and the Women's Treatment Center--both more regimented and with less freedom of movement--but nothing had worked for long. The little things at A Safe Haven made the difference, she says. "I was amazed that I could get on a train and go to treatment. Just to be able to go out instead of being in one building and you go from one floor to the next. Here, you're out in the world, you're not away from society and what's going on."

The skating and bowling parties promised to the new arrivals from Cook County Jail aren't just for fun, Land says. Some residents have been so insulated they can't imagine a social activity besides getting high. "Instead of hanging in a bar, where do you go? Instead of going to a crack house, where do you go?"

Once, Land drove past Buckingham Fountain with a 48-year-old addict who remarked, "You should call the city, some pipes have burst." "I said, 'Oh my God,'" Land recalls. "He didn't know this was a fountain! He'd lived in Chicago all his life, on the west side maybe four or five miles from there, and he'd never seen it."

On election day paid A Safe Haven residents knocked on doors to remind voters to get to the polls. "We're the army for the alderman," Brian says. "When he needs 30 volunteers, we have 30 volunteers. And we are very involved with CAPS and cleanups in the community. We force our residents to become active." Attendance at a downtown rally for the referendum was mandatory, says Alison (Brian says it was "encouraged"), but she was happy to be there. "I was like, Wow, I'm a part of this. I'm standing up for something I really believe in."

The signatures she and others collected weren't enough to get the question on the ballot--300,000 would have been needed statewide. But they came in handy when Davis changed tactics and began lobbying other politicians in the state. "We saw that we weren't going to make it on the ballot through the signature piece," he says. "It just took too many. So we went to the state legislature. I went to Art Turner, Ricky Hendon, got Art to introduce a piece to get it on from the house, and Ricky introduced it in the senate." The measure passed the house but got bogged down in the senate. "That's why we never got it on the ballot statewide," Davis says.

But Davis wasn't finished. He showed the signatures to Bobbie Steele and Jerry Butler at the Cook County Board, who then introduced an ordinance to have the question placed on the ballot in Cook County alone. With the support of board president John Stroger, it passed. "If Stroger didn't want it, it wouldn't go," Davis says.

"I consider this to be one of the finest pieces of public policy work that I've ever been involved in," he goes on. "Given the people who really made it happen, many of these people I'm talking about, these are people who don't have jobs, people who are addicted, people who go to programs--that was our army. They were our precinct captains. And I think they felt really good about it too."

Treatment on demand is a "public-safety issue," Davis says. "We have about 30,000 people who come home every year from correctional institutions, and they come to basically seven neighborhoods in Chicago." Those neighborhoods--Lawndale, East and West Garfield Park, Austin, Humboldt Park, Englewood, and the near south side--are all in his district, and all "catch hell in terms of the numbers of individuals who have been to the penitentiary and can't find a job," he says. "And more than 70 percent of them probably went to jail on drug-related offenses.

"I get letters from people and phone calls saying, 'Why are you wasting your time with these dope addicts and criminals? Why don't you try to do something for the good people?'" Davis says. He explains to them that in the process of getting money to feed their habits, dope addicts might wind up hurting others: "It's as much to your advantage to try and help this person as it is to our advantage to get them help."

The "on demand" part of the proposed legislation also rubs some people the wrong way. "Research indicates that the best time for someone to get in treatment is when they decide now is the time," says Davis. "So if I present myself and say I'm ready for treatment and I can't get in, I might not get ready again." Substance abusers seeking treatment of any kind face waits of seven months or more, but an addict can almost always get drugs on demand.

Ultimately the decision to seek treatment is up to the user, and there's no particular timetable for that. Nelson, the former crack addict, had a house, a new car, a wife, and two children when he was laid off from a good job in 1992. "I told my wife, 'I'm taking a dive.' I stepped out of society. I became society's enemy."

He was arrested 18 times, did three stints in Cook County Jail, and went through treatment at least 20 times. "I wedged into the bottom for a while, sat in it, and lived it." The arrests weren't a deterrent, just part of the routine--but after 12 years the wild life was starting to be another grind. "Basically, I've done everything I wanted to do on the bad side," he says. "There's not too much I haven't done. I just decided I'm tired of the consequences."

Since our meeting at the Damen facility, Nelson has completed the program there and moved to another A Safe Haven building that houses recent graduates. Residents are subject to random drug searches, but otherwise "there's a lot of freedom," he says--there are no bed checks, cameras, or assigned chores in the independent-living program. He says that for the first time since he picked up a crack pipe, he has no cravings for drugs. "It's like being released from a cell. Crack cocaine affects you in the mind, so you have to take control of your mind, which I never thought I could." He remembers thinking, "I'm a crackhead, and I'm going to die a crackhead."

For Nelson, A Safe Haven was the right program at the right time. "It's raw, they're raw," he says. "It's the real world there. They would set you out. At a meeting they would say, 'Nelson, shut the fuck up! You don't like it here, get the fuck out of here. Bye!' Hard-core."

But now, he says, "I'm free to do my dreams, something that was never even possible. I joined a health club and I go there three times a week and I love it, and I'm looking forward to walking on the beach." Nelson hasn't found work yet, however. He says he plans to begin training to become a substance-abuse counselor.

Land says that if treatment on demand becomes law, the waiting lists at A Safe Haven could disappear. At worst, he says, "it would definitely open up more avenues for people who have addiction problems." At best, "it would mean everybody that needed it would get it. Right now it's much easier to get a broken leg fixed than to get treatment for alcohol and substance abuse. Just go into an emergency room--they put a cast on and fix your leg. They don't deny you."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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