Community Over Isolation: Addiction Recovery in the Age of COVID-19

Addiction Recovery

Addiction recovery is a journey without an arrival date. Every day free from drugs and/or alcohol is a victory. But when a pandemic threatens to upend the recovery journey, what happens?

In the case of the Ohio Recovery Housing alliance, you ask for help.

In May, ORH requested $50,000 from OHFA's Emergency Investment Fund to distribute to its network of recovery houses across the state. Recovery houses are communities comprised of men and women in recovery, who live together while receiving peer support, guidance, and accountability. Each program within the ORH network received $1,400 to use toward a resident's rent, PPE for staff, and/or other supplies.

"It's not just a house that people live in," said Erin Helms, the director of the Woodrow Project and Briermost Foundation. The women-only recovery house was founded about six years ago and currently has six houses and 45 residents. "Where you call home makes such a difference in recovery."

In the earliest days of Ohio's shutdown, some Briermost residents were essential workers, others worked from home, and others lost their jobs.

By the end of April, one third of recovery housing residents had lost their job, said Danielle Gray, executive director of Ohio Recovery Housing. Residents pay their own fees as they would at a private property. But Gray said houses across the state made a decision during the first days of the shutdown: no matter a person's ability to pay, no one would be asked to leave the program.

"We need to be together. Take that away and people get squirrely," said Reba McCray, who leads ARC Recovery Services in Akron. "The disease of addiction is one of isolation, so the solution is community."

Similar to many Ohioans during the state's shut down, boredom was an ever-present foe. For those in recovery, boredom can lead to fatal outcomes. The staff at Briermost developed two activities per week for engagement: residents made sun catchers, played basketball, took walks, made signs out of pallets, and more. ARC Recovery Services made the most of their residents' free time as well, painting rocks with encouraging messages and placing them in strategic locations where people could find them.

Because recovery housing is congregate living, residents are likely more at-risk of transmitting coronavirus. ARC and Briermost kept one bedroom open in case someone became ill and needed to quarantine. Two Briermost residents tested positive and quarantined at the house, while still participating in meetings online.

A key feature of recovery housing is that residents can stay as long as they choose, and staff work with residents to create individualized plans. Helms says most change happens between nine to 18 months, although the length of the stay is not the focus; the internal changes with external evidence are.

The Road to Hope House, Inc. comprised of eight locations across northern Ohio, houses 152 residents: men, women, and women with children. The shutdown had residents at home for 11 weeks.

Like similar programs, Road to Hope had to pivot quickly to support residents, which included children whose schools were closed, says Jeff Kamms, who leads the organization and is the vice president of the Ohio Recovery Housing Board.

The organization bought laptops for resident's telehealth calls and purchased basketball hoops, volleyball nets, and horseshoes to encourage physical activity. To minimize the number of staff coming and going, two staff members committed to living at the location with children to develop activities for the kids, assist with navigating parental visitation, and other issues as they came up.

"It was like the Groundhog Day of everything," said Kamms.

Despite the cloud of the pandemic hanging overhead, residents and staff in the recovery housing community say there was good that came from that time.

A Road to Hope resident gave birth. At Briermost, bonds between residents formed more quickly as they worked to support each other. The stay-at-home order stretched and redefined the boundaries of creativity at ARC.

Family atmosphere. Continued support. Regular meetings. Doing the work.

Those elements and more ingrained into the recovery housing model can make all the difference, said McCray.

"You may recover from COVID, but you may not from a relapse."