November/December Feature Story
"We had overwhelming support from the community, good communication, and great provincial commitment.”
Imagine a modern-day barn-raising, where 120 companies and a crew of 500 volunteers come together with a common vision. That’s what HeroWork, a charity that does “radical renovations” for other charities, did for Our Place Society’s New Roads Therapeutic Recovery Community.
Grant McKenzie, Director of Communications for Our Place Society, told me about how dreaming big and hoping for the best set wheels in motion for ways the organization could help homeless men in our city. How the repurposing of a vacant youth detention centre in View Royal was achieved is truly inspirational. But, as you will see, that it all came together at all is a miracle!
Q: What sparked the idea for a centre like the New Roads Therapeutic Recovery Community?
A: The idea was sparked in 2012 when our Board of Directors were developing a new strategic plan and the facilitator took the Board through an exercise of dreaming big to determine what Our Place’s next big accomplishment could be. One of the Board members suggested the idea after hearing about a successful addiction recovery program in Italy called San Patrignano Therapeutic Community with a 72% resident recovery rate.
Q: What did your organization envision for these people?
A: Our vision was to bring hope to men who wanted to overcome homelessness, addiction and experiences within carceration. Participants would live on site for up to two years and during that time, acquire life skills, social skills and job skills training as well as healing. By the time they leave, they’ll have a quality career path and a place to live.
Q: How did you start to build solutions?
A: We asked ourselves what we would like to see happen if money was not a concern. We explored recovery communities already in place like ‘Guthrie House’ inside the Nanaimo Correctional Centre and ‘Baldy Hughes’ Prince George. We looked at international models, too. These were purpose-built communities that turned lives around. That was the start of it.
Q: How did you imagine you would pay for it?
A: We had no idea. It was still a dream at that point. But, back then, several things happened that led us to where we are today. The whole controversy for the tent city clean-up was still front and centre and the youth detention centre had closed down. Local residents were raising concerns about what could be done with the empty facility.
Q: Opportunity knocks?
A: It was apparent to us that the space could be useful. So, we proposed the idea of taking over its courtyard with 50 tents where the tent city people could live while other provisions were being made for them. We called this place the Choices Transitional Home.
Because both residents and council alike saw the need for a revitalized facility in our region, we further proposed repurposing the former detention centre into a permanent therapeutic recovery centre—once we had housed everyone from Choices.
It was essential for us to have Mayor Screech and his council on board as big supporters early in the game. But as it turned out, there was a great political appetite for our proposal and the council was pleased to support rezoning. Also, we had overwhelming support from the community, good communication, and great provincial commitment. [The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions provided $4.7 million in funding. B.C. Housing provided a $310,000 grant for renovations and a lease for the property.]
In the meantime, we recruited our tent city residents to join in with other volunteers to begin renovations. We told them, if you participate, when winter comes, you can choose to come inside. By winter, every single person was inside! We operated in this manner for 2 years. And when more permanent housing arrived, we moved everyone into their new homes. With the facility empty again, we could move forward with our idea for the Therapeutic Recovery Community. Everything just came together from there.
Q: Since the building used to be a youth detention centre, what was done to make it less institutionalized?
A: HeroWork divided the main living quarters into eight living areas and 24 sleeping suites, doubled the size of the dining room, added an arts and crafts room, an outside food production area and a longhouse-style pavilion. And thanks to a local philanthropist, a healing garden replaced what had once been a concrete outdoor recreation area. A big part of that renovation was new lighting, removing locks, cell numbers, and adopting softer furniture, fireplaces and so forth.
Q: How do you go about selecting men for the residential program?
A: We interview everyone referred to us. People are identified either through the court system or the jails. Island Health also refers people recovering from addictions who are willing to commit to the program. We put these applicants through a very intensive interview. Referrals find out quickly that they will have to be ready to look at the trauma they’d experienced in their lives. That’s not easy for many.
Q: Is age a factor in selection?
A: There are no age limits. We accept committed adult males who are 19 years of age or older. Change can happen at any time in a person’s life. The average age of residents is 32.
Q: How many residents can TRC accommodate?
A: We can accommodate up to 50 men. We currently have 20 in residence. But eventually, with further renovations, we will be able to house up to 100. The current residents will be helping to renovate the next wing of this complex. Work is therapy—and they get to move into the newly renovated wing, if they choose.
Q: What happens to the men once they complete their residency?
A: The society is looking at the possibility of acquiring a transition house to provide secondary stage support
for graduates. We have set up a private social media page so graduates can talk to each other, keep in touch and support each other. As residents, they are taught different ways to deal with anger or opposition in less confrontational ways. But, once they move away, what will happen to those new teachings? What if they encounter a boss who is difficult or too demanding? That’s when it becomes important to have peer support.
Q: Thank you so much for the tour, Grant. I’m overwhelmed with what Our Place is accomplishing here.
THE NEW ROADS TRC PHILOSOPHY:
We work together in community to change our lives and be free of addiction. We will re-establish connections with ourselves and each other by living with respect, kindness and honest communication. We can overcome obstacles, learn new ways and aspire to wellness for ourselves and the world we share.