MANSFIELD – Douglas Picheco turned off the push mower and crossed the street. He was shirtless, dressed in blue jeans and a baseball cap with “US NAVY VETERAN” sewn on it.
Picheco worked to catch his breath under a cloudless, blue sky. I encouraged him to take a seat on the concrete steps while we talked.
“My mother would roll over in her grave,” he said, not willing to sit while the women around him stood. He pointed past the stairs and up the sidewalk to the front porch.
“We can go set up here, where you can sit.”
I followed Picheco up the sidewalk to the front porch opposite his home. Both houses are sober living facilities, operated by Mansfield UMADAOP.
Picheco has lived in the men’s sober house since October.
“This place saved my life,” he said. “I have been clean and sober for 201 days. I couldn’t have done it without this place.”
Before getting clean, Picheco spent 20 years abusing substances like marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, acid and over-the-counter medications.
He came to the house reluctantly, after backing out of multiple appointments with an addiction counselor at the last minute. He finally came at the behest of his daughter.
“She said she didn't want me to die,” he said. “I don't want to die. You know I've got four grandbabies, three children.”
Mansfield UMADAOP is one of 11 Urban Minority Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Outreach Programs (UMADAOPs) throughout the state. UMADAOPs were originally established in 1980 to aid in the prevention of alcohol misuse among African and Hispanic Americans Ohioans.
Mansfield UMADAOP opened in 1989 and continues to provide substance misuse education, prevention and treatment programs.
UMADAOP opened its first sober living facility about eight years ago, according to housing manager Michelle David.
Joe Trolian, executive director of the Richland County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, said UMADAOP Executive Director Dennis Baker was a forerunner in the area of sober living facilities.
“He started buying up those homes as they were getting closed down for being, basically drug dens," Trolian said. "He was picking them up through the land bank and having people that were in recovery start working on them, fixing them up and making it more livable."
"He was doing it before it was fashionable.”
The Mansfield non-profit now owns six houses as part of its Genesis Row Project. Four are occupied, two are being renovated.
Once the other two reopen, David estimates UMADAOP will be able to house about 20 people.
Research has shown that residents of recovery housing generally have lower rates of substance use and incarceration. Ohio Recovery Housing reports that recovery housing is also associated with increased income, improved family and social relationships and better psychological and emotional wellbeing.
Picheco and other UMADAOP residents can attest to those benefits. Picheco said his memory is better since getting sober. His relationships with his kids and grandkids has never been better.
After two decades of using, support from his community and counselor have helped him chart a new course.
"They helped me decide what I wanted to do with my life," he said. "I want to be a faith-based addiction counselor.”
A place for healing
Baker said the Genesis Project began as a way to address homelessness among UMADAOP clients.
“Some of them were living from couch to couch, bed to bed, in abandoned cars,” he said. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for those people who are serious about recovery to have an opportunity to have a decent living arrangement.”
Some people in recovery may have housing available, but it's not a good fit. Staying with family or friends when conflict exists may mean housing is available, but not stable. Living with other people who continue to use can make recovery and sobriety extremely difficult, even for those who are dedicated.
Baker said Mansfield UMADAOP prides itself on making the houses comfortable and homey. Clients each get their own room, which cuts down on conflict. There are separate houses for men and women.
Devan Haag began using at the age of 14. He has stayed in sober living facilities before, but says there is something different about Mansfield UMADAOP.
“I love this place. It's the best sober house I've been in,” he said. “I haven't heard of one fight or any client going off on another counselor or a counselor going off on a client – none of that stuff which I've seen at other facilities.”
“There's like a peace that's here," he said. "I think God's got his arm around this place."
The distinguishing factor for Haag is the genuine empathy he feels from the counselors and staff. Since he moved into the house in October, the staff's community health worker has helped him get an ID and begin his job search.
“They're willing to work with you as long as you are trying and doing your best,” he said. “They don't judge you or look down on you or anything like that. They don't cuss at you or yell at you, and I've seen that at other places.
“I've just never seen another sober house or rehab like this one.”
Jama Wilhelm, one of the female residents, agreed. She noted that many of the counselors are also in recovery.
“They don't see you as a number,” Wilhem said of the counselors. “They see you as a person.”
Baker said that genuine care for others is an essential part of UMADAOP’s work.
“One thing we kind of pride ourselves on is caring,” he said. “A lot of these people don't have a lot of love or haven't had a lot of love in their life or have destroyed relationships. So we try to show them that we care for them, which we do.”
“We spend a lot of time coaching and being clinical counselors and all of that. Love goes a long way though. It’s caring and real compassion.”
Compassion is especially necessary in early recovery. Some residents have to unlearn negative patterns of behavior that took root during times of substance abuse.
“A lot of people that have found their way to a lifetime of addiction don't have a lot of soft skills, don't have a lot of personal skills, so we try to help them with that,” Baker said.
“It's pretty trying. It's not always as easy as it sounds. Sometimes when people are in addiction, some of them are very manipulative, so we try to get them to understand that's not the way to live.”
Genesis Row residents must attend at least three recovery meetings each week and as well as independent sessions with a drug and alcohol counselor. Residents are also required to follow house rules, submit to regular drug testing and be committed to sobriety.
This is typical for Level 2 Recovery Homes, a less restrictive form of recovery housing under the National Alliance for Recovery Residences.
“Recovery housing is not just a place for people with substance use disorders to live. It is an environment," said Danielle Gray, executive director of Ohio Recovery Housing.
"They provide services such as mutual aid support and care support, and they are places where residents’ recovery is planned for and discussed. They create family-like environments where residents are supported and encouraged as they build relationships with one another."
What’s atypical about UMADAOP’s model is the agency provides both treatment and housing. In fact, only clients actively receiving recovery treatment from UMADAOP are eligible to live in the homes.
The all-inclusive model isn’t just for client convenience – it’s a creative way to secure funds to keep Genesis Row housing going.
Securing funding to run a recovery housing facility can be challenging. Medicaid and private insurance cover treatment services like counseling and residential in-patient programs, but not housing, so recovery homes have to find alternate streams of funding.
By requiring all residents to receive recovery services through the organization, UMADAOP ensures revenue. Part of that revenue is redirected to cover housing costs.
“Everybody has to do some kind of treatment and that kind of pays for their stay," Baker explained. "People that are in treatment kind of pay their bill by being in treatment.”
UMADAOP also receives funding through the Richland County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board at a rate of about $25 per day per resident and additional funding through the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
David said clients are encouraged to look for work or begin school or vocational training soon after moving in, but aren't required to pay rent for the first two to three months. Once a client finds work, UMADAOP charges $25 a week in rent.
It's a much cheaper rate than other recovery homes. According to David, many of Ohio's sober houses charge rent almost as high as typical market housing, which can be unaffordable for people without savings or a job.
Genesis Row housing isn't meant to be permanent. Residents can stay up to two years, although most stay for closer to a year. Occasionally, residents begin using again and are asked to leave, but most go when they feel they are ready to start fresh.
“The goal is to get people acclimated back into the community better than when they first came to us, get them clean, hopefully get them reunited back with their families if they have one, and just start a new life," Baker said.
Both Baker and David say they’ve heard from people who have moved out and moved on to lives of sobriety, but there’s no exact method in place for tracking outcomes after a client leaves.
Nevertheless, they're confident the program is changing lives.
“We know when they leave here, they're on their way to a successful recovery and a much better life because we’ve watched them for a year or six months or whatever," Baker said. "We know that they’re working or we know their ambitions to be better.”
Does Richland County have enough recovery housing?
Trolian said he believes Richland County has sufficient recovery housing available, but admitted that it’s hard to gauge exactly how much the community needs.
“There's really not any research out there that says you know, based on your population, you should have X number of beds of recovery housing, so you look at it based on demand,” he said.
"I don't know that we have had a wait list for recovery housing, that's usually your indicator that you've got some other needs," he added.
“However, it's like anything else – if people don't know to look for it, do they ask for it?”
Baker disagrees with that assessment. He and David believe there is a need for more recovery housing in the county, as well as low-income housing.
David said there is a handful of people waiting on a spot to open up in Genesis Row. When someone moves out, beds fill up quickly.
UMADAOP gets plenty of calls from people simply searching for a place to live.
“We get a lot of calls for housing in general,” David said. “We probably get five or six of those calls a week.”
Trolian said if there were to be more recovery housing in Richland County, he’d like to see more models similar to UMADAOP, rather than informal sober living homes.
Some recovery houses are independently run, without certification or clinical support. (UMADAOP is certified through CARF International.)
In Ohio, there’s no requirement for recovery homes to be certified unless they receive government funding. In these informal settings, a homeowner or provider rents out rooms with conditions like sobriety for residents and attendance at 12 step meetings.
“We're seeing these kind of crop up throughout the community,” Trolian said. “These recovery houses are fine, but I would much prefer to have some level of oversight.”
Despite an overlap between addiction, substance abuse and homelessness, Trolian said it’s important not to assume that all homeless people need addiction services. Some homeless people may not be addicted, but are using substances to cope with the stress of being unhoused.
Based on a 2003 study, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that 38 percent of homeless people are dependent on alcohol and 26 percent abuse other drugs.
“Typically, the people who are making the determination that there's a high rate of mental illness and addiction in the homeless population, they're not homeless,” Trolian said. “They're people who go home everyday and live under a roof."
In other words, recovery housing alone won’t solve the homelessness problem.
“(Recovery housing) is an effective response to those people who are homeless that are in need of that level of care,” he said. “We want to make sure that we have all options available in Richland County.”