A transitional housing and treatment center in Newark helps women re-learn how to live
As Diane Glauber points out in this issue, transitional housing is often viewed more as a program than housing. Yet while the focus of transitional housing is often on treatment for problems that have reached a crisis, housing is a critical element among the intensive services in such programs: a place that provides a home-like setting while helping people make the transition to a more stable and productive life.
One such program is Choices, a long-term halfway house for women in Newark, New Jersey. Choices’ residential program treats women for alcohol and drug dependency and houses them for up to 18 months. Besides the intensive course of treatment residents undergo, there are obvious benefits to living in safe and supportive housing during recovery from addiction. “My family is basically here,” said one resident, Shakeria, who cited the constant support she receives as central to her recovery.
In addition, Choices focuses on bringing mothers and their children under the same roof for concurrent treatment. Some of the mothers have been physically separated from their children, and others have been emotionally unavailable due to their addictions. Many of the residents’ children have been, or are still, in the custody of the state Division of Youth and Family Services. Recognizing that the longer mothers and their children are separated, the less likely they are to bond, Choices aims to reunite families as soon as possible, according to administrator David Flynt.
Shakeria, who has a young daughter and son but had been homeless and separated from them, said that whenever she’s tempted to relapse, she thinks about her children. Though they were not yet living with her at Choices, she said they’ll be with her when she can demonstrate she’s ready for the responsibility.
In the mean time, Shakeria was keeping photos of her children on display in her room. Choices residents often live doubled- or tripled-up, dormitory style, or those who have custody of their children are assigned rooms by family size. Not all residents stay the full time, and others sometimes switch rooms, depending on available space and whether they gain custody of their children.
To encourage residents to aspire to a better life, Flynt said Choices tries to cultivate a “middle class” environment in its two restored Victorian homes. Rooms are carpeted, with curtains and dressers, and residents display photos and other items that personalize their living areas. They take turns with cleaning, cooking, and other household duties.
While conflicts sometimes erupt among residents, group therapy and individual counseling help them work through problems. Tracey, another resident, said conflicts are usually brought to the staff’s attention before they get out of hand. “No matter how much the ladies fuss and fight, we’re still family,” she said. Residents also participate in role playing exercises that help them recognize their own behavior. “It’s really intense when someone else can see themselves through role playing,” Tracey said. Executive Director Audrey Brown said there are sometimes women who act “too grandiose,” particularly at the beginning of a stay, who are given extra assignments to help them with that problem.
Brown founded Choices in response to the lack of long-term housing/substance abuse treatment facilities for women and their children. She first began Choices in the Bowery in New York City, and had women living in her apartment while she put together funding for the program. A suitable property was located in Newark. Choices bought the first house in 1985 and expanded to a second house next door in 1991. The houses together hold 18 family units.
Most Choices residents are very low-income. Eligibility depends on need and a commitment to getting sober. Residents must be at least 18 years old; most are in the 25-35 age range. Most are from New Jersey, but Flynt said 50 percent are from outside of Essex County (where Newark is located). Many were homeless prior to their admission, and about 25 percent are HIV positive. Flynt said residents are admitted without regard for their ability to pay, but the few who have some money – such as those who are HIV positive and eligible for SSI – are charged $100 a week for themselves, and $25 per child. Flynt added that the residents with HIV tend to be among the most stable, since they have a more pressing desire to enjoy life and become better parents.
In the past several years, Flynt said, Choices has needed to provide more intensive services, which he attributes to crack addiction, the spread of HIV, and general changes in society. Many residents have also endured physical or sexual abuse, or have been prostitutes. While Choices has expanded its program – including housing, meals, and childcare; psychological testing, mental health counseling, family counseling, and various group meetings, including Alcoholics Anonymous; parenting and life-skills training; health monitoring and HIV education; recreational activities; and transportation (to church on Sunday, school, work, on group trips, etc.) – its funding has not increased with the level of services.
“We’re really seeing and feeling the changes at the federal level,” Flynt said. Like many transitional housing programs, Choices patches together funding from a variety of sources, such as the New Jersey Department of Human Services and Essex County (from the alcohol tax); the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Ryan White Act, and HUD’s HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS) program; and the United Way and other foundation and corporate contributions. Flynt said Choices has had an easier time fundraising for outpatient services than its housing facility. Since 1991, Choices has seen a freeze in state funding and a 57 percent decrease in county funding. Meanwhile, its expenses have increased by over 43 percent. Flynt finds it ironic that Choices cannot obtain increased state funding, when it costs more to keep babies in the hospital than to help reconstitute families through its program.
Despite these financial obstacles, Flynt said it’s not hard for him to go to work each day, because of the rewards of seeing residents and kids who arrived frightened and withdrawn suddenly come to life. Although Flynt is not involved in counseling, he interacts with residents daily, and he said there’s a point – usually after a few months – when they suddenly become dignified and prideful.
Tracey, for example, left a rehab in Upstate New York and arrived on Choices’ doorstep a year ago with literally nowhere to go. She said she sat outside the office until the staff agreed to find room for her. She initially planned to stay only a few months. Having been independent in the past – working, with her own apartment – Tracey thought she could get back on her feet quickly. But as her stay went on, Tracey said, she realized that long-term recovery involved getting honest and dealing with her anger. Tracey said she’s become a better mother to her nine-year-old daughter, and has begun working towards her long-term goals. This fall, she plans to begin taking classes and fulfill a goal from 11 years ago, when she went to college for one year. She’s also determined to find a job and her own apartment before she leaves Choices.
Choices budget, however, leaves little money for evaluation research and follow-up with former residents. While some keep in touch and attend an aftercare program at Choices, Flynt said Choices is not funded well enough to track most of the residents who leave before completing the program, let alone the 20 to 25 percent of residents who successfully finish.
So determining the ultimate success of Choices, and other half-way house and transitional housing programs, depends not only on funding for housing and services, but for follow-up with residents after they have moved on. For now, that success will be measured through the comments of residents like Tracey and Shakeria, who say Choices has helped them re-learn how to live.