President/CEO Linda Carney was interviewed by the Press of Atlantic City on the cost of rehabilitation and how Career Opportunity Development, Inc. - CODI - participates in the recovery.
Road to Sobriety Comes at a $5 Million Cost
Posted: Monday, January 26, 2015 10:00 am
By JOHN V. SANTORE, Staff Writer
“I just wanted to die,” Erik Fischetti said.
He was in his early 20s then, and the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City was the closest thing he had to a home.
“I went and got a whole bunch of really good stuff,” Fischetti said. Then he went to the station’s lobby.
“I shot it up, and I went out for like a day and a half. That’s the only time that the police didn’t wake me up.”
When he came to, he couldn’t move his wrist, which he had been laying on. His foot was broken from an earlier injury. He was alive, but still addicted to drugs, which meant he still stole to pay for his habit. He was arrested. He went to the detention facility on Rikers Island in New York, got out, kept using and was arrested again.
By this point, Fischetti had been selling and using drugs for years, the child of a distant father and “a mother who was like an angel but got overwhelmed,” he said.
Now, something began to change.
“I decided I wanted to start over,” he said.
It hasn’t been easy. Fischetti is 32 now. He’s started over several times in recent years, has continued to battle drugs, been in and out of treatment, had and lost jobs, homes and relationships.
But today, he is a server at an Atlantic City restaurant, as well as a security guard at a nightclub. He’s living in Atlantic City in a home run by Oxford House, a network of transitional housing facilities. He is sober.
When he walked into John McLernon’s office in November, he was clean-shaven, and his mind was clear. He looked robust.
McLernon, the director of Atlantic County’s social services department, described Fischetti as a “$5-million-dollar man,” a euphemism for individuals who have been in and out of treatment and the criminal justice system for years. The total cost of the services they’ve received, and the systems that have processed, judged and detained them, can run into the millions of dollars, McLernon said.
The path Fischetti has travelled is one Atlantic County wants to interrupt as early as possible — a cycle of dependency, homelessness, crime and government expense.
A variety of Atlantic County programs, including Covenant House in Atlantic City and Career Opportunity Development Inc. in the Egg Harbor City, exist to work with those needing that kind of intervention, a population composed of, as McLernon put it, “the most chronically homeless that are statistically the highest to recidivate.”
These programs are linked by their commitment to providing wrap-around care, or attention to the various, interlocking needs of their participants. It’s key, they say, to preventing people from falling back into distress.
They are partially funded by federal grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which McLernon said now prioritizes efforts to end long-term homelessness. An application to HUD for more than $500,000 was submitted late last year, and a funding decision should arrive soon.
Covenant House, which is seeking about $230,000 in HUD backing, works with homeless teenagers confronting numerous challenges, including addiction and estrangement from family.
“The system has failed them, the school has failed them, obviously their parents have failed them as well,” said Brian Nelson, the program’s director. “We have to build trusting relationships with them, because they just assume when they walk through our doors that we’re going to fail them, too. That’s something that we have to prove them wrong on.”
The organization provides emergency housing for young men and women living on the street, but it also helps those it can to move into subsidized apartments, find jobs, attain a high school degree, and rebuild fractured familial relationships.
“A lot of times when young people come to us and they get a job, it’s the first job that they’ve ever had,” Nelson said. “When they come and they see our nurse practitioner, it’s the first time they’ve received medical care in quite some time. We have to start from the beginning.”
Staffers focus on normalizing responsible behaviors, Nelson said, though that process can take time.
“They’re going to need something, and instead of them making an unwise decision on what it is that they need, we’re there,” he said.
Career Opportunity Development Inc. is seeking about $128,000 in HUD money to continue working with homeless individuals dealing with persistent mental illness and associated difficulties.
“We don’t consider homelessness to be a life-long label,” said Linda L. Carney, CODI’s director. “The goal for us is to find the services the person needs and is willing to accept, to have them become as independent as possible so they don’t relapse into the system.”
CODI’s top priority is to house the people it works with, even if they’re still engaging in other damaging behavior, such as drug and alcohol use.
It’s a philosophy known as “harms reduction,” and it represents a break from programs that make sobriety a condition for housing.
McLernon said the harms reduction model embraces the idea that addiction-based behaviors shouldn’t invalidate a person’s right to housing and treatment. That’s a hypocritical standard society often applies selectively, he said, with those addicted to stigmatized substances commonly shown the least compassion.
Housing provides stability, Carney said, which can allow CODI staffers to connect with individuals and address their other needs.
“You take the person where they are, and you develop a rapport of trust with them,” Carney said. “By leaving somebody on the street, we’re not getting anywhere.”
It took a long time for Erik Fischetti to get to where he is, but he recently said he has recaptured the health and contentment he previously lost.
“I’m doing very well,” he said, “and enjoying life.”
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