When Emmanuel United Church announced in November their plans to open the Region’s first dry house for women, media outlets included House of Friendship in much of their coverage. Supporting women as they transition from treatment back into the community will be a new venture for the social service agency. However, they are already part of a network of community organizations supporting three dry houses for men in Kitchener-Waterloo. What started in 2013 as a three-person house is now a three house operation with thrice the capacity; 20 men have received support in the past two and a half years.
Dry houses are, as the name suggests, spaces free from alcohol and most other addicting substances, for people trying to maintain sobriety. They are typically an intermediate step between traditional “rehab” programs and a return home. Dry houses are also places where “people can pour energy into getting better,” Chip Bender says, speaking to their unique place, and need, in the community. Bender is an outreach worker with The Working Centre. He coordinates and supports the houses and their residents with Clarence Cachagee, shelter to housing stability worker with House of Friendship.
“Just because we stumble and fall doesn’t mean we’re lost forever,” says Cachagee; and “sometimes we need a little help.” A driving philosophy behind the project is supporting people who have found the strength within themselves to ask for help.
While residential treatment programs provide a foundation for individuals in recovery, sobriety can be like “living on a different planet,” says Bender. Dry houses offer stability, a safe place and the support to put tools from residential treatment programs into practice once back in the community, where familiar faces and spaces can make it easy to fall back into substance use.
In 2012, as a community member with lived experience of addiction and treatment, Cachagee noticed a gap in the system. Coming out of treatment there was limited support available for individuals working to stay sober, especially when it came to housing. “It’s hard asking for help, especially as a man,” he says. “I was lucky enough to find an apartment and create a sanctuary,” Cachagee continued. But he had a vision of a safe place for men to receive support in their transition from treatment back into the community.
Cachagee spent time connecting with various community members and stakeholders to suss out interest and support for such a space. He found both, and a committee was eventually formed, bringing together people who had experience supporting individuals in addiction, which is where Bender became involved. The group, which included folks from Stirling Mennonite Church, met for several months before one of Stirling’s community houses became vacant and was offered as a space for a pilot project. The dry house project fit well with the Church’s mission for the houses, Suzanne Dyck, a member of Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, told me. “We want to be a vital part of our neighbourhood. If there is a need that isn’t being met then if we can use the houses to meet that need, that’s what we want to do,” she said. The doors opened on July 1, 2013.
Cachagee, Bender and Dyck all admit that the dry house project got off to a shaky start when one resident relapsed shortly before he was due to move in, and another, fatally, shortly after beginning his residency. With no funding for the project, all coordination and support was being provided on a volunteer-basis—an added challenge in developing a sustainable transitional housing project. But, by the end of the first year, feedback from the residents spoke to the positive impact of the space, Dyck reports. When another of Stirling’s five community houses became available in the summer of July 2014, the church offered it to the dry house program. (Earlier this year, a third Stirling house was committed to the dry house program.)
At the same time, The Kitchener and Waterloo Community Foundation received an anonymous donation, earmarked for housing, which was made available to House of Friendship. The organization put that money towards the dry house program, which allowed them to pay rent for the property and to pay for Bender to work one full day a week with the houses.
Beyond Bender’s one day a week, however, the program remains volunteer-driven. Individuals awaiting treatment need more support than those coming out of treatment, Cachagee and Bender explain, but there is currently no funding. Securing permanent funding for both pre- and post-treatment support remains an ongoing challenge for the project.
In weaving together the evolution of the houses, both Cachagee and Bender stress the collaborative nature of the project; it, as the saying goes, has taken a village. The fruits of those efforts belong to the community, too. Cachagee and Bender share stories of where their “walking with” has led, from hearing men’s heartfelt speeches at their residential treatment graduations, to witnessing one dry house resident stand before the Stirling congregation to share his gratitude for the program. “Everything had changed,” Cachagee marvels, “his language, his outlook on life.” “The biggest treat,” Bender concurs, “is watching people transform before your eyes.”