Part boot camp, part penitentiary, part profane monastery, the Healing Place literally and figuratively lives up to its hard-earned reputation as the “last house on the block.” Carved out of an abandoned paint warehouse at the end of Dinwiddie Avenue in a ramshackle section of town, the Healing Place has been offering hope to homeless alcoholics and addicts in Richmond, Virginia for over three years through an innovative long-term recovery program recognized by the federal government as a “Program That Works.”

And work it does, boasting a recovery rate of over 70 percent for men who have completed the full program and moved on to productive lives for one year or more, all at a cost of less than $25 per man per day. The Healing Place got its start in Louisville, Kentucky in the mid-1980’s, when a man named Jay Davidson noticed that many of the repeat customers in Louisville’s homeless shelters were also alcoholics or addicts.

Why not, Jay thought, try giving them some tools to fight their disease? Why not try putting a 12-step program into a homeless shelter, and give the men a chance to stop the endless cycle of addiction and homelessness?

Why not, indeed.

Like all simple ideas, it seems obvious once you think of it. But from this simple idea, the Healing Place has grown into quite the franchise, with facilities not only in Louisville, but in Lexington, Raleigh, and Richmond, as well. The Governor of Kentucky recently adopted the Healing Place model for Kentucky’s own state-wide program of over a dozen recovery facilities. Since first opening its doors in Louisville in the 1980’s, the Healing Place has provided thousands of men with a second chance, a chance to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and start again.

Men like me.

This is how it works.

All Healing Places follow the same basic model: an overnight shelter, including a detox center; an “Off-The-Street” or “OTS” intake program; a residential treatment “Phase” program; and a transitional program where men can gradually adjust to a sober, productive life in society.

Overnight Shelter: The 20-bed overnight facility is a nod to the Healing Place’s origins as a homeless shelter, but unlike many such shelters, the Healing Place is a “wet” facility, meaning that it does not turn away men who are intoxicated. For at least one night, they can shower, receive a nutritious meal and clean clothes, and sleep in a safe, warm bed.

The 12-bed “social” detox center provides men with a safe environment to sober up and get through the first, and potentially dangerous, days of recovery. The center provides a man with an alternative to jail lock-up or the streets, but offers no medical treatment. If the patient’s condition is sufficiently severe, he will be transferred to the nearby hospital at the Medical College of Virginia, and may return the Healing Place once his detox is completed. A typical stay in social detox will last about 5-7 days.

At this stage of the program, a bed is not guaranteed nor is a participation in the recovery program required. Anything beyond basic food, shelter and clothing is based upon the homeless man’s commitment and desire to get sober. Overnight and detox guests who are interested in getting into the program are asked to attend recovery classes and meetings in order to move on to the Off-the-Street part of the program.

Off-The-Street: Designated as a “motivational track,” the Off-the-Street (OTS) Program is where the alcoholic or addict first begins his recovery. Here he starts learning about his disease, attending recovery classes five days a week on the “Hill,” an off-site classroom approximately 2 miles from the Healing Place building. The walk to and from the Hill, affectionately referred to as the “Trudge,” from a passage in the Big Book, is built into the program to bring the 50-odd men in OTS closer together, and to allow the process of physical healing to begin.

At night, the men in OTS must stay in the Healing Place building, eating dinner and attending AA or NA meetings. In exchange for going to classes, and getting at least 10 meetings a week, each man in OTS is guaranteed a bed each night and three meals a day. The life is mean, with all 50 men sleeping in a single dorm, stacked atop each other in bunks like so much cordwood, barracks-style. But I can tell you from personal experience that having a bed to call your own, with a locker to put the clothes you’ve been given from the Healing Place clothing closet, is no small blessing.

Advancement in OTS is based on one thing, and one thing only -- the total number of meetings a man can attend each week. If the Healing Place is about anything, it would be education, and the men there get a healthy dose of it. Men average 12 to 15 meetings a week to learn about the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of addiction and recovery. Some get over 20. The more meetings you get, the more “bed moves” you will be given.

As their bed moves closer to the front of the dorm, men move into what’s called OTS II, a mini-phase of the program where more senior men, those in “Phase,” take them to outside meetings at night. And by outside meetings, I mean any AA or NA meeting in the Richmond area. Without cars to call their own, though, men at the Healing Place must rely on developing a network of friends in recovery to drive them to meetings. Hustling for rides is a major pastime at the Healing Place, but that’s hardly an accident. By forcing men out into the recovery community as part of their treatment, the Healing Place helps them build the foundation that will carry them into recovery on their own, once they’ve left the Healing Place’s protective umbrella.

The average length of time spent in OTS I and OTS II is about 8 to 10 weeks, after which a client may enter the Recovery Phase of the program.

Phase: Upon entering the recovery Phase, the men truly become part of a community, receiving job assignments and becoming accountable to their peers for their conduct and behavior. Job assignments range from basic maintenance to clerical duties: cafeteria, building and grounds maintenance, laundry, security, office support or driver. The men are expected to work their jobs as scheduled, and will receive negative consequences for inappropriate job performance.

On the subject of consequences, the Healing Place likes to describe itself as a “peer-driven community.” There are only a few specific rules governing the most egregious forms of client misconduct, typically referred to as the “Five Dischargeable Offenses.” These include: violence; threats of violence; stealing (on or off property); sexually acting out; and racial or sexual orientation harassment. These five offenses will bring down the ire of staff, resulting in a client’s immediate discharge.

For the rest, the outcome is left to the men in Phase themselves, in a process referred to as Community. Think “tribal council” with 50-odd men, most of whom are ex-felons, participating. Each man is expected to report to the Community when he has engaged in inappropriate conduct by raising an “issue.” When a man fails to “tell on himself” by raising an issue, his peers may do it themselves, by raising a “concern.”

Either way, the matter is heard by all the men in Phase, and consequences are suggested to “help” the brother in his recovery. These consequences may range from writing a few hundred words on an appropriate topic (“To be on time is to be late.”), to being restricted to the building for a set amount of time, to, in the most serious cases, discharge from the program. It may sound like an odd procedure, but it works. There is precious little misconduct at the Healing Place, and putting the men in charge of their own conduct helps speed their recovery considerably.

The men also continue their recovery by attending still more classes and meetings, and by completing all Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. As far as I know, this is the only program that does so, requiring the men to get and work with a real-world sponsor, with whom they will “drop” their Fifth Step (“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.”), and who must confirm that they have begin work on their Ninth Step amends (“Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”). In addition to completing the Twelve Steps, the men must take a Life Skills class, where they will learn how to gain employment, save money and move into independent housing.

A man will typically spend an average of 4 to 6 months in the Recovery Phase of the program.

Transition: As the name implies, this part of the program focuses on the men’s transition back into the real world, providing each man with resources to move back into society as a self-sufficient, tax-paying and sober citizen. While living in this structured and supportive environment, the men receive help gaining employment, opening a bank account, resolving outstanding legal issues and finding independent housing.

Their privileges are greatly expanded, and they may leave the property as needed for work, meetings, leisure or on an overnight pass. The men in transition, referred to as “silver chippers” for the silver chip they earn upon completion of the educational part of the program, have their own Community process, which meets once a week to resolve issues and provide support during the transition period. A three-month commitment to the transition program is required, but the men may remain in the program for up to 6 months after they have completed Phase.

As an alternative to the transition program, men may elect to become what are referred to as Peer Mentors. There are twelve such Peer Mentors at any one time, each of whom teaches classes, oversees a caseload of a over a dozen men, and is generally responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Healing Place. This is the path I chose, and I could go into much greater detail . . . but I won’t. I’m getting tired, and if you've gotten this far, I’m sure you are, too. So, as they say in the program, “more will be revealed.”

I don’t think it would be possible for me to overstate how much the Healing Place has meant to me and my family. When I walked through its doors, I was a broken shell of a man, wishing desperately for the sweet oblivion of death, but too scared to do anything about it. Now, just ten months later, it would not be an exaggeration to say that my life has been completely transformed. I am once more a father to my son, a husband to my wife, neither of which I thought would ever happen again.

I owe the Healing Place my life.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Healing Place is not an easy program to complete. One of the reasons it has a success rate three times as high as the Betty Ford Clinic is that the program is damn hard. You have to really want what the program has to offer to make it all the way through.

I’ve seen more friends relapse in ten months of sobriety than my sponsor has in ten years. Two guys I met in the program are dead now. But that’s OK. That’s part of the program, too.

Those who finally make it through are the ones who, as the Big Book says, are truly “willing to go to any lengths to get it.” Those last, miserable days before I came in, I prayed for just the chance to make good . . . just the chance. The Healing Place gave me that chance, and, with its help, I rode that horse straight out of Hell.

I'm not looking back now.

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