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Kevin Heslin and Dave Sheridan
This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issues of California Together and Arizona Together. Read the original online here.
The Sober Living Network provides alcohol and drug-free housing for about 25,000 Californians every year. Our diverse resident population includes vulnerable groups such as women with children, U.S. veterans, and previously homeless young adults rejected by their families. The vast majority of our residents are in the earliest stages of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. Many suffer from co-occurring psychiatric problems such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Years of drug use have left many of them infected with HIV and hepatitis. Histories of domestic violence and sexual abuse are not uncommon, especially among female residents.
The Network operates from the conviction that safe and supportive housing is the cornerstone of recovery. There is solid evidence that sober living houses are more effective and less expensive than traditional treatment at helping alcoholics and addicts maintain long-term sobriety. Unfortunately, recent decisions by state lawmakers will likely undermine the recovery of sober living house residents and many other tens of thousands of people across the state.
California’s financial mess has been well publicized. After a grueling 20-hour session in late July 2009, lawmakers approved a budget that would close most of the $26.3-billion deficit – largely by slashing the health and social safety net at a time when people need support more than ever. Adding insult to injury, the governor made an additional $489 million in cuts (his “line-item vetoes”) before signing the budget. The governor’s vetoes eliminate state funding for community health clinics and $80 million from child welfare services. A total of $400 million in healthcare cuts includes $60.6 million taken from funds for Medi-Cal eligibility workers. Housing assistance for people with HIV/AIDS has been cut by 20%.
Sober living homes do not receive direct government money. However, many of our residents and their children receive basic assistance through public programs such as Medi-Cal and CalWorks. The goal of this article is to review the budget passed by California lawmakers over the summer of 2009, as well as the line-item changes that the governor made without the agreement of the state legislature. We discuss some of the harmful effects that these cuts will have on vulnerable populations, specifically on individuals and families struggling to rebuild their lives from the ravages of alcohol and drug addiction.
Proposition 36 Services
Approved by 61% percent of California voters in November 2000, “Prop 36” requires that first- and second-time nonviolent drug offenders be sent to treatment instead of prison. People who are eligible can get up to a year of drug treatment and 6 months of aftercare. Since Prop 36 was enacted, sober living houses have been an important aftercare resource for Californians trying to move beyond alcohol and drug addiction – and the criminal activities often used to pay for these expensive habits.
Prop 36 is an extremely cost-effective program. A UCLA study released in 2008 found that for every $1 spent on Prop 36 services, $2 were saved in government spending, mainly from reduced prison costs. Unfortunately, the budget signed in July 2009 will slash Prop 36 funding to $18 million, a ridiculous 83% decrease from the previous year.
The law behind Prop 36 requires that nonviolent offenders be offered treatment, and it doesn't offer exceptions for state budget crises. Less funding for Prop 36 programs means longer waiting lists for treatment, which leaves drug offenders with far too much free time on their hands while they wait.
The Prison Cycle
Not all spending cuts save money in the long run. Without enough Prop 36 funding to provide timely treatment and aftercare, many non-violent drug offenders will cycle back into our overcrowded prison system. Incarceration is an expensive alternative to treatment and housing for people dealing with alcohol and drug addiction.
Less than 2 weeks later after the budget was released in July, violence erupted in the state’s prison facility in Chino. In a 4-hour riot, enraged inmates set fire to one prison dormitory and smashed bunks and lavatories in five others, leaving 175 inmates seriously injured. Why did this happen? The California prison system houses 158,000 people crammed into facilities originally designed for 84,000; The Chino facility has 5,900 inmates, nearly twice its capacity. Barracks are reported to be poorly designed, with very few toilets, sinks, and wash basins. When inmates have to fight simply to use the bathroom and clean themselves up, tensions are bound to reach dangerous levels.
Before the prison riot, lawmakers had planned to cut $1.2 billion from California prisons. Now they must find $6 million to make repairs to the damaged Chino dormitories, and much more money to rebuild the dormitory that was burned down. In addition, a panel of three federal judges in early August ordered California to reduce its prison population by more than 40,000 inmates over the next 2 years. The federal judges said that California must come up with an inmate reduction plan by mid-September.
To comply with the judges’ order, state lawmakers will need to grant early release to tens of thousands of inmates. Because of the extensive cuts to public services that could actually help these former inmates re-integrate back into the community, the bottom line for Californians will likely be increased crime, homelessness, domestic violence, and numerous other consequences of not addressing addiction and mental health problems effectively.
Women and Children First?
Welfare reform in the 1990s was a move away from the notion of a “safety net” to an emphasis on the responsibilities of the poor to better themselves. Changes in public programs providing cash assistance and health insurance coverage were designed to help people make the transition to independence. For most sober living residents, living costs are low enough that they can make ends meet by working a minimum wage job, supplemented by essential public programs. Many women with children in sober living get job training though CalWorks, the state’s welfare-to-work program. They also gain access to Medi-Cal health insurance through the CalWorks program. Unfortunately, the new budget will cut funding for CalWorks by $510 million.
In another devastating blow to vulnerable, low-income women, the governor cut $20.4 million from nearly 100 domestic violence shelters and services centers across the state, putting women and children at increased risk of continued physical and emotional abuse. These programs serve as critical entry points into long-term supportive housing, as well as addiction and mental health services. Because of these funding cuts, many domestic violence shelters have no other choice but to shut their doors permanently.
State lawmakers decided to cut $144 million from the state's Healthy Families program, which provides health insurance to California's neediest children. The governor axed an additional $50 million from the program in a line-item veto. These decisions mean that more than 900,000 children will become uninsured in the next year, bringing the total number of uninsured California children to 1.7 million.
Taking health insurance away from children may have far-reaching effects in our communities. As many parents already know, young children often bring home colds and other infections from school. In sober living houses for women with children in daycare centers or schools, it is easy to spread a cold or flu. The United Way of California has pointed out that children are one of the primary carriers of swine flu. Cuts to the Healthy Families program could lead to a more rapid spread of swine flu through the population when school starts this fall.
What We Want
Sober living providers are not asking for government handouts. All they want is that their residents to have a safe place to call home while they begin the good work of rebuilding their lives—and, if they have them, the lives of their children. Even in healthy economic times, spending on services for people with addiction and mental health problems is far from adequate. There are supposedly 10 lobbyists for every lawmaker in Sacramento. Alcoholics and addicts don’t have much political clout, and they don’t have the money to pay lobbyists to represent them.
The whole point of the health and social safety net is to be there during the times when it's most needed – like right now. With widespread unemployment, we need public programs to ensure that people living on the edge don’t completely fall into the abyss. These programs not only help reduce needless human suffering – they reduce financial costs in other areas of our lives. The likely benefits of effective addiction treatment and aftercare support such as sober living homes include reductions in crime, homelessness, domestic violence, and lost productivity. The safety net system is essential for vulnerable populations, but it’s also good for taxpayers, because it costs much more to help people out of the abyss than to prevent their fall in the first place.
Kevin C. Heslin, PhD is an assistant professor at the Charles Drew University, where he teaches in the Masters of Science in Clinical Research and Masters of Public Health programs. He currently serves as the Vice-President of the board of the Sober Living Network of Southern California.
Dave Sheridan is a principal of White Rabbit Partners and serves as a Board Member and Treasurer of the Sober Living Network. He also serves on the board of the Chandler Lodge Foundation.