Prescott Grappling With Costs Of Becoming National Destination For Addiction Recovery
When Phillip decided to get clean, he knew sticking around home was a recipe for failure.
“It’s just, like, a heroin epidemic on Long Island where I’m from. So I had to get away from that and now I’m in Prescott, Arizona,” says Phillip, who asked that we not use his full name.
Phillip and a handful of other young people are filtering through the line at a soup kitchen at the Prescott United Methodist Church just before noon. They are grabbing a bite to eat before their next meeting of recovering addicts nearby.
“Like everybody here is basically, I feel like, in recovery and they’re more serious about it,” says Phillip.
Not like back home in New York, he says, where people shoot up in the parking lot before meetings. You hear similar stories from others whom have come to this idyllic mountain community, with its Victorian-style homes and tree-lined town square.
Outdoor recreation, a mild climate, scenic vistas and welcoming attitude toward those in recovery — all are touted in a promotional video by a group called Drug Rehab Arizona:
“Let’s talk about Arizona and why so many addicts from all over the country and world find themselves drawn to the desert Southwest."
But opioid addiction is a national epidemic fueling a multi-billion dollar recovery industry, not just in enclaves like south Florida or Malibu, but also small, humble communities like this one in Northern Arizona.
Prescott, with its motto, “Welcome To Everybody’s Hometown,” has become a hotbed of the narcotics industry, even listed by popular recovery website TheFix as one of the top 10 destinations in the country to get sober.
In fact, the town has become so popular for recovery-seekers that it's now grappling with the costs and benefits of being in the national sober spotlight.
“That beautiful little mountain town that I owe my life to” is what Bonnie DenDooven hears all the time.
“How fine is that? What a great reputation!” says DenDooven, program director of the Bridges Network, one of the largest treatment centers in town.
Her colleague Mark Temple runs the affiliated Solutions House, sober living homes where most of their clients stay while seeking treatment.
He said the industry naturally took root here.
“I’ve never heard ‘Gee, let’s get together and make this town a recovery center,'" says Temple. "I don’t think there’s a conspiracy around that. It just happened.”
And in a big way. At last count, Prescott — population 40,000 — had more than 150 of these group homes. And new ones are popping up all the time.
DenDooven says their clients stay anywhere from three months to more than a year. And their approach is based on a model of gradual release and integration back into society.
“The challenges of living in a neighborhood, the challenges of working in a community, the challenges of being around both users and non-users," she explains. "As much as you replicate real world, I think you stand a better chance of them making it."
Central to that and many of the programs here are the group homes, where usually six to eight recovering addicts live under the supervision of a house manager. During the day, they go to treatment centers, attend meetings and, eventually, look for work.
In essence, these programs separate the residential and medical components — what is known as the “Florida model.” It differs from a more institutional approach, says Temple, and is much cheaper than an inpatient hospital setting.
"Our focus is to help these kids. Our focus has never been on making money," he says. "We are a program based on spiritual principals. We are not a business built on profit and loss."
What helps keep costs down is the lack of regulation. Other than some city zoning and code enforcement, these sober living homes have no government oversight. That has caused what some in the community, especially longtime residents, are calling a crisis.
“We are reaching a tipping point," says Allison Zelms, Prescott’s deputy city manager. “When half of your street becomes group homes that becomes more institutional in nature, which is what the whole point is of the federal fair housing law. It's to avoid that."
Federal law prohibits discrimination against a protected class, including recovering addicts. But that has also led to a proliferation of these homes, which has confounded and angered many residents, including Connie Cantelme.
Walking through one of Prescott's historic neighborhoods, she says it used to have a quiet, family feel.
“This is Pleasant Street. It's supposed to be Pleasant Street,” she says.
Now, Cantelme says, group homes have inundated the community with crime, drugs, the homeless and, generally speaking, unsavory behavior.
“When you’ve got a hundred boys and men trying to kick a heroin problem, how do you feel safe living next door to them when they’re falling off the wagon all the time?" she asks.
Once she remembers coming outside for her morning coffee only to find a man had overdosed under her porch.
City records show a 70 percent increase in drug arrests from 2012 and 2015. Yavapai County, where Prescott is located, has one of the highest rates of overdose-related deaths in the state.
Is that a symptom of the larger opioid epidemic, as the recovery industry argues. Or a result of the influx of group homes?
Cantelme and others worry Prescott’s wholesome image is being tarnished.
Allison Zelms with the city says that's certainly a major concern but perhaps an even greater one is the quality of care in some of these programs.
“Are people really being sold a bill of goods, or are they going to come to Prescott to really have a good chance of success in their treatment?” Zelms asks.
Without more oversight, she says, it's difficult to know.