About two dozen people gathered on Fourth Avenue in North Richmond on Tuesday morning as they prepared to haul eight mattresses, furniture and boxes of home goods into an empty house.
With folks spread out around in front of the tan stucco house, close enough to hear but carefully distanced across the porch, the yard and sidewalk, Sarah Scarbrough reminded them of why they were there:
“We have folks coming out of incarceration, homelessness; and those who battled substance disorder,” said Scarbrough, director of the recovery nonprofit REAL LIFE. “As you know, a lot of our folks have dealt with all of the above.”
Homelessness and fatal drug overdoses are on the rise across the Richmond area. There’s growing demand for addiction treatment recovery services. And people leaving jail are struggling to find stable work and housing as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the economy.
Preliminary data from the Virginia Department of Health, meanwhile, show that an average of eight people were dying of an overdose each week through September last year. Statewide, the health department estimates there were approximately 2,250 overdose deaths in 2020, a nearly 40% increase over the previous year and a record high.
The move-in event last week marked the opening of REAL LIFE’s eighth transitional recovery home in the Richmond area, increasing the nonprofit’s ability to provide shelter to people in recovery, often as they return from jail or an inpatient recovery treatment program.
“Ultimately, the majority of people who are incarcerated, around 95%, will get released. So how do we as a society want them to be when they get out? Better or worse?” Scarbrough said in an interview. “We have to come together as a community to address these crippling issues and situations.”
REAL LIFE has opened five new homes since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Scarbrough said the recent expansion is intended to meet the growing demand for stable housing that government health agencies and the criminal justice system are unable to meet.
Last month, a federally mandated census organized by the region’s network of shelter and service providers tallied 838 people staying in shelters or sleeping on the street in the city and the town of Ashland, as well as Charles City, Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent and Powhatan counties. That’s a more than 50% increase over last year’s count of 549 people.
It’s possible that the number of people experiencing homelessness is even higher, as the census conducted in a single night can miss some people and does not include people who are temporarily living out of a car or a relative or friend’s home and who are not in the service network’s records.
People formerly incarcerated are 10 times more likely to be homeless, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that studies mass incarceration.
Maurice Washington said former inmates who are challenged by a substance use disorder are still likely to struggle even if they do find shelter or a bed in the places where their troubles started.
Washington, 35, said he served a three-year prison sentence before moving into an old friend’s home. He said he had plans to start his own business, publish a book he wrote and get his life straight. But he quickly fell back into using drugs. He was arrested again and went back to jail.
Realizing that he needed to focus on his substance use disorder, he entered a program while in Henrico Jail East in New Kent County. After he was released on bond, he moved into one of REAL LIFE’s homes.
“That was everything for me, just being in an environment where I’m not surrounded by negativity,” he said. “Having a support system is everything.”
David Rook, president of the Virginia Association of Recovery Residences, said there are about 50 certified recovery homes and apartment units in Richmond. The Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, which offers both outpatient and inpatient services, also operates a residential substance use disorder treatment center that can serve up to 182 people.
While RBHA is able to provide acute care and some outpatient services, community recovery organizations like REAL LIFE say they are better positioned to set up support groups and provide long-term support after patients are discharged.
But Rook and officials from RBHA said in interviews that the pandemic has strained their ability to meet the need in the community.
“Work is drying up, housing is limited and recovery meetings are hard to get to,” Rook said of how the pandemic is impacting their ability to serve clients. “It’s hard to build a community ... when all of this is going on. ... It’s continuing to be a struggle.”
REAL LIFE recently opened its new recovery homes with the support of private donations and grants from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services, in partnership with the recovery residences association.
Those entering REAL LIFE’s housing program can move in without paying any upfront charges or fees, Scarbrough said. After two or more weeks, once a client has been able to get back on their feet, it costs $540 each month. She has no immediate plans to open additional recovery homes.
Legislation recently approved by both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly would create a new state authority to manage money from settlements of state lawsuits against opioid drug makers. The authority could direct funding to organizations like REAL LIFE, but Scarbrough and other operators worry that most of the funds will be guided to government agencies.
Scarbrough, a former program director at the Richmond City Jail, founded REAL LIFE in 2016 to help men and women leaving incarceration. The nonprofit built upon a recovery program she created to support people in the jail with substance use disorder.
She specifically aimed to help those leaving by providing practical support, helping them with job interviews, housing applications and transportation by public transit. A year after founding the nonprofit, she opened a recovery house and a center downtown that provides outpatient services.
Melissa Trinidad, 39, is the manager of the house that opened on Fourth Avenue last week.
She said she’s been clean since going to jail nearly two years ago. After her release, she moved into a REAL LIFE house and graduated from the program in December. With support, she’s overcome a felony record and secured a job handling roadside emergency calls for long-haul truck drivers, working from home. She said her company also provides a 401(k), giving her a greater sense of long-term economic security.
“That was the big difference, to be able to build that foundation and get that knowledge about recovery and staying clean and get all the tools and resources and to know people who have my back,” she said of entering the program while in jail and having a place to go after she left.
Through it all, she’s found purpose, improving her relationship with her three teenage children.
She knows the damage a broken relationship with a parent can have. It was eight years ago, when her estranged mother died unexpectedly, that Trinidad’s struggle with addiction began.