Volunteers of America’s detox center helps men and women get back on two feet

Story and slideshow by LAURA SCHMITZ

As Volunteers of America celebrates its 25th anniversary in Utah in 2011, the program that started it all is still going strong.

A national, nonprofit organization, VOA has a presence in 44 states and employs a range of paid staff, who work to tackle issues such as homelessness and drug addiction.

The Adult Detoxification Center, its first project in Salt Lake City, now offers 56 beds with three separate dorms to men and women purging their systems of alcohol and drugs.

About 20 to 25 staff are employed by the center, including case managers, front line recovery assistants and management. Utilizing a social model, the center promotes relational development and peer motivation to encourage clients to sobriety.

“Being able to build trust and relationship with people is huge,” said Sue Ativalo, director of the center, located at 252 West Brooklyn Ave. in Salt Lake City. “Relationships are a big piece to help them want to recover.”

Client admittance to the detox center is voluntary, and no matter how many times a client has returned, “we never want to show any judgment,” Ativalo said.

Clients follow a structured schedule each day while at the center. Between the 5:30 a.m. wake-up and lights out at 10 p.m., clients attend educational and spiritual meetings during the day and are required to attend detox meetings — such as Alcoholics Anonymous — at night.

Eighty-five to 90 percent of clients are homeless, and though ages have ranged from 18 to 77, the average clients are from their late 30s to late 40s. As of 2011, the center has had more than 15,000 night stays by Salt Lake County residents and serves about 1,600 individuals per year.

“Not very many people have sympathy for our population,” Ativalo said. “But, they are amazing individuals, and we appreciate volunteers that come.”

Clients must have “used” in the past 72 hours to be eligible for services, so the first step the staff takes is to remove those substances from their bodies. Most clients are taken off of all substances “cold turkey,” often causing symptoms of withdrawal, Ativalo said.

Drugs generally take just a few days to clear the system, but effects can last for weeks.

The center has basic medications to lessen pain from the process and often administers a cocktail that combines Tylenol, chamomile and anti-diarrheal components to ease symptoms. Depending on the specific substance, they can include irritability, tremors, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, muscle aches and sometimes hallucinations.

Since the center is not a treatment facility but a detox facility, the staff will refer clients to partnering organizations, such as the Fourth Street Clinic, when they demonstrate need for additional medical treatment. That medical facility is specifically dedicated to homeless patients.

The center can also refer clients to long-term treatment centers such as St. Mary’s, Odyssey House, First Step House, The Haven and Valley Mental Health.

“The difficulty is the waiting list for [those] programs is really high,” Ativalo said. “There is a huge group, but no transitional place while waiting for treatment.”

Ativalo said some clients will instead return to drugs on a low dosage to prevent symptoms of withdrawal.

“A lot of chronic users will use to stay well rather than to get high,” she said.

Once clients are physically detoxed, they are offered assistance from the center’s case managers, who oversee their progress and counsel them through goal setting and a sustainable, full recovery.

One client returns to VOA after visiting the center when it first opened its doors in 1986, coming back to the center after more than 20 years.

“Originally I was in and out of here for two weeks at a time for about six different times,” said client Scott Barker. “Then they put me on the HUD program. I was here for 103 days on that, and I am on it now.”

The Housing and Urban Development program is an initiative to place clients into permanent housing, and the detox center reserves six beds specifically for those enrolled in the program. HUD participants have more freedom than regular clients and can get passes to leave, have cell phones and acquire more personal belongings.

“I was kind of a revolving door before I got on HUD,” Barker said, saying that the six members of the HUD program help create a sense of community and accountability.

Homeless since 2009, Barker said drugs and alcohol, as well as lack of stability and problems with the law, led to his circumstances.

“[The program] is good stability,” Barker said. “Here, you get some structure going. You have enough freedom that you can set up your own plan and work from it, but enough structure that you’re not just out there, running wild. It’s a good way to focus on things you need to accomplish.”

Barker is currently working with vocational rehabilitation and hopes to go back to school, ultimately wishing to return to truck driving.

“For the most part, I’m pretty happy here, but I’m always looking towards the future,” he said.

It is common for clients, such as Barker, to return several times to the detox center before achieving sobriety.

“We see a lot of people who will come again and again,” said Emily Bennett, who works with VOA’s Jail Diversion Program. “A lot of people say relapse is a part of recovery.”

The JDP reserves 10 beds at the detox center for Salt Lake City Police, West Valley City Police, UTA Police and the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Department for individuals who are publicly intoxicated. The program serves as an alternative to jail time and is also cheaper for the county.

Bennett said jail is over-crowded, and “doesn’t address the problem.”

Some clients have received so many citations they are unable to afford that they have warrants for their arrest. For these cases and others, JDP staff will often send clients to Judge John Baxter of Utah’s third district court. Baxter founded and governs the Salt Lake City Justice Court Homeless Outreach Project, or the Homeless Court.

The court meets twice per month at the Bishop Weigand Homeless Day Center and is specifically for homeless defendants. Baxter handles infractions and misdemeanor cases only, often sentencing community service instead of fees.

“He’s a rock star,” Bennett said of Baxter. “He’s not what you’d expect from a judge. He has a lot of respect for the clients, calling them ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am.’”

Chris Allsop, 23, is another client who has returned to the center multiple times to regain his footing.

“This year alone I’ve been here more than 30 times,” Allsop said. “My average day out of detox is just back to smoking and drinking. So I always choose to come here, where I have no desire to use anymore.”

Allsop, who said he has taken “more drugs than he can count on his 10 fingers,” came to the center this time after taking a pain pill called Neurontin.

“That stuff is all chemicals – it’s all really bad,” Allsop said. “I’m about done with that stuff, because it makes my heart go too fast, and I don’t think before I start doing things when I’m on it.”

Allsop first came to the detox center after trying to get away from some members of his family.

“My uncle, he disowned me, so I came over here,” he said. “My family is mean to me — my cousin abused me.”

Falling into bad habits away from his family, he has now been ordered by the court to attend 130 AA meetings, which is a common nightly routine for clients.

“I really need to get a job, so I’m trying to clean up my act,” Allsop said. “I want to get to work – maybe part-time school.”

Allsop said the staff at the detox center has helped him to keep going.

“I specifically enjoy the staff and their participation in helping me,” he said. “If I start falling into only hanging out with the clients, they’re going to get me in trouble, and I’ll be back out there, using again.”

Barker also said the staff played a big role in his development.

“I know the staff quite well,” Barker said. “The staff is great here, they’ve helped me with a lot of things, and they’re easy to get along with, too.”

The detox center staff also works closely with other VOA programs in Salt Lake City, including the Homeless Youth Resource Center, Homeless Outreach Program and the Center for Women and Children.

“Collaboration is huge – we see a lot of the same clients,” director Ativalo said.

She said continued education and accurate awareness about the population is necessary to encourage the number of volunteers and to end the cycle of drug use.

Those interested in volunteering with the detox center or any of VOA’s programs must apply on its website. To donate, the detox center accepts financial contributions and in-kind donations. Current needs include towels, sweat pants, waterproof pillow covers, deodorant, current DVDs and men’s socks.