LACONIA — The time-worn Victorian home on Union Avenue housed a law office, then Lakes Region Community Developers, before it was reborn in February 2020 as Compass House – a transitional haven for women recovering from addiction, several of whom came from rehabilitation programs in jail.
Now, less than a year later, the supportive housing program has graduated its first two residents to independent living – and its role may be more pressing than ever.
As homelessness and substance misuse continue to climb rise statewide, aggravated by the hardships of COVID-19, Compass House offers a beacon of hope on a mostly barren landscape for people who need recovery and mental health services and a safe and stable place to live.
For women coming out of residential treatment programs – or similar services in jail – with little or no income, credit, or credible work or rental history, it’s a stepping stone to independent life.
"It's a safe place place to be. These people don't have a safe place to go," including to shower, dress, write a resume or get ready for work, said Erica Gilbert, a recovery coach at Compass House. "The foundation of any recovery is stable housing." Compass House provides "a family, a group of cheerleaders in your corner. People who can guide you in the right direction as you figure things out on your own."
It’s also a rarity – a base that is consistent, welcoming and homey. A polished oak staircase leads to rooms upstairs, where handmade quilts cover beds and personal spaces are adorned with mementos, including photos of children who temporarily or permanently live away from their mothers. A bright new kitchen, a living area for watching movies, reading and relaxing, and a spacious wraparound porch accommodate eight residents who can stay for up to two years while holding jobs and paying rent until they are ready to make a go of it on their own.
Peer support from mentors who been through similar journeys – combined with outpatient counseling for mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and PTSD – help to anchor and refocus adult women who are trying to reclaim their lives. Current residents range in age from late teens through late 50s. They share chores, recovery setbacks and daily victories, as well as mundane complaints about who does what and who isn’t following curfew in a house they govern and operate themselves, with guidance. Two or three have come from jail.
It’s a structured oasis for low-income women battling issues on several fronts – who might otherwise return to living situations with drug users or dealers. As a three-way collaboration between Lakes Region Community Developers, Horizons Counseling Services in Gilford and Navigating Recovery in Laconia, it’s the first of its kind in the state – and potentially a cost-saving and efficient model for support and care.
'A model we should be looking at'
Compass House “is meeting a significant need and is a model we should be looking at and emulating across the state,” said Katja Fox, director of the Division of Behavioral Health at the NH Department of Health and Human Services. “We do not know how many how many housing units or supportive housing we need, but we know (what we have in New Hampshire) is not enough, due to the tight housing market” that has seen upward pressure on rents and house prices that has taken a toll on families.
The Compass House project is also a strategic weapon in the ongoing fight to prevent homelessness from occurring and recurring in sad and predictable rhythms for women who try to escape from unhealthy circumstances and complicated pasts.
“We wanted it to be a welcoming home for the women who live there – comfortable and inviting,” said Carmen Lorentz, director of Lakes Region Community Developers, which leases the building to Horizons, which manages the program and provides mental health and substance misuse counseling. “We did not have any sober housing for low-income women in this area.”
According to decades of national mental health and homelessness research, most people who are chronically homeless struggle with mental illness and drug or alcohol addictions – which in tandem require intensive individual and group support.
“Compass House is unique in that it brings together a partnership” between peer recovery coaches, outpatient counselors and an affordable housing developer. “We find that one entity can’t stand up these services alone,” said Fox, who is a member of the New Hampshire Council on Housing Stability, which was convened in November by Gov. Chris Sununu to examine ways to address homelessness and the affordable housing shortage.
In a report last month, the council recommended creating at least 40 units of permanent supportive housing statewide to help lower-income people in need of ongoing, targeted support, whether because of substance abuse or mental illness. The group advocates adding $5 million each year to the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, a revolving loan fund that is administered by New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority.
The Compass House building is owned by LRCD, and cost roughly $650,000 to renovate. NHHFA provided approximately $1 million for construction and other expenses, including a cushion of money to operate the property. Monthly costs, such as heat, electricity and internet, and property taxes, run about $2,600 a month, said Jaqui Abikoff, executive director of Horizons. Residents contribute 30 percent of their income, which varies, to rent and overhead, and the money from NHHFA covers any unpaid balance. During COVID, available jobs have been harder to find. Navigating Recovery furnishes one-on-one peer support, which has been shown to bolster recovery that can straddle life's challenges.
Women coming out of jail have priority for available spaces. "We focused on women because women are more vulnerable than men if you’re on the street and have no safe housing. Without minimizing the risks for men, women are more vulnerable to exploitation and harm,” Abikoff said.
She said it’s too early to predict the program’s long-term results, but early indicators are promising. Residents continue to receive outpatient services after they leave, and can return to Compass House as necessary.
The program “is formulated on the premise that integrated treatment is the most effective, because people aren’t their disorders,” Abikoff said. “You need to treat them in an integrated fashion” as individuals in order to nurture recovery.
The first resident to arrive last year is still living there, completing the first year of a stay that may last another 12 months. “We don’t measure success by how long you stay, but by what prompts your leaving” – which may include readiness for solo living and working, or a need to return to residential addiction treatment, said Abikoff. “We want people to come in and stabilize, so that when they leave us they’re in a better position to be self-sustaining.”
Strategic support for residents
A constant at Compass House is peer support, which is “a walking-talking symbol of hope,” said Daisy Pierce, director of Navigating Recovery. Recovery coaches have “lived-in experience and are often in long-term recovery themselves.” Peer-to-peer mentoring reduces recurrences and shortens relapse length, according to studies cited by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Having a relationship with a kindred spirit who’s been through it is critically important. "It’s someone who understands when you say, ‘I’ve had a recurrence and I need help,'” Pierce said. “The barriers have come down because of trust. They know the person has been where they are.”
Gilbert, the recovery coach who works for Navigating Recovery, helps residents look for jobs, apply for health insurance, sign up for food stamps and come up with a relapse prevention plan that includes tips and tricks for staying clean.
“We talk about what’s working and what isn’t,” said Gilbert. “Someone may say, ‘I went somewhere and there was an active user from my past.’ One solution is to call someone that’s supportive of your recovery, and weigh the risks of what certain circumstances might cause,” which may lead to avoiding those circumstances whenever possible.
Residents learn to tolerate uncomfortable or unfamiliar situations without resorting to self-medication. Coaches support them in new “pro-social activities,” such as asking someone to go for a cup of coffee before or after a meeting, walking the WOW Trail for fresh air, exercise and stress relief, or “asking someone in recovery for their phone number, and calling them,” Gilbert said. Newcomers in particular, she said, will say, “We don’t know how to fill our free time. How do we learn to live again?”
Being surrounded by housemates in similar straits is also therapeutic. “A lot of people don’t have a mom and dad who will talk to them anymore,” said Gilbert. Bridges have been burned with family and friends – who may be distant, judgmental or triggering.
A current and pressing need
According the NHHFA, NH DHHS, and local housing and mental health providers, there’s increasing demand for both permanent and transitional supportive housing that serves people with substance misuse disorders, mental illness or disabilities, people getting out of jail, or those who are homeless. Research has shown that stable housing is essential to fighting addiction in any enduring way, and to curtailing the revolving door of homelessness and incarceration that may result from substance addiction.
Between 2019 and 2020, before COVID, New Hampshire witnessed a jump in homelessness statewide, from 1,396 to 1,697 individuals living in cars, shelters, transitional housing or outdoors, according to the annual Point in Time count taken over a 24-hour period in January. This comes after a drop in 2016, and relatively even numbers or slight increases during the most of the last 10 years.
The PIT tallies are considered to represent only a fraction of the problem. Homeless people are often solitary, reclusive and migratory, and sometimes sleep on couches in homes of relatives and friends. That can make them difficult to find. According to last year’s PIT survey, 348 individuals were living unsheltered, up from 149 in 2019. The next count happens on January 27.
According to data collected by DHHS from homeless service providers, 4,230 individuals were documented as receiving homeless or transitional services last year, and 19% of those staying in state-subsidized shelters were children.
Compass House, as a program that serves women with mental illness and addiction problems, including a high percentage of mothers, has the indirect effect of reducing homelessness in children, and sobriety support can continue through Horizons Counseling and Navigating Recovery after the mothers leave.
A void to fill
Supportive housing projects are relatively few and far between, which leaves a void statewide. Some that have been financed with state and/or federal money administered through NHFFA include Family Willows-Manchester Recovery Housing in the Queen City, Bridge Street Recovery (which is under construction in Bennington), Sunrise Farm/Visions of Enfield for people with developmental disabilities, and Sunrise House in Laconia for seniors with special needs. Families in Transition has created successful supportive family housing in Wolfeboro and Manchester. Another round of funding will be offered in the next two months, according to NHHFA.
Prejudices toward people with mental illness and substance abuse and a criminal record can be an obstacle in getting communities to rally behind supportive housing, said Fox at DHHS.
But those preudices have lessened in recent years through community education and increased awareness. Fear and misunderstanding have been major driving forces behind NIMBY – the “Not in My Backyard” response of neighbors who might be skeptical or opposed to supportive housing near where they live.
“When efforts have been proposed, we educate people about the fact that these are individuals who are already living in your community. Affordable housing is the key to reducing homelessness,” Fox said.
The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com