Hooked and Homeless: Addiction typically leads to a life on the streets, but a new housing policy may help change that | MyWindsorNow.com

Hooked and Homeless: Addiction typically leads to a life on the streets, but a new housing policy may help change that

Trevor Reid
treid@greeleytribune.com

Standing in front of his own reflection, Thom Munholland knows things are better. But he can still see a glimpse of who he was seven years ago.

When he sees that person, it can be difficult for him. He remembers what he did to feed his addiction.

Now a peer specialist at North Range Behavioral Health, Munholland said he struggled with his self-worth as far back as middle school.

"Being gay in high school was hard," Munholland said. "It was horrible. I was bullied."

Munholland was beat down by the persecution he faced. He wanted to be like somebody else, to fit in a group.

So at the age of 21, Munholland packed up his life and moved to San Francisco. He was a gay man, and the city seemed to be a good fit, a mecca, even, for people like him because it was San Francisco, a place that seemed to cater to gay men. But even there, he didn't fit in. He was a resident of the northern Colorado area, growing up in Fort Collins and rural Wellington. San Francisco, as welcoming as it was for people like him, was a big change. He had a love for his horses and the country. He was not a city boy.

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As San Francisco failed him as a way to escape, he turned to drugs as a way to both fit in and get away.

Eventually, his addiction left him homeless, once his parents kicked him out after years of broken promises and stealing. It happens frequently to those on drugs: They eventually lose everything, and those who take them in lose their patience.

Experts here say only a small portion of the local homeless population battles a drug addiction, but for many, that problem led them to live on the streets.

Hooked

Munholland, 37, tried cocaine before, but it didn't really hook him. He didn't crave it or go searching for it. It wasn't until a trip to New Mexico with a boyfriend that Munholland tried methamphetamines.

"The minute — just like the instant I did it — I knew that I was hooked," he said.

From that moment on, for nearly the next decade, Munholland craved meth. He began to use it regularly on the weekends, but it wasn't long before those weekends spilled over into weekdays.

"And then it wasn't long until I was using every day," Munholland said.

Three years later, Munholland split up with his boyfriend. He hoped he could leave his addiction and return to his parents in Colorado. But the addiction followed him home.

He was out of control upon his return, he said. He stole from everybody to get another fix. Valuables, money, even jars of change weren't safe. He knew stealing was wrong on some level, but at the time a large part of him just didn't care. He needed the meth to function.

His parents didn't want to accept that their son had an addiction. Eventually, his parents kicked him out, and he spent the next three years going back every now and then just when he thought he could steal something. Finally, his mom told him he wasn't welcome anymore.

"My mom did what she had to do to keep herself and the rest of my family safe," he said.

With nowhere else to go, he went to the streets.

Even without shelter or a steady source of food, addiction was the last thing Munholland worried about. Meth didn't feel like so much a problem as it did a necessity for a relatively normal day.

Housing

In Weld County, only a small portion of the homeless population battles drug addiction, experts say. Some homeless people might turn to drugs as an escape from the stresses of homelessness. Colorado isn't much different: 13.4 percent of the state's homeless population reported chronic substance abuse. But that chronic abuse does seem to make it difficult for them to find housing: 41 percent of the state's 1,400 homeless who do battle addiction can't even find as much as a temporary shelter to live in.

Most treatment models focus on addiction. But stable housing greatly reduces the likelihood of relapse, experts say.

Consuelo Villavilla, a coordinator for North Range's community treatment team, said people need basics like food, water and shelter before they can worry about something like beating their addiction.

Villavilla said it's nearly impossible to tell how often homelessness leads people to chronic substance abuse as opposed to how often addiction leads people to the streets. Though it isn't common in Weld County — only about 13 percent of Colorado's homeless population reported chronic substance abuse issues — the two are deeply intertwined.

Cassy Westmoreland, coordinator for the Weld's Way Home initiative, said traditional housing programs can be draining for someone experiencing homelessness. They might have to prove a stable income, make appointments or maintain sobriety. For someone who can't think past getting the next hit, those can seem like impossible demands. That's why most housing programs across the nation are making a transition to Housing First policies, Westmoreland explained. Housing First aims to connect homeless people with permanent housing without the usual preconditions of traditional shelters, like passing a drug test.

"The realization is once you have that stability of a safe place to be — once you can start to heal from the trauma of some of the things that you experienced during homelessness or what caused your homelessness — that's when people are allowed to really begin that healing process," she said.

That doesn't mean staff don't try to help: Staff at the shelter work to get treatment for those with addictions, but they don't force them to get treatment. Staff try to connect them with treatment by confronting them gently about their addictions and their need to change, but the staff also allow the homeless to stay even if they initially refuse treatment.

Traditional housing programs have a national average retention rate of about 47 percent, meaning more than half of those who go through housing programs are out on the streets again within two years. Westmoreland said Housing First programs see more success, with a national average retention rate of about 88 percent.

The programs aren't only successful, but they're cost-effective too. Westmoreland explained the program saves costs that people don't usually associate with having a homeless population.

"We pay for the police who come through and do check-ups. We pay for the ambulances that take them to the hospital. We pay for those emergency room bills that they can't pay," she said.

In Greeley, no shelters have implemented Housing First policies to date. Westmoreland said local shelters do a phenomenal job, but the area lacks the necessary infrastructure for Housing First implementation. Weld's Way Home plans to lay that foundation by using Housing First policies for its cold weather shelter this winter. Westmoreland said organizers are still looking for a location for the shelter.

Constant struggle 

Munholland thought the pavement would be his home until he died. He slept in parks and under bridges.

And he did whatever he had to do to get meth.

"Sex was my primary way of getting what I wanted. No matter what it was, that's what I would do to get what I wanted or what I needed," Munholland said.

He never tried going to a shelter. He had clothes on his back and what he needed to get high in his back pocket: he lived in a fantasy where he wasn't homeless.

When he'd ask others for food, people would turn away. It seemed like nobody wanted to help. People saw him as a "typical addict."

"People didn't want to be associated with that, even if it was to give words of encouragement, give me a hamburger or whatever," he said.

People were happy to use him for drugs, for sex or as a scapegoat, he said, but friendships seemed out of the question. Even other homeless people would see him as competition above all else. Resources are limited on the streets, so the competition can be brutal.

"It's a constant struggle of where do I go, what do I do, because I don't have anybody or anything, and nobody wants me," he said.

Unfortunately for Munholland, neither housing nor treatment seemed like real options until he woke up in an emergency room one day. He remembers doctors everywhere, monitors and IVs. He couldn't talk, and his motor skills were gone.

Munholland was diagnosed with HIV in 2005, after returning to Colorado from San Francisco. When he went on the streets, he stopped taking his HIV medications.

"Having to stop to go to the doctor, and to go to the pharmacy and to take your medications, it took too much time. And I just wanted to be high," he said.

Once he was in the emergency room, doctors told his family to expect him to die. During his stay one early Wednesday morning, Munholland looked down at himself, a motionless bag of bones at St. Joseph's Hospital in downtown Denver.

"What are you doing? No wonder nobody cares; you don't care," he remembers thinking.

Then he felt something: a presence and a sense of peace.

"There was something else with me," he said. "I don't know what other being was there with me. … But it was something, and it was real."

That's when Munholland decided didn't want to die: He decided he wanted to get treatment. His family packed him up and took him to SummitStone in Fort Collins, where he got clean on March 26, 2010.

Finally getting treatment for his addiction, Munholland moved back in with his parents. About three months into treatment, he met a woman who asked him how he planned to stay clean without a job. When the woman offered him a job on her ranch, he realized it would help him get his life back on track.

Peer program

About two or three years later, he heard about North Range's peer program. Peer specialists in the program work with people recovering from addiction to provide support as someone who also struggled with addiction: Two years ago he took the training to become a peer specialist at North Range.

Today, things aren't easier, but they're better. Munholland has tools to get through life. He still has cravings, but he knows how to deal with them. He helps take care of his dad, who almost died from cancer about a year-and-a-half after Munholland got clean.

"I believe we all have a purpose," he said. "There was a reason that I got clean."

Munholland graduated from Front Range Community College in December, and he plans to go to graduate school after graduating with a degree in psychology from the University of Northern Colorado.

He said the best thing anyone can do for people living on the streets is just to be nice. Say hello. Ask, "How are you?"

"I never got that," he said.

"Maybe that would have made a difference, maybe not. But it sure would have made me feel better in the moment."

Where to get help

Substance abuse treatment programs vary to meet the different needs of people battling addiction. Fortunately, Weld County offers many different treatment centers.

» Clear View Behavioral Health, 4770 Larimer Parkway in Johnstown. For more information, call (970) 615-9130.

» Creative Counseling Services, 3400 16th St., Building 3, Suite S. For more information, call (970) 378-8805.​

» North Range Behavioral Health, 928 12th St. in Greeley. For more information, call (970) 306-4365.

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