The more time I spend with rescue mission recovery programs, the more I’ve become convinced that the most important “gift” we can give homeless addicts is community, a place to belong. Homelessness is a state of complete disaffiliation—being cut off from all meaningful and supportive human relationships. Successful mission residential programs actually provide a supportive “family” environment where homeless addicts can examine their lives and take the difficult initial steps toward a new, sober, and productive life.
There are two other important communities that program participants must become involved with so the process of change begun at the mission continues after they leave. The first is the Church, the Body of Christ, where program graduates experience fellowship with other believers and spiritual nurture.
The second is the recovering community where involvement with support groups for recovering addicts give them a place to continue personal growth through mutual sharing and encouragement with others who have overcome addiction.
Creating an Environment That Encourages Change
So, how is a supportive “family” atmosphere created in a mission? It takes a coordinated effort by mission staff members to ensure that a therapeutic or conducive environment is maintained in a residential facility. Attention to the following dynamics will greatly encourage a sense of order and help create an atmosphere that encourages change.
A. Drug Free – There must be immediate and serious consequences for any use of alcohol and drugs by program participants. The normal procedure is dismissal from the program for at least 30 days, often asking participants to return to the transient area of the mission. This rule helps to create an attitude of seriousness among all participants. If program people know they have “one drunk in the bank” they will surely use it.
B. Stable – Clearly communicated rules and policies maintained on a very consistent basis are the key to program stability. This involves clear expectations regarding which behaviors are rewarded, and which are censured. Favoritism and disunity among staff members regarding program policies seriously damages the sense of stability.
C. Segregated – People who are working on recovery and change must be separated from other homeless people who are not in the program. Separate eating times and sleeping areas creates a special “chemistry” among program participants. It allows them to experience a fellowship where they can encourage one another toward change and growth.
D. Emotionally Safe – A sure sign that a person is beginning the process of genuine recovery is the return of the emotional life. They begin feeling again, and much of what they feel is pain and grief. To continue to recover, they must feel supported and know that they are in an environment where they can safely and freely express the struggles they are experiencing.
E. Confidential – Personal information about clients must stay within the program and the staff members directly working with those involved in the program (the “treatment team”). This is essential to maintain the trust of program participants.
F. Real Listening – There is healing value in self-revelation. This is greatly encouraged when program participants discover that other people, especially staff members, are genuinely interested in their individual needs, hopes, and aspirations. In my opinion, if each participant cannot receive a one-on-one session with a staff member at least once a week, the program is seriously understaffed.
G. Respect – Program participants must be treated with dignity, despite how much denial they’ have or what sort of mess they have made of their lives. Homeless people are still God’s unique creations and deserving of the respect and the love and the honor that they have simply for that if nothing else.
H. Individualized Attention – We can only be of real help to people when we know what their real needs are. This begins with special efforts toward a formalized needs assessment. Then, using the information we’ve gathered, an individualized written plan for recovery can be developed. Establishing simple goals and objectives allows both staff and residents to see whether there is progress in the efforts toward change and growth. This also communicates to program participants that fact that they are truly important to the program staff.
I. Every Activity Has Therapeutic Value – Most missions depend on long-term program participants to do much of the work to maintain their operations. Still, we must avoid giving program participants the feeling that they are being used. They need to know they are not just free labor, but that even the work they do has a therapeutic rationale that is also helping them at the same time.
As you might imagine, none of these will be in place at your program by accident it is the responsibility of staff members and administrators to carefully watch over the therapeutic environment. Only by doing this can you create a place that motivates clients and promotes long-lasting change.