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Recovery, transition at the heart of the Butte SPIRIT Home
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Recovery, transition at the heart of the Butte SPIRIT Home

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Pain is what drives most people with drug or alcohol addictions to finally seek help.

Physical pain. Emotional pain. Pain from being locked up and other legal troubles. Pain from losing money or jobs or friends or families and in some cases, all of those.

There’s a saying in recovery circles that “it takes what it takes” to get dead serious about changing your life — saving your life — and it starts there, almost always driven by pain. It’s a crucial start, but only a start, to a journey that’s especially precarious in the beginning.

“People struggle to understand what recovery looks like,” said Demetrius Fassas, who has been living recovery many years now. “You expect to go through a 28-day program and be healed. But treatment isn’t a one-and-done thing. It means changing your whole life.”

That’s the premise behind the SPIRIT Home, Butte’s first licensed transition home for men overcoming additions to alcohol or drugs.

With significant grants from numerous foundations and more than $220,000 in private donations, the nonprofit SPIRIT Center founded by Fassas and Sean Wisner bought and renovated a house on West Galena Street and recently started their program.

The goal is proving a living environment where people can find stability and peer support as they work and continue their transition to sober, independent living.

SPIRIT stands for Silver Bow Persons Invested in Recovery and Inner Transformation, and that’s what the home and program are about. Transitional housing helps lengthen a supportive environment for people to succeed in recovery.

Up to seven men can be residents at one time, but to be accepted they must have 30 days of continuous sobriety, demonstrate a strong commitment to recovery and meet placement criteria established by the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Each man is assigned a licensed addictions counselor through a nearby partner, the SMART program, and they’re required to attend at least six hours of recovery-related programming per week.

They have to obtain employment within four weeks of admission and if not working, must be actively seeking a job, be involved in school or some type of training or doing voluntary work in the community.

The typical program runs three to six months but can last as long as nine, with monthly rent and fees set at $450 and financial assistance available to cover the first month.

The home provides all the basics — “everything from bills to bedding, from dishes to toilet paper” — and during the first month, residents are offered a plan providing three cafeteria-style meals each day at an offsite location. Outside of that, residents are expected to provide their own food, clothing and toiletries.

There is a nightly curfew and residents have assigned chores. All of those emphasize responsibility and accountability — things often missing or lacking in the throes of active substance use disorders.

But there’s much more to the SPIRIT Home, all built around a positive environment free from drugs and alcohol. There’s an assistant residence manager, Jim Callahan, who lives in the home and a residence manager, Joe Acebedo, who spends much of his time there, too.

They know what recovery is about because they live it, and they provide fellowship and support as residents strive to become self-sustaining.

The house is spacious and neat and orderly but also comfortable and warm, with wooden floors and tables throughout and stained-wood walls and paneling in the dining and living rooms that soak them with a modern, rustic coziness.

There are big couches and love seats and recliners in the living room and a downstairs den and spacious bedrooms. And there’s Moses, Callahan’s friendly, laid-back dog, who likes him and everyone else.

True to its title, it is a home.

THE PATH HERE

It wasn’t the first home chosen.

After months of conversations and research and networking, a seven-member board of directors was established in January 2019 with a broad base of experience and community affiliations with recovery, transitional living, addictions counseling, non-profit administration and other areas.

They started forming partnerships with other related service providers in town, including the Butte Rescue Mission, CCCS, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and the Montana Chemical Dependency Center in Butte.

They received a $15,000 grant from the Montana Health Care Foundation in June 2019 and have since received $15,000 grants from the Dennis & Phyllis Washington Foundation and Gianforte Family Foundation. The money has been used to seek state endorsements, develop revenue and business plans, hire a residential manager and pay for home improvements.

Along the way, in August 2019, they hit a snag. They entered into a buy-sell agreement on a seven-bedroom house on West Platinum Street that sparked opposition and backlash from residents in the area.

They said the house would attract a steady flow of strangers with addictions, put their kids at risk, lower property values and become an unkempt eyesore. One said there was probably a strong correlation between drugs and alcohol and child molestation.

SPIRIT backers quickly withdrew their offer on the house, acknowledging they didn’t do a good job of informing neighbors about their plans and how the home would be operated.

But area residents had taken their case to city-county commissioners, and for nearly a year, they debated an ordinance that would require such homes to get conditional-use zoning permits to locate in any residential areas. It would apply to other group homes and foster homes, too.

County officials said permits could not lawfully be denied in the end because of state and federal discrimination and housing protections and they warned that such a local law would lead to lawsuits. The council narrowly voted last August to kill the proposal.

But the SPIRIT organization had already moved on, looking for other locations, interviewing for a residence manager, hiring Fassas as executive director, and last June, purchasing the home on West Galena Street.

They approached that differently this time.

“We did our best to reach out proactively to neighbors, going door to door and talking with anyone who would listen and leaving pamphlets and contact info with the rest,” said Wisner. “A couple of them were skeptical, but generally the reception was welcoming.

“We got to work right away on fixing up the exterior of the home, both to move towards our vision of having a home residents take pride in and to show neighbors we intend to make a positive impact on the neighborhood,” he said.

THE NEED

The need for such a home, they say, is great.

An extensive report in 2017 not only identified drug and alcohol use as a pressing health issue in Butte-Silver Bow County, numerous health care providers and community leaders said there was a lack of counseling, support groups and treatment options to address it.

Key informants in the 2017 Butte-Silver Bow Community Health Needs Assessment didn’t just characterize substance abuse as a major concern, they “later ranked it as the No. 1 health problem,” according to Karen Sullivan, the county’s health director.

Mental health was ranked as the most pressing concern in the latest needs assessment, issued last August, but substance use remained a top issue and in many cases, the two are intertwined.

Support for the SPIRIT Home has been substantial. It has also received grants from the Western Service Area Authority and the Anaconda Community Foundation, $2,900 from Butte businesses and more than $220,000 from board members and other private donors.

Catherine Koenen, executive director of the Gianforte Family Foundation, said the foundation’s primary goal is to “help Montanans, especially those who are vulnerable, thrive.”

“When it comes to the substance abuse crisis in Montana, evidence has shown that long-term support systems like the Butte SPIRIT Center are highly effective at equipping people to put, and keep, their lives and families back together — lives and families that were dismantled because of struggles with addiction,” she said.

ONWARD AND UPWARD

The SPIRIT Home began accepting applications and referrals for residents last October and since December, three have been accepted — one currently at the house and two who probably left before they were ready, Fassas said.

“People can be pretty sure they’re recovered and ready to go,” he said.

Callahan moved from Racine, Wisconsin, to Butte just after Thanksgiving to become the home's assistant manager. Acebedo lives and works in Butte and as resident manager, spends a lot of time at the house.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services has given the home a provisional license and is still reviewing documentation before issuing a full license. They’ve given positive feedback, Fassas said, but there are differences between the SPIRIT Home and other licensed transition homes providing the same level of services.

“Most of them started out as treatment centers and then opened up homes,” he said. “But this one is peer-driven. It’s driven by people in recovery. We don’t have any intentions of being a treatment center. We’re a sober, transitional-living provider.”

The selection and admissions process is extensive and if a committee is satisfied with a written application, it sets up an interview, usually by phone. They want people motivated to succeed, for the right reasons, and that’s hard to determine from paper alone.

“We want to hear from them,” Acebedo said.

Once admitted, residents can get help with food assistance, setting up first doctor’s appointments, finding a job, and anything else they need to get settled and build a stronger foundation for recovery and eventually, independent living.

A cornerstone to everything is honesty. No more deception. No more blaming others for your problems. No more denial about your addiction and severity of it.

Before recovery, Callahan says, “You are wired to lie.”

“It’s a hard course to break,” he said, but doing so is essential, and the Spirit Home helps one do that."

Wisner said he is forever grateful to everyone who donated, volunteered, wrote a letter of support or dropped them an encouraging word.

“The home is now open thanks to everyone who helped, and we hope many lives will be touched by your kindness,” he said.

For more information on the SPIRIT Home, you can go to its website at https://buttespirit.org/ or call 406-640-8069.

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