For 36 Years, Our House has Helped Thousands of Men to Overcome the Devastation of Alcohol and Drug Addiction

1 September 2020

He had his first drink at age nine. By the time he was 12, he was smoking pot. Eventually he moved to cocaine, as alcohol and drug addiction took control of his life.

“I was addicted mostly to booze and coke, but I’d use whatever was around,” he says. “With booze, I pretty much said yes to everything.”

Although he made several attempts to clean up over the years, each failure drove him deeper into despair. In the end, it cost John Plamondon his family, his friends, his 17-year career as a trucker and his sense of self-worth. He finally hit bottom in March, 2019.

“I had accepted the idea that I was going to die. I wasn’t talking to my family or my kids and didn’t have one person in my life,” he recalls. “Then I got word that my oldest son, who was 22, wanted to hurt himself. That changed my viewpoint. I was okay with me going. But it wasn’t okay for him to feel that way.”

Plamondon promptly went on a binge. But in his stupor, he managed to call 211 for help. “I didn’t feel the woman was helping me. I remember yelling at her and being upset. I was probably pretty belligerent,” he admits.

“But when I woke up the next day there were a couple of police officers and a social worker there. The 211 lady must have sent them. They saw how rough I was, and asked if I wanted help. I just broke down in tears. Finally, it was that moment when somebody put their hand out and gave me a hand.”

It was the first step in Plamondon’s long road to recovery. Next came a week-long stay at Edmonton Detox, followed by 19 days at the Henwood Treatment Centre. Finally, he spent more than a year at Our House Addiction Recovery Centre, a nonprofit, 30-room, 60-bed intensive treatment centre housed in a former motel west of Edmonton.

Now, nearly 18 months after that fateful 211 call, he is healthy and sober, working out at the gym, reconnecting with his children and siblings, and planning on returning to school. He credits the intensive one-year therapy program at Our House for giving him a second chance at life.

“I was at Our House for a total of 15 months – since I did some of the modules twice – and I left at the end of July. I feel like I’m in the best physical shape I’ve ever been in, as well as mentally, emotionally and spiritually,” he says.

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Plamondon is one of hundreds of addicted men who have graduated from Our House since it was founded as a small halfway house in 1984 by members of an inner city Anglican parish who were concerned about the soaring number of addicts and prostitutes in the area.

The church later purchased a 32-bed facility on 121 Avenue. It was sold in 2008 when Our House opened its doors in the former Alamo Motel, supported by a grant from Homeward Trust Edmonton. Despite tight budget constraints, several improvements to the buildings on the 3.5-acre property have occurred since.

Still, it’s not a fancy place, and the constant hum of traffic on nearby Stony Plain Road penetrates the walls. But there is a warm, friendly buzz in the busy kitchen and dining room, and the pooches who often visit Our House wander freely about, greeting visitors with a welcoming sniff.

Mark MacKenzie, a former building contractor, sales representative and Esso service station owner who has served as Executive Director of Our House for the past two years, is also a recovering addict of 35 years, he says, and he knows all too well what his clients are going through.

“The guys in this program have thrown grenades in their lives, and the people around them have had enough. When you submit yourself to a year-long program like this, it says a lot about your desperate need to really fix your life,” he says.

Roughly 30% of Our House’s clients are addicted to alcohol, the rest to a variety of illicit drugs.

“The three big ones are cocaine, opiates and methamphetamines. Meth is the biggest but opiates are big too. Meth is cheap, readily available and it’s viciously addictive,” says MacKenzie. “People coming off meth are often in a delusional state. They might appear Schizophrenic, hear voices and be unable to sit still. There’s a lot of mental illness that goes along with addictions.”

Although Our House can’t afford a staff Psychologist or consulting Psychiatrist, it does have considerable mental health expertise on its board of directors, including Dr. Andy Greenshaw, Associate Chair (Research) in the Department of Psychiatry; Scott Phillips, Assistant Chair (Administration); and Medical Director Dr. Daniel Ryan, a specialist in Addiction Medicine.

During their first 30 days in the program, clients are not allowed to leave the property alone. After that, they can apply for a one-night pass, and after six months, they’re allowed to seek part-time work. Drug or alcohol use is strictly verboten, unless it’s for medical reasons.

About 20% of all residents stay a full year. Of the remainder, 77% leave of their own accord before the full year is up, having successfully recovered. The remaining 23% are administratively discharged for violating Our House’s sobriety rules or for being disruptive. At any given time, 40 to 50 applicants are on the waiting list, hoping to get in.

Group therapy sessions are held each morning for two hours, starting at 9 a.m. The Our House curriculum covers 12 modules or programs, four of which are offered on a rotating basis each month. Discussions focus on such issues as anger management, co-dependency, conflict resolution and relapse prevention.

After the morning group sessions, clients have one-on-one counselling. They’re also required to attend regular Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings offsite.

“Our staff contingent now is around 17 people. That includes two program managers, four full-time counsellors and myself as the Executive Director,” says MacKenzie.

“We also have two administrative people – me and my administrative supervisor – as well as a part-time cook, evening relief workers and two other program support people. One of them – Sheila Farmer, who is 76 years old – provides a lot of assistance to Rebecca Bernard, our Program Manager. Rebecca has been with Our House for 12 years and is a fountain of knowledge. She also does counselling for us.”

Student counsellors from fields such as Social Work, Psychology, Addictions Treatment and Corrections also conduct regular placements at Our House.

Once clients are ready to transition back to the community, Janet Flexhaug, the Community Relations Coordinator, will help them find housing and employment opportunities, working closely with agencies like Alberta Works, Alberta Supports and trade unions like CLAC (Christian Labour Association of Canada).

What’s particularly impressive about Our House is that it manages to provide its extensive range of services on a shoestring budget. MacKenzie does many of the building upgrades himself, including installing the new flooring and walls in the renovated kitchen.

“Our operating budget is about $960,000 a year but our overall budget is around $1.3 million to $1.4 million. What we need is another $800,000 to $1 million a year to run this place on a proper budget. To make up the difference we apply for various grants, but that money is used for special one-off projects, not salaries,” he explains.

“It’s the day-to-day programming that is key. I’d like to be able to pay my counsellors and my second manager at levels more in line with industry standards. They’re the most incredible people I have ever had the privilege to work with. Their willingness to work hard, to take phone calls and texts from clients on their off time, and to put in so many volunteer hours without compensation is really inspirational.”

As MacKenzie sees it, the case for housing and supporting an addict at Our House – compared to the cost of holding them in jail if they’ve committed offences, or dealing with their issues on the street, where related police and hospital costs can be high – is a no-brainer.

“We get just $40 per bed per day, or $18,600 a year. In jail it would be $90,000 a year, and that’s just for the administrative and housing costs. If you’re living on the street and you don’t need many social services, you’re costing taxpayers $60,000 a year. But if you’re at high risk, all the police and hospital costs can add up to $120,000 a year. It’s not even close,” he says.

“We are a therapeutic community that is effective, but right now, now we are the least well-funded facility in Alberta. We are at the bottom of the list. So one of our key goals for the coming year is to increase our funding from the Alberta government for the work we do. We want more recognition in the field of addiction treatment that Our House is spectacular at what we do, period.”

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John Plamondon wouldn’t argue with that. After a morning workout at GoodLife Fitness in Sherwood Park, he recounts his own transformation, thanks to Our House, and his plans for the future.

“At the beginning I was pretty skeptical, but the more I started to participate and do the modules, the more I came out of my shell. Eventually I started mingling with everybody and I made a lot of great friendships. It’s weird how as much as I was against it all at the beginning, it just kind of changed my mindset, and I became a more outgoing, happy person,” he says.

“I’m now talking to my mom and dad and most of my sisters again, and my two sons are back in my life. I’m enrolled in some university preparation courses for the fall and winter of this year and after that I’m hoping to get into a Social Work program for the 2020-2021 school year.”