SURREY â€” By the age of 10, Michelle Johnston had smoked her first joint and had her first drink.
She was in Grade 8 when she snorted her first line of cocaine. By her mid-teens, Johnston was into even harder drugs, having developed a heroin habit.
To her, it all seemed normal. After all, she had addicts for parents.
"My parents weren’t around, I didn’t have anyone telling me what to do, where to go, that I should be going to school," Johnston recalled. "I come from such a small town and I was so lost. Everyone else was using."
As she shared her story, she sat nervously on a couch in her home in Newton, where she was going through rehab, run by Revolution Recovery.
"My life became so unmanageable," she said, her arms hugging her legs tightly to her chest.
When Johnston was 12, her parents sent her from her hometown of Castlegar to Prince George to live with her aunt.
"They just really didn’t want to deal with me anymore because I’d gotten so bad into drugs. " She soon moved back to Castlegar on her own and that’s when things went from bad to worse.
"I met a guy. He worked on the pipelines, and I would travel with him, and he introduced me to heroin. And it escalated from there. It went so fast, I had no one to help. No one wanted to be around me. All I was doing was using."
She said she couldn’t live with herself.
"I never worked, I never did any of those things. The things I would do to get drugs," she said as her gaze fell to the floor. "I’d sell myself, I’d do anything."
There were times Johnston tried to end it all, and said on more than one occasion, she’s surprised she survived.
"There were close calls."
One day, a friend overdosed on heroin. That was the day she found Revolution Recovery. It would be her second time through a rehab program.
"I want to have a life for myself," she said. "Ever since I’ve been here, I feel a sense of home for once. I’ve never had that before."
It’s been three months since she arrived, and Johnston said she plans to stay until May.
She celebrated her 25th birthday there – the first birthday she actually remembers.
As Johnston started talking about the turning point in her story – coming to the Surrey recovery home – her body language changed. She let go of her legs. Sitting crosslegged, hands in her lap, she began to beam.
"Being here, they’ve taught me how to deal with obstacles that happen in my life. I just used to numb them," she said.
"My life has purpose now."
She never completed high school but she intends to get her GED at an adult learning centre and then go to school to be a dental assistant through Douglas College.
At the Newton recovery home, Johnston said she’s learned how to be responsible for herself, to respect people and has taken part in a variety of programming to help her through her recovery.
Johnston said if she hadn’t hopped on a bus from Edmonton to come to the Surrey recovery home, she’d be homeless.
"Or I’d be dead. It doesn’t take very long."
Johnston said she’s thankful to be in one of Revolution Recovery’s homes, adding the first one she was supposed to go to was "just a crack shack." There, she saw they didn’t provide programming or adequate food, and people were able to use openly in the house.
"It’s exciting to be able to think I can have a future and not just use every day."
Johnston’s story is just one of 10 in the Newton recovery home, and one of 39 in all of Revolution Recovery’s four homes in the city.
Olivier Moreau, executive director of the group, is a former addict himself. He said the keys to success are being respectful of the neighbourhood, having a zero tolerance drug policy, keeping people fed and creating structure.
"If you don’t give someone who’s in addiction some structure and something to do during the day, you can only imagine what that person is going to go through. There’s so much pain in that person that all they want to do is numb themselves. Here, we don’t do that. We make sure that they are getting what they need and that is a program. We have a curriculum," Moreau said.
But Surrey’s recovery homes are not all run this way. "I have heard some pretty bad horror stories. I picked up a guy once and he told me that their food intake was a loaf of bread and bologna. Once it’s gone, it’s gone," Moreau said.
"The mistake I see is people trying to pack people in houses, and all the sudden you neglect the fact that people need to eat, people are suffering… There are some really, really bad places and it’s confusing to me that they’re still standing."
Moreau said there’s become an "underground circuit" amongst addicts. They know which facilities will allow them to use and which won’t.
"For the people who are actually do the right thing, it gives us a bad name," he said.
Coun. Mike Starchuk said Revolution Recovery is "one of the good ones."
Starchuk, a former firefighter, said during his 10-year career in fire prevention, he saw roughly 120 "recovery" homes. He estimated 65 per cent of the existing operations are not registered and are essentially "flop houses." In fact, he said there is one just down the road from Revolution Recovery’s Newton operation.
"The one down the street, the first thing you see is the bin with the needles. And the smell of a skunk that never seems to go away."
With those operations comes petty crime and disturbances, Starchuk noted.
"There’s one in Fraser Heights… it’s a really closeknit neighbourhood, everybody’s walking their kids to school, and they’re watching the fights on the front steps, listening to the yelling, somebody’s walking around the neighbourhood asking to cut the lawns for $10 and where people keep the lawnmower. So now everybody has everything chained up. The family feel is gone."
Starchuk said when ministry staff visit a site to do an initial inspection, they won’t return to the building unless there’s a complaint.
"So the only person that comes back to that address is somebody from the fire department to look at the safety issues," he explained.
To give the city more authority, he would like to see business licensing introduced for recovery homes.
"Right now, the city requirement is that they conform to the fire regulations that have been created for the City of Surrey," he said. "If there was a business license component of that, and if there were people that would call into bylaws to complain about a business, then we would have the authority to say because we’ve had complaints, we’re now going to revoke your business license."
Starchuk said the last bad operation he inspected in Guildford had 19 beds, despite only being allowed 10.
"At that point, that’s when you start saying they’re there just to collect a cheque from the provincial government. Having said all that, the government needs to do just a little bit more. The city, by doing what they’re doing, they’re taking all the responsibility for what’s going on."
Currently, there are 40 Surrey recovery homes licensed through the ministry’s Assisted Living Registrar.
In addition to that, there are about 50 homes inspected by the city and the fire department, and 29 socalled "problem homes" under investigation, said bylaw enforcement manager Jas Rehal.
Primarily, the problem homes are in North Surrey. "These are the homes where people are just using recovery home as their window for their other business interests," Rehal said.
"There’s no recovery going on, people are left alone to fend for themselves, there’s a number of them in the house – 10, 12, 15 people."
These operations often yield community complaints about loitering and drugs, he noted.
Rehal said the city has some avenues to address problem recovery homes.
"How it works in the city, to have a home, our zoning bylaw permits them in a residential zone with a maximum of six individuals in care and four as caretakers," he explained. If properties are found to be in violation, Rehals said the city begins to "aggressively fine and go after the property owner."
Rehal agreed with Starchuk that business licensing would help.
"We need to add a bit of structure from the city’s end," he said, adding there will be discussions about that with the new council.
Dr. Caroline Ferris, who has worked on the front lines of drug addiction for five years at Keys Health and Housing Solutions, said many recovery homes are "exploiting the most vulnerable of our population."
She described the facilities as "fly by night, sketchy scam fests."
She said some operations take a person’s cheque and kick them out early in the month for a minor infraction.
"Then these people have no funds for the remainder of the month, because they signed over their cheque to these scumballs," she said, adding one facility is even nicknamed "cheque by cheque" on the street.
Ferris said some places require tenants to order three prescriptions from a specific pharmacy.
"The typical triad is a jailhouse favourite for abuse of prescription drugs," she said, referring to gabapentin, quetiapine and welldutrin.
"People grind these up and snort them," she said. "And number two, they insist on putting them on daily delivery, which is $8 per prescription per day. It’s a complete rip off to the system."
Ferris said addicts tend to be afraid to complain out of fear of losing their home, or worse.
"Let’s face it, a crappy flophouse is better than the sidewalk," she stated.
College of Pharmacists of BC spokesperson Mykle Ludvigsen said while the organization investigates all complaints he noted that in some cases, a patient’s testimony could be required.
"We do take (complaints) very, very seriously," he said but added, "we need to have evidence to move forward."
Dr. Mark Blinkhorn, chair of the Surrey-North Delta Division of Family Practice, has been licensed to prescribe methadone for roughly eight years. He does so out of a Whalley clinic separate from his family practice.
Through that time, he’s seen a number of residents in recovery homes – some run well, others not.
"I see that this is a group of patients… that are taken advantage of and are used as commodities by recovery homes, and in a certain way, some of the pharmacies," he said. "The suspicion is out there, and you hear it, that the pharmacy gives kick backs to these recovery houses. And these are recovery houses that aren’t licensed."
Blinkhorn said he’d like to see the city, the health authority and the province come together to get all the facilities licensed.
He’d also like to see the city give incentives, such as tax breaks, to recovery homes.
"To have the recovery house wanting to participate, be licensed and step it up, well (the city) could give them a break on their taxes… then the city doesn’t have to hire another police officer. The city has already saved money. It’s the whole concept of that broken windowpane. Let’s look at the windowpanes, then we don’t have all this other stuff we have to do.
"All these people, they’re broken windows."