Back on Track founder Cole Izsak talks to current clients about plans to fight the city on its cancellation of his business licences and orders to vacate. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Days numbered for Surrey’s Back on Track recovery homes

As operator pledges to fight, clients predict loss will ‘send us back in our addiction’

After six months with just one “little slip” on his record, Kazumi Shimabukuro says homelessness and a return to addiction are likely in his future, following news the Surrey recovery facility he calls home has been ordered to shut down.

“It’s homeless and drugs and crime and shit,” Shimabukuro 28, said of living on the streets. “It’s something we’ve all done and was our norm.”

Shimabukuro said aside from his one slip-up since arriving at Back on Track – which didn’t happen at the facility itself, he stressed – he has otherwise thrived in the environment, including earning a ‘promotion’ to assistant manager of the house he calls home, running the complex’s ‘thrift’ area and returning to a decidedly healthier weight.

“Whenever I’m a few hours outside of home, I get thoughts of using,” he said. “I’m not really stable. We’re probably all going to go back in our addiction.”

The founder and operator of Back on Track, Cole Izsak, is reeling this week, after being told his business licences are being cancelled next month and he has until June 21 to cease operations at three of his six sites.

According to letters handed to Izsak Tuesday (June 11) by a City of Surrey bylaw official, he has slightly longer, until Aug. 15, to vacate two other units that are being shut down due to a lack of licensing.

Izsak, 57, told Peace Arch News he’d been warned verbally of the cancellations a couple weeks ago, but “didn’t want to ruffle any feathers” by going public with the strife during efforts to negotiate with city officials.

Following the written confirmations – which note “misconduct,” including failure to comply with city and provincial guidelines, and “illegal use” – Izsak said he is “in a really desperate state here,” as it means 50 clients, many in the early stages of recovery, are facing potential homelessness.

“Am I supposed to throw everybody out of here?”

Kim Marosevich, Surrey’s acting manager of public safety operations, confirmed the city has issued notice to vacate the properties.

She said the problem has been the operator’s inability to obtain the required provincial permits. Business licences for such operations are provided when provincial approval is achieved.

“The inability of the operator to secure that permit is what has triggered our move to ensure the operations cease,” Marosevhich said.

“There have been challenges with the locations meeting the requirements of the province for quite some time,” she noted, adding that the city was “provided notice” from the province that permits would not be issued based on inspections.

“We can no longer allow them to operate in contravention of the business licence bylaw,” she stated.

Marosevich said the homes also house 10 people, which is beyond the six allowed by the Assisted Living Registry for recovery houses.

Izsak, a South Surrey resident, contends the issue lies, in part, at least, in the timing of the regulations around municipal licensing and registration with the province’s Assisted Living Registry.

Enacted in 2017, many homes already operating – including some whose operations were questionable, he noted – were essentially grandfathered, he said, but his were not “because I was relatively new.”

The city also put a cap on the number of recovery homes that could be licensed within its boundaries, at 55.

And, as operations can’t get municipal licensing without provincial registration, and vice versa, “it’s a catch-22 and I’m caught right in the middle of this,” Izsak said.

Peace Arch News has asked the province for specific details regarding issues with Izsak’s ALR registration. Communications officials said Thursday they are “working to get you a response.”

“An Assisted Living Residence cannot operate without a registration or while in the registration process,” a followup email notes.

Izsak said he’s received no good reason for denial of his business licences. The sites are clean, well-monitored, have passed fire inspections and clients are taken care of, he said.

“I respect and I invite and I welcome the scrutiny,” Izsak said.

He added that in the years since Back on Track launched, no fatal overdoses have occurred at any of its premises.

Marosevich said that a recent death at a Surrey recovery home “illustrates why it’s so important for requirements to be met.”

“It illustrates the vulnerability of people who depend on their services. We want to ensure regulations the province sets out are met.”

PAN reported last month on a South Surrey mother’s calls for greater regulation and oversight of recovery homes following the December 2018 death of her son, Zachary Plett, at one located in north Surrey, just west of Queen Elizabeth Secondary.

READ MORE: Grieving mom says son who died in Surrey recovery house ‘would’ve been better off homeless’

Plett was found face-down on mouldy sheets at the city-licensed and provincially-registered recovery house on Dec. 15, 2018. His death had gone unnoticed for hours.

Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Shane Simpson – whose ministry provides per diem funding for registered homes – told PAN May 31 that Plett’s story “got my attention,” and that he’d be inquiring to determine what kind of review, if any, had been done.

As of Friday morning (June 14), ministry officials – including from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions – had not responded to PAN’s requests for an update.

Marosevich said if Izsak’s homes were to receive provincial approval the city would “of course” reverse its decision, assuming it hadn’t yet hit its cap of 55 recovery homes.

The city, she said, will work to connect tenants in the homes with social service providers to find appropriate supportive housing.

“In these cases we recognize we do need to provide some support and time to make sure the tenants are able to go on successfully,” she said.

“It’s in nobody’s interest to see people homeless and that’s not the objective of these operations ceasing operations. We want to ensure people have places to go. If there’s a requirement for us to provide an extended period of time, that can be discussed on a case-by-case basis.”

Like Shimabukuro, one-month Back on Track resident Dylan Rabideau is worried about being homeless and tempted to use again.

“It doesn’t take very long for somebody like myself to resort to that, when you have nothing,” he said.

Rabideau said drug use that started at an early age cost him jobs and friends and family, but that Back on Track has given him hope.

“It’s a really good place,” he said. “This is where recovery starts, (where) it started for me.”

Izsak said he is “all for” cracking down on unscrupulous operators, but that what’s happening to Back on Track is “an atrocity,” particularly in light of the ongoing fentanyl epidemic and housing crisis.

He’s not going to let Back on Track go down without a fight, he said, and is even considering suing the city should the shut-down go ahead, noting he’s borrowed tens of thousands of dollars over the years to improve it.

Tuesday, he told residents of plans to picket city hall and conduct a media blitz.

“I don’t think you can change the rules of the game in the middle of the game,” he said.

“I’m not going to just walk away. I’m going to fight.”

– files from Amy Reid

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Cole Izsak and Back on Track client Kazumi Shimabukuro sort through clothes at the facility’s ‘thrift’ – which Shimabukuro is in charge of managing – which is stocked with items useful to clients who arrive with little to no clothing. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Cole Izsak catches up with Cam Machuk. (Tracy Holmes photo)

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