A Surrey man says a change in how recovery homes get the green light is needlessly creating more red tape, while some say it’s necessary to weed out shady operators.
SURREY — A Surrey recovery home operator is fed up after waiting nearly a year for the city to approve – or deny – his new site.
It’s been eight months and counting.
Cole Izsak said there’s been so many “flop” recovery houses in Surrey that he can appreciate city officials cracking down on facilities that are becoming a nuisance in neighbourhoods.
“But they’re painting me with the same brush as the other ones,” he said. “My houses, I’ve been in business for five years.”
Izsak is operator of Back on Track Recovery, which runs a provincially registered recovery home in Surrey at 8067 147th St. with seven private-pay units. This is one of 50 Surrey operations registered through B.C.’s Assisted Living Registry.
But Izsak said he ran into trouble after having to relocate two of his other registered facilities because the houses he rented were sold.
“I completed my (provincial) application, paid the fees, then about a month later they sent me a thing saying there’s a new procedure from the city that you have to register with the city,” he said.
It’s been eight months and the city hasn’t been out to visit once, said a frustrated Izsak.
“I wasn’t too persistent over the last seven months up until about a month ago when I completed all my electrical work and fire regulation stuff. That cost about $10,000.
“We’ve been here for nearly a year without one issue or complaint,” he added. “My hope is that the good work and value of this place be recognized and the red tape be put aside.”
Click here to see more about Back on Track Recovery.
Izsak said his “Fourtress,” as he calls it, is the perfect location for a recovery home.
“I have four of our houses all together, they’re not in a neighbourhood, they’re close for convenience purposes to SkyTrain and Phoenix Centre and to the malls,” as well as hospitals and parks,” he said.
Izsak added that the “mini recovery community” has 20 bedrooms, 16 bathrooms, four rooftop balconies, four patios and a gym.
“You’d think that the city would recognize the benefit in having this in a place where neighbours are not close, where it isn’t in a neighbourhood/residential setting,” Izsak added.
Since he has one operation currently running and registered through the province, Izsak said he’s scratching his head as to why he’s being held back in light of the drug overdose epidemic.
In late November, B.C. recorded the highest number of overdose-related emergency calls in a single week in its history.
Total overdose deaths reported by the B.C. Coroners Service now stands at 622 for the year up to the end of October, up markedly from the 397 deaths in the same 10 months of 2015.
The top cities where deaths have occurred so far this year are Vancouver (124) and Surrey (76).
“It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better,” said Izsak, a former meth addict.
“I don’t mean to toot my own horn here but I am saving lives. That’s what I’m passionate about, I’ve been clean for five years, I have a baby, I have a family, I’m doing very well. I’m very passionate about my work. I’m not in it for money, I spend a lot of money on my facilities. I borrow money every couple months from my parents just to keep this going.”
Izsak says he pays $12,000 a month to rent the four homes, which are located on a property near Green Timbers Urban Forest. It’s home to 40 people in recovery, 24 of whom are fentanyl or opiate addicts, he said.
“That’s $3,000 per house,” said Izsak. “They’re really beautiful houses. If you break it down, I pay $8,000 a month in food and supplies, I have a little bit of a staff, so if you break it all down you can see I’m barely breaking even.”
Izsak said his motivation is to become legitimate at this site and operate within the guidelines of the law, but also to get approval because that means he will receive more than $900 a month for each client instead of $550 that he receives right now.
“I’m making virtually nothing right now, some months if we have bed bugs or a washer and dryer that break down then I have to get in touch with my parents and ask for money,” he said.
Izsak doesn’t want the delay to mean he has to close his doors.
“What was I supposed to do? Kick these guys to the streets?”
Surrey’s bylaw boss Jas Rehal told the Now the city is still reviewing Izsak’s application.
“We have not made it to the point in the application in which a site visit is required,” said Rehal. “We are still working through that.”
Rehal said the city has turned the page on bad recovery homes, noting that since February 2014, 128 recovery homes have been shut down. The city is now careful in doing “due diligence to make sure proper procedures are in place,” he added.
The change in the process occurred in August 2014.
“All applicants are (now) being screened by the city and then a letter of support is sent to the ALR,” explained Rehal.
“We look at the history of the property and the owner of the property and the individual running the recovery home. We want to get a sense of any issues in the past. We ask that the owner of the property advise us in writing that they are aware that their property is going to have a recovery home running out of it.
“Once we do our screening,” he added, “the fire department has to do an inspection.”
Rehal said in Izsak’s case, part of the delay is that the fire department has not yet done its inspection.
But Izsak can’t see why it’s taking so long.
“My application with the ALR is essentially on hold and has been for seven or eights months,” Izsak lamented.
Some Surrey operators have been through the new process.
Devin McGuire, executive director of Revolution Recovery, has. His organization has registered operations in Surrey helping a couple dozen clients.
“The process, for me, was a struggle… It was a pain in the ass and it was frustrating,” said McGuire. “I was renting a house for five months while it sat vacant. I wish they could have sped up their process, obviously, because paying rent on empty houses is difficult. That being said, I’m very supportive of the ALR and the city, they have their roles.”
To get the vacant house he was renting registered, he had to install interconnected smoke alarms, back-up lighting, fire extinguishers and have a floor plan.
McGuire said the biggest hurdle, though, was that he was told by the fire department that he would have to install a sprinkler system.
“That would’ve been about $20,000,” he said, “and that’s for a home that I don’t own.”
But, he managed to get that requirement waived, and finally his home was approved by the city.
McGuire has since opened another house and said the city made it easy for him because he didn’t “bend any rules” the first time around.
Though cumbersome, McGuire said he believes the rules are necessary.
“It shouldn’t be easy,” he said. “The bottom line is this is a business. We’re helping people but it’s a business. We should have to follow the rules like anyone else.”
McGuire knows Izsak and said while he may not agree with all of his methods, “it would be doing more harm for the people on the streets if he wasn’t open.
“He cares about people,” McGuire added. “So in the end, if he’s getting 40 guys off the streets that are OD-ing, then why shouldn’t he be running?”
While the city reports shutting down more than 100 recovery homes, McGuire said “it’s insane if this is getting better.”
He recalled picking a man up from a flop house parading itself as a recovery home who had only eaten bread and relish for a week.
“We pick up guys from horrible, horrible places,” he said.
“It’s basically street-level treatment. They’re getting paid $30 a day to have this guy, like I am. There are tons of horrible places still. It’s hard to imagine it worse than it is now.”
Surrey Councillor Mike Starchuk is a former firefighter. During his 10-year career in fire prevention, he saw roughly 120 “recovery” homes and estimated 65 per cent of those weren’t registered and were essentially “flop houses.”
Starchuk said he understands Izsak’s frustrations, as well as the bylaw department’s.
“But the city has their policies, their guidelines, their regulations that falls within the Assisted Living Registry,” Starchuk added. “It is difficult when you move, but the rules are the rules and they’re put in place for a very good reason. The regulations and policies and procedures are there to look out for the client.”
In Izsak’s case, Starchuk said there are questions about whether 40 people in recovery in one place will be allowed, noting the typical limit is 10.
Whether that limit is per house, or per property, seems to be a grey area, he added.
But it’s not unheard of. Newton’s John Volken Academy has 53 private-pay recovery units between three houses in one city block along King George Boulevard at about 69th Avenue, all approved by the province.
“Cole and Devin and the other people that are out there, they’re providing places and programming and treatment to help people on the road to recovery,” said Starchuk.
“We just need to make sure that we’re providing them with the knowledge so that on any given day when you go in that building that it’s the safest thing you can imagine.”