Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Strained sobriety

Compassion | Social distancing and isolation put added pressure on people in recovery
by Charissa Koh
Posted 4/08/20, 04:51 pm

Craig Murray, a recovering drug and alcohol addict in Austin, Texas, relapsed once before. While dealing with the stress of multiple jobs, a new marriage, and his wife’s miscarriage, he stopped going to Alcoholics Anonymous and checking in with his sponsor.

“I was isolated, and instead of reaching out, I started drinking again,” said Murray, who leads a Celebrate Recovery group at Austin Oaks Church. The COVID-19 pandemic poses a double threat to people in drug and alcohol recovery: They could get sick from the disease, but they could also relapse into addiction because of the isolation the pandemic has created.

The Providence Network housing and recovery program in Denver serves 200 people a year. Each of the six homes in the network houses about 20 people. When the city ordered residents to shelter in place, the program’s staff canceled house meetings, began using FaceTime or Zoom for one-on-one counseling, and split the family-style dinners into two separate meals, one at 5:30 p.m. and another at 6:30 p.m.

Staff member Rachel Hambley said she has seen increasing depression and anxiety in the home where she serves since the order took effect: “One of my ladies today was talking about how her visits with her kids are now virtual, and it seems like everything she has worked for is pointless.”

Providence Network co-director Jennifer Sheedy said morale is falling among those who were gaining momentum in their recovery: “Now everything has crumbled for them—isolation and unemployment have replaced connection and career-building.” The behaviors the government is encouraging—staying home, minimizing contact with others—usually signal relapse to the staff.

The pandemic also puts the additional stress of diminishing funding on the programs that serve people in recovery. Private donations and resident fees pay for Providence Network, which receives no government grants. Donations are holding steady for the most part, but most of the residents have lost their jobs, taking away about 30 percent of the organization’s revenue. Executive Director Derek Kuykendall said the organization decided not to evict anyone, but nothing has filled that hole in the budget.

Adult and Teen Challenge USA, a nationwide Christian-focused addiction recovery group, had four staff members and three participants test positive for COVID-19 by March 31—all with mild symptoms. Gary Blackard, the organization’s president and CEO, said donations have not dropped significantly, but canceled fundraising events will leave the group down an estimated $9.5 million in revenue if pandemic protocols continue through May. He hopes the federal stimulus package will offset some of that loss through forgivable loans and increased tax advantages for charitable giving.

Despite the challenges, Blackard said the coronavirus has brought about positive changes, too: “We’re seeing a spiritual growth in a lot of our centers right now as people are really leaning on the Lord.”

Kuykendall agreed: “In a weird way, this has really bred some opportunities for conversations that under different circumstances we would not be able to have” about things like life, death, and eternity.

When Austin Oaks Church temporarily closed down, the Celebrate Recovery leaders decided to continue meeting through the videoconferencing app Zoom. The first meeting was on March 16. Fifty participants clicked a link to hear worship music and a lesson. They then joined nine different Zoom groups to discuss the lesson and share prayer requests. Some previously active members came back now that they have time on their hands. But, Craig Murray said, “it’s always better in person. Everything else is just a substitute.”

Associated Press/Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center Associated Press/Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center A juvenile detention center in Staunton, Va.

Young but not invulnerable

States are beginning to report COVID-19 infections in juvenile detention centers. The nation’s tens of thousands of youth inmates are vulnerable to the pandemic for most of the same reasons as adult prisoners: shared spaces, corporate meals, and often limited access to hand sanitizer. But early reports suggested the disease did not affect young people as much, so states did not act as quickly to keep COVID-19 out of juvenile prisons as it did adult ones.

The new coronavirus cases can, in some cases, be lethal to children and youth. The pandemic has also limited or even shut down programs and family visits at juvenile detention centers, which means that even if it doesn’t affect young inmates’ physical health, it could have a dramatic effect on their mental well-being. —Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Off again, on again

The Trump administration’s attempt to restart federal capital punishment got a boost this week. The U.S. Department of Justice scheduled five executions for this summer, planning to carry out the death penalty for the first time in 16 years. U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to adopt a new, single-drug protocol to replace the old three-drug cocktail. But in November 2019, a trial judge issued a temporary block on executions after inmates sued, finding that the federal government didn’t have the authority to “establish a single implementation procedure for all federal executions.”

On Tuesday, a federal appeals court ruled 2-1 to overturn the stay. But the panel sent the case back to a lower court for additional review. About 60 inmates are on federal death row, but no executions have taken place since 2003. —R.L.A.

Work interrupted

Ohio fielded twice as many unemployment claims in two weeks at the end of March and beginning of April than it had in the past two years. In New York, the number of phone calls to the state’s Department of Labor jumped from the typical 50,000 in a week to more than 8.2 million. Joblessness from coronavirus pandemic containment measures is overwhelming unemployment systems across the country.

About 10 million Americans lost their jobs and applied for unemployment in the second half of March. The U.S. Department of Labor’s April jobs report, released in early May, could show a 10 percent unemployment rate. The service sector was especially hard hit, accounting for 94 percent of last month’s lost jobs. —R.L.A.

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Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.

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