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Paradise House struggles to keep doors open as county cuts funding

The Rev. Anne P. Paris knows that what she is doing is a tough sell: Her job is to get lost women to change their lives, and to persuade charities and government agencies that her cause is worth paying for.

Paris has been doing that job for more than 20 years. In 1993, with a prayer and a promise of $20,000 from Presbyterian Women, she opened a women’s shelter and rehabilitation residence on Mills Street, and called it Paradise House. Since then, she has seen hundreds of clients use their second chance to succeed. Others have failed, some have returned, and new ones always come in. Paris has soldiered on.

Now, she faces another hurdle. Erie County cut funding, and she is nearly two years into what has become a Byzantine process to get a state license so she can plug into other money.

“To keep it going has been a constant challenge – a constant heartache as well as a constant joy,” said Paris, a slight weariness coming through over this latest obstacle. “It’s hard to get people to care about women who have messed up their lives.”

For much of its history, Paradise House survived on state funds directed through Erie County for homeless housing, since many of the women who came there had nowhere else to go. They usually arrived via the criminal justice system, either on parole or avoiding jail by agreeing to drug treatment. Private donations supplemented the public money.

Now, with changing government guidelines and tighter budgets, along with more competition for the funding, most of the county’s involvement is coming to an end.

In 2013, Erie County notified Paris and the operators of two other small recovery programs for women, New Life Residential Center and Canaan House, that it would cut the benefits their residents can receive. It slashed by more than half the payments that go to these homes, Paris said. While the women staying there initially get $632 in benefits to cover housing, utilities and personal expenses, after three months that amount drops to $306.

From that, Paradise House and its parent nonprofit, Paradise Opportunities, must cover building maintenance and utilities for the three-story dormitory along with all its services: salaries to keep the house staffed 24 hours a day, counseling, job training, basic education and office personnel.

Paradise House’s mission of recovery is now working against it as far as county funding is concerned. Paris and county administrators agree the facility should not be characterized as a homeless shelter or as a halfway house, meaning it doesn’t fit as either homeless housing or as re-entry for the Department of Corrections.

“Erie County isn’t in a position to determine the appropriateness of care that these facilities provide,” said Brian Bray, special assistant to the commissioner of Social Services.

That is why the county’s Social Services administrators advised Paris and the other rehabilitation homes to look directly to New York State’s Office of Alcohol Substance Abuse Services for money.

“We provided a letter of support for (Paris’s) application ... for a license in April of 2013,” said Sharon Rochelle, second deputy commissioner for county Social Services. “We just said we need accountability, and these are the outcomes we’re expecting for the clients that we support.”

The license, if and when it comes, could mean salvation for Paradise House and the women it supports.

As a state-certified provider of Chemical Dependence Residential Services, Paradise House could be eligible for up $733 each month in federal money per resident, plus $405 from the state, for a total of $1,138 per person.

However, in the two years since Paradise House began the process, Paris said her license application has been mired in minutiae, raising the level of frustration on all sides. After months of back and forth – “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and all this legal language,” Paris says – the state office of substance abuse finally sent her application to the county Department of Mental Health for its review in January. Once it clears that hurdle, Paris said, it goes to the state substance abuse office in Buffalo.

Survival mode

Meanwhile, Paradise House is in survival mode, paying staff about $8 per hour and keeping the doors open, usually at slightly less than its 21-resident capacity. Women can stay six months or longer. Paris gets fired up when talking about the discrepancy between social expectations and reality.

“It takes two years for a woman to turn her life around. To find work, to get ‘clean,’ to follow the CPS (Child Protective Services) programs to recover their children,” Paris says. “Some of them have mental issues, they lack education. You have to make do with what you’ve got.”

Even when full, it only can help a handful of those who would benefit and does not come close to filling the need, advocates say.

“One, there are not many places they can go. There is a need in this area for housing for women who need a more structured and stable living environment,” explained Judge Robert Russell, a City Court judge who created one of the nation’s first drug courts.

“Paradise House gives them more structure and they also get encouragement and support from the staff and the other women who are dealing with problems of substance abuse. That, plus the work training and counseling, makes a difference,” he said.

As someone who has seen many people, men and women, come before him after getting into trouble because of drugs, Russell knows the pitfalls for recovery.

“Some people need to not go back to the places they were living, to places where other people might be using, if they are to get on their feet,” he said.

The court stays in touch with people who are in treatment, he pointed out.

“I work with them to make sure they are getting their counseling, following the program,” he said. “We need to support each other and we need support from the community.”

A story of success

Debra Page, director of Paradise House, knows that as well as anyone. She is a former client and a success story, and she knows that treatment and rehabilitation are not just the “right” thing, they are also the most cost-effective social response to drug crimes and addiction.

“If you don’t pay for them to be here, you’re going to pay for them to be in jail or in a rooming house,” she said. “They have a much better chance to get better here, and when they’re here, they’re not being a menace to society.”

Although she has no illusions about the clientele, Page also brings empathy to her work and to the challenges the women face, with addictions that are often compounded by mental illness, including depression and PTSD from abusive backgrounds.

“They are addicted to alcohol, to crack, cocaine, heroin, pills – you name it, somebody here is trying to get over it,” Page said. “A lot of people medicate themselves. They want to feel better, so they use,” Page said.

Like everyone else at Paradise House, Page is trying to be optimistic about its future in a world full of cutbacks.

“When women are sick, they have sick families. Once they get it together, the families will come back together,” she said.

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