The house is a simple ranch-style, painted bright yellow, with its lawn freshly mowed and its rhododendrons in bloom. The eight twin beds in its four rooms are neatly made. In the living room, next to a whiteboard marked out with days of the week and appointments, a young man sweeps the worn hardwood.
On this Saturday it’s unconventionally warm, and the place is alive. In the kitchen, a five-gallon pot of pinto beans simmers. In the garage, near some rusting weights and a weathered bench, a radio croons out Spanish ballads, interrupted by the crack of billiard balls colliding.
In the backyard, men gather around a barbecue, flipping marinated chicken that pops and sizzles to a sweet crisp. Lino Ortega sits near a picnic table crowded with salsas, chips and beans, holding his daughter on his lap.
Ortega hit bottom three years ago, after a long run on methamphetamines. His girlfriend had kicked him out. He couldn’t see his kids. “I didn’t have anywhere to go. I slept in my car, at a friend's house,” he said in Spanish. “I couldn’t stop, until I made the decision to stop, all the way at the bottom.”
That’s what brought Ortega to the yellow house in Northeast Portland and a program called Latino Homebase Recovery. Designed for Spanish-speaking Latino men, it pairs sober housing with life skills classes with meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and helps men prepare for a transition into stable jobs and housing. As the fog of addiction cleared, Ortega said, “I felt like I had been welcomed back into society, like I had been cleaned.”
He called his girlfriend and told her he was in recovery, and after he graduated, the couple reunited, married and now live together with their five children. Ortega got a full-time job at a foam company. Life looks a lot different than it once did, said his wife, Amelia Chavez.
“Today the biggest difference is trust,” Chavez said. “I trust him with everything. He’s my confidant, my friend, my lover, my husband. I can say he is everything to me.”
Ortega, like many of the men visiting this Saturday, come regularly to mentor current residents of Latino Homebase Recovery. They’re building a network of people who look and speak like the men who rely on it. The program is operated by Volunteers of America, with funding from Multnomah County. It’s a model the county wants to expand.
“There are a lot of people of color going into mainstream programs, and the retention rates are low. In the ones I’ve seen, there aren’t people of color on staff, or there’s little training on how to work with other cultures,” said Anthony Jordan, who oversees the county’s $18 million addiction services budget. “The program is designed around the dominant culture. But there’s something about racism, and prejudice, and stress, and coping with life that’s different. They don’t have to navigate the same things.”
Jordan, who is black and has 26 years of sobriety, worked with African American men at Volunteers of America before joining the county. He said men of color who dropped out of treatment often told him, “They just don’t understand me.”
Jordan said Multnomah County is working to craft contracts that encourage providers to hire a diverse staff. And he wants to fund more home-based recovery houses to serve people of color. He said the Latino Homebase Recovery program has shown that it works. The program’s retention rates are better than average, and he thinks he knows why.
“It’s the first time they can be authentic, be themselves, and work on the issues that they couldn’t before,” he said. “Now they can be free. Just free.”
Research shows that Latinos and Latinas are less likely to access mainstream treatment and more likely to leave before the treatment program is complete. Language barriers, concerns about childcare, a lack of culturally appropriate services, and lower rates of insurance coverage might contribute to the disparity.
But evidence also suggests Latinos and Latinas have a better chance of staying sober if they enroll in a culturally specific recovery program with Latino and Latina counselors and peers, and where there’s an emphasis on family, spirituality, respect for elders and collectivism. That’s why the county funds treatment programs such as Central City Concern’s Puentes and Esperanza Juvenil programs, where bilingual Latino staff offer clients outpatient treatment options.
“If they’re going to a place where people are not going to speak their language, look like them or understand their culture, they’re going to walk away from it,” said Daniel Garcia, director of the Puentes program. “So by having a culturally specific program, we break down those barriers. From the beginning they see a friendly face that welcomes them, and they can express their thoughts and feelings in a way they feel more comfortable.”
People come to Puentes from hospital emergency departments, families, the VOA’s Latino Homebase Recovery and detox centers such as Hooper. Sometimes Garcia's team finds a client needs a program paired with housing, such as residential treatment or supportive housing. When their clients speak English, Garcia’s team might refer them to De Paul Treatment Centers. But mostly they work with VOA’s Spanish-speaking staff or with a residential treatment program called Best Care, based in Madras. For years, Best Care was one of the only culturally specific options for Spanish-speakers who needed 24-hour support. But the program had only eight beds.
In 2014, Miguel Tellez, a counselor at VOA with a quarter-century of sobriety, proposed opening a recovery house for Latinos in Portland. Unlike residential treatment, which costs $124 a day, supportive housing costs an average $29 per day, and research suggests the two types of treatment produce similar long-term success rates. In 2015, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners added the program to its budget, at a cost of $180,000 per year.
Audemar Para-Sanchez was one of its first residents. Today, fresh faced and sporting a red puffy jacket, Audemar looks more like a young soccer player than a recovering meth addict. He’s happy, he says, “the way I was happy before I started using drugs.”
He works full-time with a construction firm. He comes home to his girlfriend and their children. Those were the things he stood to lose if he didn’t get clean.
“It was an ultimatum,” he said. “I didn’t want to lose my family.”
His sister found the VOA program online and called one of its peer mentors. Then Audemar got on the phone. “I told the mentor to take me as soon as possible,” he said. Three days later, his mother, sister and daughter drove him to the home and dropped him off. Audemar speaks some English, but not comfortably, he said. In the Latino Homebase Recovery house, he could speak easily in Spanish, and without the interference of an interpreter, as would be necessary in a mainstream treatment program.
“The classes in Spanish helped me a lot,” he said. So did on-site counselor and peer mentor Mario Cardenas, who, like Audemar, had grown up in Mexico’s Sin City, Acapulco. The two shared more than a hometown.
“I grew up with no boundaries. I walked around with this machismo,” Cardenas said Saturday during a tour of the tidy yellow house where he worked. “There is one thing to be proud of your accomplishments, but not to walk around proud and boastful, like, ‘I don’t need no help. I’m not going to open up. I’m not going to trust you.’”
Cardenas, like many of the men he mentors, had also used hard drugs. He had gone to treatment centers, tried to get clean, and relapsed over and over again. He finally let go with the help of a VOA residential center for men, and support from Miguel Tellez, in August 2012, and has remained sober since. He wonders if his story would have been different, had he had been around other Latinos sooner.
“If I had something like this, with Latinos, I think I would have opened up more,” he said. “There was a lot of stuff I didn’t feel comfortable talking about. I felt like an outsider.”
Cardenas laments the shortage of bilingual and bicultural mentors and counselors, and said part of his work is building that network through graduates from the Latino Homebase Recovery program. Cardenas went through recovery with another man, Rutilio Leyva, who continued in a cycle of relapse until the yellow house opened and he moved in.
“I went to a lot of programs before this,” Leyva said, now eight months clean, living on his own and working full time. Leyva came to the United States from Mexico at 19, married a white woman and largely disconnected from his Mexican roots. Weekend binges on cocaine and meth eroded his life until he lost it all. For years, he tried to quit. He went through mainstream treatment programs surrounded largely by white, American-born men.
“I never thought there would be a piece missing. But there is, that bond I grew up with. The piece about belonging, for me, it only came from the Latino community. Being in this group, belonging to something, I feel safer to have things come out, to be truly who I am, without reservations.”
Cardenas, meanwhile, continued his outreach, walking through downtown Portland and talking with Latinos whom he knew were still in their addictions. That’s how he met Luis Paterson. Paterson lived on Portland’s streets for seven years, much of that time with his dog Trigger (known locally as “Sugar” because of Paterson's rough English pronunciation). He had tried to give up alcohol many times.
“I started with Puentes. I relapsed. I relapsed again,” he said, in Spanish. “Then I went to Best Care and I relapsed again. “I wasn’t ready. I just wasn’t ready.”
Cardenas would stop and ask, “Papi, are you ready yet?”
"Not right now, brother,” Paterson would reply. Until he was. He finally entered Cardenas’ program and graduated a few months later. He’s stayed sober ever since. Today Paterson and Trigger have an apartment in Central City Concern’s Richard L. Harris building. From the lobby he can see the sidewalk where he used to sleep, in a tent, with his dog. Today, when he walks through the Park Blocks, people still call out to him,” Hey Papi!” He stops and chats, jokes in Spanish or choppy English. And sometimes he tells people about Latino Homebase Recovery.
“When you’re ready, let me know,” he will say, “and I’ll take you there.”