Special Reports

County short on space for treatment

San Luis Obispo County isn't providing what local law enforcement, health care and social service officials say is critical to long-term methamphetamine treatment: more residential beds for recovering addicts.

The county now has 12 beds in a small residential setting where doctors, psychologists, drug and alcohol counselors, and mental health workers coordinate intensive treatment. Only women and their children can live there.

Treatment professionals say that at least another dozen beds are needed.

The county treats more than 400 meth addicts each year. "There is nothing (now) for men, nothing for youth, and not enough for women," said Star Graber, who oversees the county's drug and alcohol treatment services.

Five years ago, the county recognized this need--and with $150,000 in startup funds, it began the bidding process to solicit private residential treatment providers.

No one bid, however, citing concerns about the county's distance from major cities and its high housing and real estate costs.

Now, there's another effort to bring a second residential facility to the county. San Luis Obispobased nonprofit Project Amend hopes to transition from a sober living house to 16-bed residential facility by the end of the year.

Such centers are important because they go beyond standard outpatient treatment programs and sober living houses by offering a multifaceted approach to recovery that includes mental health counseling and extended treatment.

Increasingly, this approach is viewed as critical.

Meth addiction is treatable, but it takes longer than treatment for other drugs because of its extensive alteration of the brain's levels of dopamine -- the substance affecting processes that control movement, emotional response and the ability to experience pleasure and pain.

To date, there is no known pharmacological treatment to combat dependence. And though outpatient services can work, many treatment professionals say a combination of residential treatment, detoxification and a strong network of community resources is best.

Locally, clients battling addiction are left to sober living homes, which provide a safe and structured place to live, but only a patchwork of outpatient care -- not treatment.

Those who need further resources are sent out of the county to residential facilities at a cost to local taxpayers.

Local efforts

The county's lack of residential treatment space is typical for an area of this size, experts say.

"People are shifting so quickly from use to abuse that when small counties and cities finally observe it and come to a conclusion that this is really happening in their community, it becomes a challenge to address," said Mike Schaub of Southern California-based Social Model Recovery Systems. The nonprofit organization provides mental health and alcohol and other drug services throughout Southern California.

Political support must be garnered, Schaub said, and local leaders must be made aware of the need before a county tries to recruit a residential treatment facility.

"People have to be passionate in your county to cut through the red tape," he said.

Professionals battling addiction on the frontlines in San Luis Obispo County are making their case known to county leaders and are now willing to collaborate by combining resources to develop more residential space.

A year ago, the San Luis Obispo County Drug and Alcohol Advisory Board, which advises the Board of Supervisors, recommended the county make recruiting a residential facility a priority.

Last September, Graber, of the county's drug and alcohol treatment services, suggested creating a local task force and called for adequate research-based treatment that shows proven results with addicts.

Chief Probation Officer Kim Barrett, resolute that meth addiction should be treated as a health issue before it becomes a criminal issue, said the lack of residential treatment space makes it difficult to stop addiction before it leads to serious crime.

"We have found many are reluctant to go into residential treatment because they do not want to leave the county, leave their families, et cetera," Barrett said. "More treatment beds would assist in our success rate."

Barrett and Graber are working together to combine funding sources and lay groundwork for at least a six-bed residential facility. The county pays about $800,000 a year to operate the 12-bed facility, Pasos de Vida in Arroyo Grande.

Strong community collaboration is essential to bringing new treatment facilities to the county, Graber said. Although it should have happened years ago, Graber doesn't think it is too late.

"I don't think we missed the boat ..." Graber said. "I think that the problem is very, very huge, and when we were each trying to individually solve it ... we struggled."