Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly named Kenzie House as Sober Beginning's third sober home. Kacy Keith and Traci Jordan recently opened Ruthie House.
Three new sober homes have opened in Billings this summer. The women behind them say dorm-style houses offer a safe space for people working through addiction. But some treatment providers say sober living homes are part of a larger system of treatment that needs improvement.
Jennifer Himmelspach takes a break from moving furniture to smoke a cigarette on the stairs leading up to Ruthie House.
There’s a tattoo of a little girl on her arm.
She says that’s her daughter, who’s now in college.
“I tell her I want to be just like you when I grow up ‘cause she’s so amazing,” Himmelspach says, adding she’s been clean from methamphetamine for a few weeks now.
“I feel like I got too many people rooting for me and helping me out that it would be such a shame if I did anything different than what I’m doing,” she says.
From today onwards, she’ll be paying $420 dollars a month for a bed in Ruthie House, the third sober-living house Traci Jordan and Kacy Keith have established in Billings since April for people recovering from drugs and alcohol.
The three homes that make up Sober Beginnings are not licensed treatment centers and the owners are not counselors. But they offer peer support and a living environment clear of drugs and alcohol in a part of the state that’s seen a drastic rise in substance abuse in the past decade.
One recent report noted that Billings Clinic alone saw a 130 percent increase in substance-abuse-related visits over the past two years.
Jordan says potential tenants need to find a job and join a 12-step recovery program with a sponsor.
“Those are the requirements of living in the house besides no stealing, no drinking, and no using, ‘cause those are automatic removals,” says Jordan.
Removals aren’t uncommon because relapse rates are high - around 40 and 60 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
If a person does relapse, Keith says, they may end up at one of Billings’ shelters.
“If they’re using or drunk and they don’t have anyplace, they have to go to the Crisis Center. They have to be sober to go the men or women’s mission,” she says.
Jordan and Keith say they fill up the 12 beds in each of the gender-specific homes pretty quickly.
Some of those people come from the Rimrock Foundation, a treatment center in Billings.
Coralee Schmitz is chief operating officer at Rimrock and says one concern for sober homes in the area is the lack of follow-up when a tenant does relapse.
She says sober homes in Billings would serve their clients better if they collaborated.
“So they can keep tabs on each other and help each other, and if one person isn’t a good fit at one house, they can transfer them to another house, and just work together instead of just this pop up everywhere,” says Schmitz.
Other providers see a lack of resources to support people while they transition back into daily life after seeking inpatient recovery.
Benjamin Miller is a strategist with Well Being Trust, a national foundation dedicated to mental health.
He says sober homes are based on 12-step program model like Alcoholics Anonymous and effective for certain populations. But he also stresses the need to combine a sober living situation with treatment.
“If Montana were serious about addressing mental health and addiction, then we would figure out tight ways to coordinate around the certain entry points like a sober house, but we would not stop there, we would look at connecting it back to the broader healthcare system, to other treatment that sometimes unfortunately is very difficult for people to obtain,” says Miller.
Miller says long wait times for enrollment and lack of insurance coverage are barriers to treatment.
He calls sober living one step in the trajectory of recovery.
Kacy Keith and Traci Jordan with Sober Beginnings say the homes fill a need in Billings that otherwise isn’t being addressed.
Both women have struggled with addiction themselves. Like some of their tenants, they’ve been in and out of jail.
They say they were nervous about organizing a sober home.
They wanted to know if local organizations would refer people to them if they did establish one.
Keith says they talked to parole officers, pre-release centers, correctional facilities and the Rimrock Foundation.
“All kinds of people to see if we had their support,” she says.
Which they did, she says.
They opened the first of the three homes a few months ago as an Oxford House, part of a nationwide recovery home network.
Jordan says they chose to branch out into a separate organization with the next two houses so that they could set their own guidelines.
“We were like, let’s just do it, because we need it and the community needs it,” says Jordan.
They say if the first three houses go well, they may look into establishing more. They also say they’re working toward becoming a non-profit.