The Massachusetts heroin epidemic continues to make headlines as a growing — and devastating — problem. Here in Worcester, Dismas House, a transitional housing program for men, seeks to break the cycle of addiction, and members of the Holy Cross community are helping make it happen.
Dismas House has been serving the Worcester community for more than 25 years, but its services are even more essential now because of the heroin epidemic, says Molly Hourigan ’16, program coordinator at Dismas House. “A majority of the men who come to Dismas House are recovering addicts, not criminals, and need to be in addict recovery programs, not jail.”
Dismas House provides transitional housing and services to former prisoners, with the goal of reintegrating them into society to decrease the recidivism rate. It serves a total of 32 men at a time, who stay for an average of nine months, although there is no maximum or minimum length of stay. Dismas House’s mission is a simple goal with complex implications: “To reconcile former prisoners to society, and society to former prisoners, through the development of a supportive community.”
“Dismas House breaks the sad cycle of drug addiction and shows the men how life can be without drugs. Many of Dismas House’s residents were raised in homes with drug users, so they don’t know any better. They need support to help them have a positive influence on the city and they need society to take a chance on them by focusing on supporting their recovery, not on jail time,” Hourigan says. Dismas House is making progress in breaking that cycle, given the recidivism rate of its residents is 50 percent lower than the state average, which is largely due to the structure of the program.
Residents of Dismas House are transitioned throughout the organization’s three locations. When the men first arrive from jail or detox programs, they are sent to Dismas Family Farm in Oakham, Massachusetts. Many of these men have grown up in Worcester or neighboring cities, so the farm in Oakham provides a different, rural lifestyle that allows them to reflect and focus on themselves.
Residents then graduate to Richard Street, the original Dismas House, located in Main South, which is the center of the heroin epidemic in Worcester. The Richard Street location provides a safe haven for those residents that have graduated from the farm, but are not quite ready to reintegrate into society on their own. This allows residents to be exposed to the neighborhood they will likely return to following their graduation from Dismas House.
The location of Richard Street is purposeful: first, it shows them to what life can be like without drugs in this neighborhood and second, its proximity allows Dismas House to reach addicts in the heart of the epidemic in order to help them recover. Those suffering from drug addiction need services in their neighborhood, otherwise they will not seek them out, making the Richard Street location vital to Dismas House’s success. Lastly, residents have the opportunity to move to the Father Brooks House, named for the late president emeritus of Holy Cross and a major supporter of Dismas House. The Father Brooks House offers affordable apartments to Dismas House graduates and their families, providing a next step, while keeping them connected to its services.
Seven Holy Cross students from Student Programs for Urban Development (SPUD) volunteer their time to cook dinner at Dismas House on Richard Street each month. They help reintegrate the residents into society by supporting them through the community-based Dismas House approach of living, eating and working as a family.
Leonard “Lenny” Crawford ’18, Dismas House SPUD program director explains, “The SPUD program allows college students to play an active role in their reintegration by co-existing with the residents and showing them they have a family beyond their Dismas House one. The joy this program brings to me personally is invaluable because I know Dismas House gives individuals a second chance at life. Watching the residents succeed and give back to the community during their reintegration is amazing.”
Crawford stresses that Dismas House truly works and turns people’s lives around, and it is an important mechanism for former prisoners to find jobs, stay clean and sober, reconcile with society and reconnect with families. This emphasis on reintegration is what makes Dismas House stand out and what has contributed to much of its success in decreasing the recidivism rate in Worcester.
Written by Colleen Naber ’18 for the Summer 2017 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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