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April 8, 2003
Ready, Willing, Able - and Drug Free

by George McDonald
Whether President Bush's proposed tax cut or the partial cut offered by the Senate is eventually passed, the budget deficit will continue its rapid spiral. As a result, the most vital services in education, health, and welfare are certain to be negatively impacted. One area in which professionals are watching events unfold with great concern is substance abuse treatment. Earlier this year, in his State of the Union address, Mr. Bush rightly called attention to the devastating impact of drug addiction on our society. He bravely committed new federal funding for drug treatment to combat the enormous emotional and financial burden this disease places on our country.

The President's initiative was highly commendable.The task now is two-fold: to ensure that those funds do not get slashed to the point that they are meaningless,and to ensure that the monies are directed toward programs that most effectively address the needs of the specific populations they serve.

There are few models for drug treatment. Therapeutic Communities represent 85% of all available treatment programs for substance abusers. However, all substance abusers are not the same. The Therapeutic Community model was developed in the 1960s for drug-addicted men who had families and jobs to return to. Drug addiction is not, however,reserved to this population alone.On the contrary, today the population most costly to our society is hard-core, poor drug users.

Repeatedly, our elected officials and political candidates offer a one-size-fits-all drug-treatment model, the Therapeutic Community. However, evaluations have raised serious questions about the efficacy of this approach for addicts most likely to commit crimes and be incarcerated.

These men have never had legitimate jobs and often have no strong family networks to which they can return.

Hard core drug use is entwined with incarceration and homelessness. More than half of the 6.6 million people in the nation's correctional system are there for drug-related crimes. Two-thirds will be re-incarcerated within the first three years of their release. Many others released will enter the homeless shelter system as part of the revolving door that has become their lives.

Chemical dependency is a complex disease that requires an equally comprehensive treatment. Treatment programs must be equipped to deal not only with the medical and spiritual components of the addiction, but must also deal pragmatically with the social problems that are byproducts of the addiction.Adhering rigidly to a model that does not take into consideration the individual lifestyle of the user or vast sociological changes is inadequate.

In my 20 years of experience with homeless people and ex-offenders, I realized that work was an intrinsic element to their recovery. Fifteen years ago, I founded the Doe Fund to provide them with paid work opportunities and drug-free transitional housing. A legitimate job in the above-ground economy, for an individual who had never had one,is transforming and is a powerful deterrent to using drugs. The self-esteem from an honest day's work and the resulting euphoria of self-sufficiency become far more addictive than alcohol or any illicit drug.

Our model has proven extremely effective. Since the inception of our Ready, Willing & Able residential job training program, 61% of those who enter graduate drug free, with private sector jobs and self-supported housing, and stay that way for a follow-up period of at least two years.

As Mr. Bush moves to confront the crisis of drug addiction, he would be well served to take into consideration a variety of treatment models, and specifically the work-centered approach that the Doe Fund has found so successful.Work works, and should be part of the new paradigm to effectively treat addicts for whom crime, homelessness, and recidivism have become a way of life.

Mr.McDonald is the founder and president of the Doe Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing permanent solutions to homelessness by providing jobs, drug treatment, shelter, job training, and life-skills courses.

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