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Oregon has millions of dollars for addiction rehab programs, but not enough employees


States will soon invest unprecedented amounts of money in addiction recovery after recent settlements with drug companies. Oregon has already increased funding. Voters there passed a law in 2020 to channel millions into battling addiction. As Katia Riddle reports, the obstacle now is finding the workforce to do it.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: Like many people who work in this field, Staci Cowen is in recovery herself.

STACI COWEN: I started on pills, which moved me to heroin.

RIDDLE: Cowen lost everything.

COWEN: The people on the streets - you think that they actually are there for you. And you quickly realize that nobody's there for you except for yourself.

RIDDLE: Now that she's in recovery, her job is to be there for others struggling with addiction.

COWEN: I just show them compassion, you know, listen to them.

RIDDLE: The facility she works at is called Club Hope. It's in the Portland suburb of Gresham. People can come here to bathe, eat or just hang out and warm up.

COWEN: You doing shower? OK. Let me grab you a towel.

RIDDLE: On this morning, she directs a man to the shower stall. People can also access social services here. The idea is that the center provides a pathway out of addiction. Cowen says the work anchors her own recovery.

COWEN: I can go get a job, you know, making more money than this. But I love my job. It's like this is my other family.

MONTA KNUDSON: Passion's driving people in the field. On the flipside of that coin, it's a very emotionally draining position to be in.

RIDDLE: Monta Knudson is the executive director at Club Hope. He says it's hard to keep people in these positions. The work can be traumatic. Some clients go back out on the street. Some die of overdose.

KNUDSON: You can also feel like, did I do enough? Or, you know, there's just all kinds of ways your mind plays into that and just the sadness of seeing another person lose their life due to this disease, which is treatable.

RIDDLE: Thirty percent of Oregon's jobs in addiction and recovery are vacant. But organizations like Club Hope can't operate without employees like Cowen.

COWEN: What's up, Chris?

RIDDLE: On this morning, a client named Chris Vandan comes in to charge his phone. Bark dust clings to his clothes from sleeping outside the night before. He's recently had a big breakthrough. He's getting his own place in a week.

COWEN: We're so excited.

RIDDLE: He's also nervous. What if it doesn't work out, he asks Cowen.

COWEN: Don't even think about what's going to happen next if this doesn't work.

CHRIS VANDAN: God, it's so hard, though, sometimes.

COWEN: I know. But you got to change your thinking.

RIDDLE: It's a brief exchange, but it's these kinds of empathetic interactions with staff that keep clients coming back. The recent influx of cash has made some difference in staffing. Dozens of peer mentors have been hired in organizations across the state. The jobs are paying more. Dawn Marks is a manager here. Her staff have gone from making $16 an hour to closer to 20.

DAWN MARKS: When it's taxing on your mind and your heart and your soul, you know, it kind of makes a difference to have that $20 spot.

RIDDLE: Since the new money started flowing, Oregon has helped an additional 16,000 people with these kinds of addiction services. It was a $30 million investment. There's hundreds of millions yet to come. Many agree it's going to take more than raising pay by a few dollars an hour to attract and keep staff.

HEATHER JEFFERIS: One mentor serves about 10 to 15 people, ideally.

RIDDLE: Heather Jefferis is the executive director of the Oregon Council for Behavioral Health. She says this shortage has a direct impact on care.

JEFFERIS: So every peer that is not hired, that's 10 or 15 people that don't get service.

RIDDLE: Jefferis and her colleagues are working on solutions. They're trying to make training programs accessible and raise pay even more across the industry. Meanwhile, Club Hope executive director Monta Knudson says his employees are still stretched thin, but they're doing their best to meet their clients' needs and manage their own emotional health.

KNUDSON: I've never seen a person that's not attached in some way, you know?

RIDDLE: It's impossible not to be.

KNUDSON: Right. I mean, you're in the human-helping environment.

RIDDLE: Caring is the job, says Knudson. And with caring sometimes comes heartache. For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Gresham, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katia Riddle
[Copyright 2024 NPR]