Phoenix House has been a legendary institution since 1967, when six heroin addicts started their own sober community in an Upper West Side brownstone. Since then, this multi-site treatment center has allowed thousands of marginalized addicts, from the streets of New York City to the sprawling hoods of Los Angeles, to obtain treatment for little or nothing. And it’s grown considerably in size and reputation over the years, attracting a great deal of press thanks to the support of such bold-faced celebs as Beyonce Knowles, Randy Jackson, Nancy Reagan and Tina Brown.
Since it first launched in Manhattan, the organization has opened more than 120 in-patient and out-patient facilities around the country. Treatment plans at all the organization’s residential facilities are fairly similar. Still, according to many Phoenix graduates, the quality differs dramatically from facility to facility. In the words of one veteran, it all comes down to the “luck of the draw.”
A typical day at a Phoenix House complex begins at 6 am, with breakfast and a morning meeting where clients set goals for their day. Everyone works until lunch on their assigned jobs, which can vary according to individual skill level—from cleaning to compiling organizational data. Jobs are also assigned according to vocational training preferences—women (and men) at the Brooklyn facility can attend the Beyonce Cosmetology Center, supported by provided by Beyonce and her mother and business partner, Tina Knowles. Clients in other cities can be trained in computer or mechanic skills, with carpentry and culinary arts training also on offer. The Phoenix Rising music program, created by former American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi, helps clients compose, perform and record their own music in dedicated recording studios.
Lunch is served promptly at noon and is followed by a community meeting focused on topics like boundaries, relationships, and relapse prevention planning. Work is then resumed until dinner, which is followed by talk therapy in small groups. This day is repeated usually for six months or so—the typical length of stay—but clients have bi-monthly individual therapy sessions as well.
According to alumni, the quality of therapy and treatment is varied, and success often depends on the population of other patients in treatment (those who are actively seeking treatment are going to be more enthusiastic than those who are court mandated and there’s no set number of each).
The Brooklyn facility holds roughly 200 addicts at a time and has what one alum calls “a jail culture of secrets, deals, and sex scandals” as well as a lack of distinction between counselors and clients (most counselors are former clients). In Providence, Rhode Island, the facility is able to offer more individualized attention and in-depth process groups. In Venice, California, grads say there’s a great deal of community accountability and closeness in shared process groups.
The level of care can also fluctuate depending on the educational systems within the area: Brooklyn, for example, seems to have more former residents turned C.A.S.A.C.s (Certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselors) with no formal training, while the Providence outpost has a slew of Ph.D. interns from Brown University.
When it comes to food and accommodations, Phoenix House lands somewhere between a prison and a Best Western. Rooms have that quickly cleaned feel, and the bunk buds in the 10-client rooms are nothing better than worn out cots. The food is also hit or miss. Some Brooklyn alums complain that if they arrived late to meals, all the food would be gone, whereas clients in Phoenix House's Rhode Islanders facility had the luxury of having interns from the prestigious Johnson and Wales Culinary Institute cook their meals. Thawed frozen fish sticks, mac and cheese, tater tots, chicken patties and spaghetti with meatballs are a few of the staple hot food options at most of the facilities.
Some of the outposts can be quite strict, punishing clients by having them wear orange vests while they are “on contract” for breaking rules, or making them sit in a corner for 40 minutes to reflect on their defiance. Clients are allowed limited outside excursions until the last three months of treatment, when they can attend off-site 12-step meetings if they want. And Phoenix House does not use a traditional 12-step model of recovery, but a mixture of cognitive behavioral and group therapy.
But the bottom line is that Phoenix House gives the poor, the marginalized and the hopeless a real shot at treatment, and works hard to attract addicts who never realized that there was a solution out there for them. While it’s accommodations are a far cry from luxe facilities like Promises, there’s something undeniably noble about the organization's mission to provide free treatment for the country’s oft-overlooked sufferers. As one happy grad reports, “There’s no way my life would be as good as it is today if I hadn’t gone there.”