Not enough women’s recovery homes in Metro Vancouver, say operators and residents

Desiree Belisle knows how hard it can be to find help. During her decades-long battle with addiction, there were few, fleeting moments when she felt ready to seek out recovery.

“I kept trying to find a place to get sober again, and I kept reaching out, and there was nowhere available for me,” she told CBC News. “I did get on some waitlists, I kept calling, and I never got a response.”

Belisle, now 41, hoped to overcome her addiction so she could take care of her mother, who was battling cancer. With no openings available, she felt helpless.

“I felt that the only option for me to stay sober was prison,” she said.

Belisle says her life began to change in 2021 when she entered Back on Track Recovery, a registered Assisted Living Registrar addictions treatment centre in Surrey that runs one of the handful of women’s recovery homes in the city. 

Care home operators and female residents like Belisle says there is a substantial supply gap for women’s recovery services in Metro Vancouver, with extended waitlists posing significant barriers for those in need.

Desiree Belisle stands near a garden she planted at the recovery home site. She says over the years she’s run into barriers accessing a recovery home, including extended waitlists. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Back on Track founder Cole Izsak , who overcame his own battle with addiction 12 years ago, is planning to open a second women’s house, pending city business licensing approval. Izsak says his licensed women’s facility, called the Robin’s Nest, has a six-to-seven month waitlist.

In comparison, he runs seven facilities for men that have just a two-week waitlist.

“When a person reaches out for help, you need to strike while the iron is hot,” said Izsak. “In six or seven months as they’re on the waitlist, they could die. So we need to be better about how we can quickly respond, and the answer to that is more women’s facilities.”

Izsak, says a handful of the city’s 49 recovery homes are specialized for women. He estimates about one in 15 recovery homes in the province are specialized for women.

In a statement, the province said it does not track the number of assisted living residences that are specific by gender as this information is not required by provincial legislation.

Paige Petuh-Bowman and Desiree Belisle have connected with one another during their time at Back on Track Recovery.
Paige Petuh-Bowman and Desiree Belisle have connected with one another during their time at Back on Track Recovery. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Finding support

Belisle says she hopes to stay at Back on Track for at least two years, where she currently has grief support following the death of her mother.

“I feel safe here,”she said. “It’s important for me to take my time, to get to know myself, to love myself.”

During her time there, she’s made friends with fellow resident Paige Petuh-Bowman, who has been at the centre for more than a year.

Paige Petuh-Bowman has been at Back on Track Recovery for a year and says she's been able to rebuild relationships with family during that time.
Paige Petuh-Bowman has been at Back on Track Recovery for a year and says she’s been able to rebuild relationships with family during that time. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

“I’ve built connections with the girls,” said Petuh-Bowman. “I was extremely lucky to get this opportunity.”

Petuh-Bowman, who is originally from Terrace, said she had also made efforts to get into recovery during her time struggling with addiction, but extended waitlists kept her from committing.

“I did all he paper work, signed up … but by the time they get back to you, you don’t want to go to rehab anymore,” she said.

Petuh-Bowman, a mother of two children, says her time in recovery has rebuilt trust with her family.

“My kids have got their mother back, my mom’s got her daughter back, my dad’s got her daughter back,” she said.

She hopes to eventually open up her own hair salon.

A grey building on a Vancouver street on a sunny day.
The Union Gospel Mission’s Women and Families Centre is pictured last June in Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Recent openings

In Vancouver, Union Gospel Mission recently opened an extensive women’s recovery facility that includes units where they can be with their children.

Spokesperson Nicole Mucci said the seven-storey building was years in the making and includes 63 units of supportive housing for women, 33 of which are designed especially for mothers in recovery and their children. Women can stay at the facility for up to five years.

Mucci says the project launched as UGM noticed there was a significant demand in the Downtown Eastside community for specialized women’s care.

While there are prospective residents waiting for accommodation, current staffing shortages mean the facility can’t operate at full capacity.

“We’re not quite there yet, and a lot of that is because of those long-term effects of COVID-19, outreach workers burning out,” said Mucci.

“It’s a tough balance because we want to help as many women as possible, but we want to do it safely,” she said.

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