Sober living after hurricanes: Options for addicts limited after storms

John Guidroz

The damage caused by Hurricanes Laura and Delta has severely limited the resources in Lake Charles for addicts in recovery and others seeking help. Heather Lee, outreach coordinator for the addiction recovery nonprofit Oxford House, said the storms permanently closed four men’s sober living homes and one women’s home in the city.

The number of available beds has dropped from 64 to 31, and the five homes that survived the storm are full, Lee said. Addicts are left with few choices — stay at Oxford House locations in nearby Alexandria and Lafayette, wait for a vacancy at a Lake Charles home, or look for help elsewhere.

“I hear the desperation in these people’s voices, and I have nothing to offer them at the moment,” she said. “It does take a toll on me some days.”

Lee, 32, understands the struggles of addiction, having moved into an Oxford House in her hometown of Shreveport in March 2018. She has worked as an outreach coordinator since moving to Lake Charles in October 2019.

Lee said she wants Oxford House to once again have 10 homes in Lake Charles. However, finding livable homes after the hurricanes that can accommodate enough people isn’t easy. A sixth location is currently pending, she said.

“We already have half that house filled up with people,” Lee said. “They’re on a waiting list.”

Oxford House is seeking investors to purchase homes because there aren’t many rental properties since the hurricanes, Lee said. Rent homes that are available are charging above-normal monthly rates, she added.

Overdose deaths

There have been 12 fatal overdoses in Calcasieu Parish since Jan. 1, according to Charlie Hunter, Calcasieu Coroner’s Office chief investigator. He said that number could have been quadrupled if not for naloxone, or Narcan, a medication that helps rapidly reverse

opioid-related overdoses.

“It goes to show you the epidemic we have in relation to opioid usage,” Hunter said.

Calcasieu Parish had 52 fatal overdoses in 2020, the majority being related to opioids, Hunter said. There were 36 fatal overdoses in 2019.

Courtney Jicks, 26, lives at Oxford House Selene and has seen the devastation of addiction first-hand.

“I’ve been to 22 funerals, and that’s just the hard truth of this disease,” she said.

Rehabilitation is a temporary solution for addicts, but sober living homes like Oxford House are critical in helping them stay clean, Jicks said. Recovering addicts who spend at least 18 months in an Oxford House have an 87 percent chance of long-term sobriety, Lee said.

Evacuation struggles

Being evacuated for weeks after Laura and Delta also left Oxford House residents vulnerable to relapsing, Lee said. Of the 21 Oxford House residents that didn’t return to Lake Charles after the storms, 80 percent relapsed, she said.

Danielle Domingue, 42, rode out Hurricane Laura at a local hotel where she works before staying with her parents in Crowley. Having spent more than two years at Oxford House, she said keeping in touch with her roommates helped her stay sober in Crowley.

“You don’t come into these houses expecting to make friends, but you actually make a family,” she said. “You don’t realize how important these people are to you in your everyday survival until you’re taken out of this environment.”

Of the four women who lived at Oxford House Selene before the hurricanes, Domingue and Jicks were the only ones who returned. One woman moved back to Ohio to be with her family, while another relapsed.

“To watch somebody go from doing so well and come back and not being the same person, it’s really hard,” Domingue said.

Jicks spent six weeks with her family in Meridian, Miss., leaving behind the safety net of Oxford House. Communicating with her roommates via Zoom was helpful, but it lacked the in-person connection, she said.

Jicks said she was lucky to have a safe place to stay after the hurricanes. One of her roommates slept in her car for a few days and used hotel vouchers, she said.

Jerome Murray Jr., 28, moved into the new location of Oxford House Beaureve two days before Laura’s landfall. Most of the home’s belongings were still in boxes. He evacuated to Houston with his family and cared for his uncle and grandmother, who suffered strokes in


“It forced me to be with my family and also let my mom know I can handle responsibilities now that I’m sober,” Murray said.

Murray was one of only three men who returned to the house weeks after Laura. One man, the Lake Charles chapter chair, never returned. Another relapsed and later died.

“It was traumatizing,” he said. “Our chapter chair kept us all together. It was tough because he wouldn’t come back.”

Murray, who became chapter chair after the hurricanes, said he knows the frustration of not being able to help addicts wanting to get clean.

“It’s upsetting to know that these people are ready and willing to change and we have nowhere to put them,” he said.

John Christerson, 29, rode out Laura at his family’s DeQuincy home. Christerson, who spent three months in rehab before going to an Oxford House, said he was excited to spend time with family after the hurricane.

“I found a new respect for my family and my recovery,” he said. “(My family) loves me, but they don’t understand me. These people understand me.”

Christerson said he was never tempted to relapse while away from his sober living home. Hurricane Laura destroyed his home, Oxford House Lake Charles 2, forcing him to wait for a vacancy. Christerson eventually called Murray and asked to stay at the Beaureve house.

Oxford House residents are voted out or evicted if they relapse. However, residents who relapsed while evacuated could return to the home on a “newcomer contract,” which included earlier curfews and additional meetings, Lee said.

Post-hurricane struggle

Too much downtime or long stretches of unemployment could lead an addict in recovery to relapse, Lee said.

Jicks, who has a master’s degree in accounting, said Hurricane Laura destroyed her employer’s office. She spent roughly two months unemployed, taking side jobs in hurricane recovery before landing a new accounting job.

“That was a really big struggle,” she said. “The job market was terrible. There were jobs, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

Murray said the rehab he attended just had its power restored and offered him a job as a behavioral tech.

After the hurricanes, Oxford House donated more than $25,000 to cover living expenses, like rent and bills, that weren’t paid after some residents didn’t return, Lee said. The money will also be used once new homes reopen in Lake Charles.

The struggles from the hurricanes have opened opportunities for Oxford House to rebuild and improve, Jicks said.

“Coming back, we have done just that,” she said.

Murray said most people may not understand the impact the hurricanes continue to have on recovering addicts and those struggling with addiction.

“If there was a way for people to know, then maybe things would change,” he said.Oxford House, a nonprofit recovery center, offers a chance for a new start for people with addictions. Pictured, from left, are Heather Lee, outreach coordinator for Oxford House, John Christerson and Jerome Murray Jr.

Rick Hickman


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