When Dallas Niemi recovered her dog from an alleged methamphetamine user, it was the happiest day she’s had in a long time.
The light brown micro mini pug, named Lilo, lay happily at her side at Ruth and Naomi’s Mission last Tuesday, where Niemi has been living for half a year.
“I feel like a weight’s off my shoulders. I had to get her back. Had to,” she said.
Lilo was healthy when Niemi last saw her nine months ago, but is now paralyzed from the waist down. The SPCA told Niemi that the paralysis was likely due to meth exposure.
This news is poignant for Niemi, who has struggled with addiction since her teenaged daughter passed away in 1997 after falling from a fourth floor balcony in Chilliwack.
Niemi has lived in about 15 places in the last two years, including spending a few nights outside.
But since February, she has made the second floor of Ruth and Naomi’s her home. The non-profit recently launched the Ladies Step Up program, which provides women at risk of homelessness, addiction or mental illness with a home for up to 24 months.
The elegant and simple rooms are a page out of an Ikea catalogue. Modern, light-coloured beds and chests of drawers, crisp new bedding, and a neat layout of toiletries on a towel invite a guest to relax.
“We’re trying to give them a place, first of all, that’s safe, and free from some of the painful experiences that they have. Safety is paramount,” said John Gray, supportive housing director.
Residents receive home-cooked meals twice a day. They have full use of the shared kitchen, as well as the television room and desk work area.
The 24-hour staffed residential housing program has a treatment component. Residents complete their 12 steps to recovery, chat in support groups, and receive individual counseling.
There is a crafts program, and outdoor activities, such as a recent camping trip to Sasquatch National Park.
In her six months there, Niemi has fully decorated her room, including placing framed art on the wall, and installing a tall circular aquarium with tropical fish. Spurred on by the craft sessions, she paints animal faces on rocks and assembles angel dolls out of yarn. She’d like to paint and play the guitar full-time.
Women in the program can stay at Ruth and Naomi’s for up to two years, significantly longer than other treatment programs. Organizers believe that this timeframe is necessary for a person to rebuild themselves.
“People can break free from their addictions relatively easily. It doesn’t come without some pain, but most people can detox and get their lives back,” said Gray. “But what we begin to help them look at is what are the underlying currents that are pulling you away from being healthy.”
The program’s structures aren’t for everyone, and as many women have left as are currently enrolled.
Niemi herself stopped regularly using crack cocaine during a four-year stay in Alberta when she was caring for her ex-husband’s father, but has had relapses since returning to Chilliwack, including one at Ruth and Naomi’s three months ago.
“I messed up a little bit at first. Pushing boundaries,” she said. “Methamphetamine is running rampant in Chilliwack. It turns people mean. Just mean and nasty. Evil.”
The toughest part of cleaning up for her is relearning how to live without drugs.
“Just relaxing and living in the moment. If people were more like dogs, they wouldn’t need psychiatrists, because they live in the moment. We go way in the past, and way in the future. That causes stress and anxiety.”
Today she’s doing better, and is getting used to losing her daughter. Being part of Step Up has been a “night and day” change for her. Women’s program manager Sharon Holburn has watched Niemi start caring for herself. Niemi looks healthy, and is able to sleep through the night without nightmares. She doesn’t push Holburn away like she used to.
“You would not have known her as the same woman she is today,” said Holburn.
Recovering Lilo is another positive development. While Lilo can’t stay at Ruth and Naomi’s, a staff member has agreed to adopt the pug, allowing Niemi to have the dog a few nights a month.
Niemi is fundraising for a wheelchair for Lilo that costs about $1,200.
The men’s Step Up program, launched in September, is full with six participants, and another six people are on the waiting list. Since February, the men have moved out of Ruth and Naomi’s second floor and into a separate nearby house.
Ruth and Naomi’s Mission hopes to open a third stage housing program in the future, through which people rent an apartment together while continuing to access the mission’s services.