Fifty years ago, a house sprung up on an obscure lot in downtown Baton Rouge, the beginnings of a hands-on nonprofit that would become far more than a resource for the city’s neediest residents—it would become, quite literally, a home.
Named for Paul S. “Pat” O’Brien, who dedicated decades of his life to counseling alcoholics and other addicts in need of a support system in Baton Rouge, O’Brien House, now located on Laurel Street, remains a rare example of an indigent recovery center, meaning that, unlike at pricey oases in the California desert, the clients who dip their heads beneath the doors of these downtown dormitories need not pay a dime for their shelter and services—usually because the disease of addiction has a habit of bringing people to the brink. Facilitating a step away from that dangerous ledge, the licensed counselors, social workers and healthcare workers at O’Brien House devote their days to helping homeless alcoholics and addicts in recovery develop their relapse prevention skills, furnishing a path toward stable jobs, stable housing and supportive relationships to encourage their journey into community reintegration, one day at a time.
“The campus we have here is a wonderful resource,” says Todd Hamilton, the nonprofit’s executive director. “We have six buildings, including three dorms and a small apartment building, a commercial kitchen, a dining hall, our office building and a building where our counseling meetings occur. On any given day we have between 80 and 100 people on our campus, between staff and clients, so it’s quite an operation!”
Typically, a client checking into one of O’Brien House’s 60 residential treatment beds or 10 inpatient treatment beds has already completed a 28-day program toward sobriety. Once on campus, they can expect to stay for around 90 days, a period of time they spend living with a roommate, eating regular meals and snacks prepared by in-house cooks, participating in recreational activities, completing chores, and, most importantly, spending between five to eight hours a day in group therapy, individual therapy and 12-step support group meetings.
“If in the process they’re able to reunite with family, that’s an added bonus,” says Hamilton, “especially for mothers who are reconnecting with grown children, or adults who are burying the hatchet from conflict with parents and gaining their trust again. These are the true gifts of recovery.”
Even small personal achievements take on enormous meaning when paired with a life putting itself back together again.
“We had one client who at 60 years old registered to vote for the first time,” says Hamilton. “How cool is that? In the world that we live in right now where every vote counts, it’s so affirming of your value as a person to accomplish that milestone.”
Unfortunately, the harrows of COVID-19 placed a particularly heavy burden not just on the funding that benefits O’Brien House—with assistive nonprofits like the Huey and Angelina Wilson Foundation also taking financial blows—but on the people who need its services the most.
“One of the things they typically teach in sobriety programs is to not isolate yourself from others,” says Jessica Guinn Johnson, chair of the board of directors. “So when all of a sudden these people are being told to isolate even more, it only exacerbates those feelings of hopelessness.”
One-on-one contact is one of the most affirming and nourishing parts of a recovery program, she says, and the strict rules around social distancing saw devastating side effects in Baton Rouge’s indigent population. For starters, O’Brien House wasn’t even allowed to admit new clients at the start of the pandemic, which meant that many people who could have used their services were left with almost no resources at all.
“National reports were showing that alcohol sales were increasing, overdoses were increasing, deaths from overdoses were increasing, and for people who were on the cusp of a crisis—being forced to isolate with no accountability and without anyone to reach out to—it was really tough,” says Johnson. “We just had to maintain the population we had and keep people safe.”
If the pandemic has taught us anything, perhaps it’s something that the staff of O’Brien House have known all along.
“There’s a misconception that these people’s situations are due solely to their choices, like they chose to become addicted or to become homeless, but that’s not true,” says Hamilton. “These are hard-pressed folks who have fallen on hard times. And who knows? In this pandemic, two paychecks lost and it could be you or me out on the street. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
At the end of the day, the success stories of O’Brien House’s continued influence are what keep the engine churning, with the organization hoping to host its annual breakfast event in person on September 29.
“When we were still having in-person graduations for our clients, I never left with dry eyes,” says Johnson. “Seeing the transformations and the new lives leaving the room on those days … that was really something else.”