For years, Gary Cobb’s story was one he felt he couldn’t escape. But in the end, it was telling his story, and hearing the stories of others, that set him free.
“Everyone has a story, and everyone’s story is sacred,” says Gary, who is a Community Outreach Coordinator. “Stories are what allow [many of] us to propel ourselves out of active addiction and homelessness - and to stay out.”
Gary works at Central City Concern, which operates the services and housing for people experiencing homelessness and addictions in Portland, Oregon. “People come into our program extremely beaten down through homelessness, addiction, substance abuse, and mental health issues,” says Gary. Many begin their journey at the agency’s Hooper Detoxification Stabilization Center.
Gary himself has long been acquainted with both addiction and homelessness. As one of the staff who identifies as being in recovery, he recalls his own story in detail.
“My earliest recollection of trying to escape was when I was seven years old and nearly passed out from sniffing gas,” Gary says. “My desire and ability to self-medicate set in at an early age.” Learning disabilities and an unshakeable sense of never belonging made school difficult for him. After years of sneaking and selling drugs between classes, Gary finally dropped out permanently in the eighth grade.
What followed was a twenty-five-year journey marked by several long periods of homelessness, a stint in the military, four different cities, and a lot of substance use. He often lived on the street, and – as he describes it – was “hopelessly addicted to heroin.”
Gary says he finally realized that he would die if something didn’t change. Friends told him about the Hooper Detoxification program in Portland, saying it had been successful in helping people detox from heroin. So Gary, feeling out of options and wanting to leave his addiction behind, went to Central City Concern.
There, he was able to access many services, all in one place. The organization’s medical clinic, which serves roughly 3,000 patients, is right next to a new mental health clinic that serves over 600 people. The Central City Concern Recovery Center, which meets the outpatient needs of 600 people in recovery, is across the street. “It’s pretty much a one-stop-shop,” says Gary. “We try to make our services as integrated as possible.”
Central City Concern uses a variety of models to place participants into transitional and permanent housing on-site and in the community. Gary was able to live in drug- and alcohol-free housing for many years, which he says was integral to his maintaining his new recovery lifestyle.
Roughly half of the 650 staff at Central City Concern identify as being in recovery themselves. Nearly a quarter of those have come through the very programs they now lead. This means that program participants are surrounded by a community of peers with a deep understanding of their struggles.
That level of peer support, says Gary, is one of the most important aspects of Central City Concern’s programs. Their Recovery Mentor Program matches individuals in recovery with new participants to help them succeed in their paths towards recovery. “Peer-to-peer relationships are the entry point [for people] and are just as key as any other services we offer,” he says.
Gary remembers when he first met his mentors, saying, “They looked like the people I used to buy drugs from.” But they were also different, somehow. “They had clarity and safety in their eyes when they spoke with me,” Gary explains. “And hearing their stories of recovery from active addiction helped me stay [in recovery].”
Soon after, Gary got a job through the Business Enterprises program that Central City Concern operates. The organization has a long tradition of hiring successful program participants as janitors and painters, among others. It’s a win-win situation: former participants take care of housing maintenance needs for the organization, but they also get a chance to become stabilized with an entry-level job. “Probably the best decision I made was to get that janitorial job,” Gary says. “It kept me connected, and I was able to build up a job history.”
Today, Gary says he is doing well. He has transitioned into the role of Community Outreach Coordinator and loves his job. He has positive relationships with his family and colleagues. He has a dog. He collects musical instruments and plays in several bands. He has a real community around him. And last year, he became a proud first-time homeowner – an achievement that, in former years, seemed unattainable.
These elements of Gary’s personal recovery from homelessness and addiction enrich and enable his outreach efforts every day. “One of the most rewarding things about my work is sharing the experience, strength, and hope that allows a person to pull through another minute, another day,” says Gary, who recently celebrated 11 years in recovery. “I tell people, ‘If you don’t believe anything else, believe me when I say it worked for me.’”
For Gary, the power of his – and others’ – stories are at the core of the work they do every day. He has seen people sign up for treatment after hearing his story, or come to him years later to tell him how his story changed their lives. “Because once you tell your story to folks, it gives them permission to tell their stories, too,” says Gary. “And one recovery story plus another recovery story makes up a community with a powerful and unified voice.”
Central City Concern is the recipient of multiple SAMHSA grants, including a grant from the Services in Supportive Housing (SSH) program of the Center for Mental Health Services.
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