Peace River Haven to become an addictions centre

It has sat empty for years, but the Peace River Haven building in Pouce Coupe is still filled with reminders of its past life.

A sunroom near the entrance of the former seniors home is packed with rows of empty hospital beds. A cardboard banner with the words "Bluebird Cafe" hangs over an empty cafeteria. A whiteboard near a nurses station lists the names and phone numbers of long gone staff.

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Walking through the cavernous facility Friday, Isaac Hernandez sees only possibility.

After months in limbo, the facility is set to become the region's first large-scale addictions treatment centre.

Hernandez, who is the executive director of the North Wind Healing Centre Society, said he hopes to renovate the building by the end of the year, and begin taking patients sometime between 2016 and 2020.

The building has 60 beds, divided into two wings, and would offer detox and aftercare programs to people with drug and alcohol addictions. Hernandez estimates the facility could cater to 1,500 people a year. It would employ around 40.

If the centre gets up and running, it will be the biggest breakthrough in a years-long push to set up an addictions treatment facility in a region that desperately needs one.

"This is one of the areas where we have the biggest gap in services, everywhere north of Prince George," Hernandez said. "We don't have detox services, we don't have aftercare services."

Northern Health quietly sold Peace River Haven, which sits on a hill on a bend in Highway 2 overlooking the Pouce River, to North Wind in January. It was last occupied in 2012. Last spring, the health authority put the land and buildings on the market.

Several groups worried that would end any chance the building had of being repurposed as a medical facility, and a 90-day stay was granted for community groups to make bids.

Some thought of using Peace River Haven as either a seniors or memory care facility. The Northern Lights Recovery Centre Society also eyed the building as an addictions treatment centre. That group made a bid which was not successful, and folded this spring.​

Hernandez offered $1 for Peace River Haven, which was listed for $1 million. The sale went through in January.

"We don't have a single penny to run it, but we think that money's going to come," he said.

The healing centre has a 10 bed facility in Farmington — the only addiction treatment beds in the region.

That centre is funded by the First Nations Health Authority and is aimed at Aboriginal people (though it admits people of all faiths and backgrounds.) The program is spiritually based and includes sweat lodges and smudging ceremonies. It focuses on treating addicts who have also experienced trauma — including in residential schools.

The facility in Pouce Coupe would offer a wider range of programs, Hernandez said.

Funding will be the biggest hurdle.

Fixing leaks, replacing doors, and repainting the building is expected to cost around $500,000.

Hernandez pegs the cost of treatment at $330 daily per patient — around $10,000 a month. That's cheaper than hospitalizing an addict, which costs roughly $1,100 for medical care alone, he said.

He wants to avoid dependence on government money — and would rely on a patchwork of grants, contracts and donations — including from the oil and gas industry.

One idea is to sell beds reserved for employees of oil and gas firms. The centre could also contract with the government to offer treatment beds — which would give the centre more control than if it accepted government grants.

The hope is to offer recovery and detox services free of charge.

"By staying away from getting everything from the government, we have the freedom to adapt the program, to change it, without all the red tape," said Hernandez.

While the sale was not publicized until recently, Pouce Coupe residents seem to support the idea, despite some early misgivings.

"People were concerned about bringing in addicts, that they might be wandering around the community," said Hernandez. "But we've had meetings with people to explain how we work, and they've been accepting."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Northern Lights Recovery Centre Society, another group seeking to establish a drug and alcohol addiction treatment centre in the region, passed on making a bid on the Peace River Haven building. Bruce Lantz, the former chair of that group, has indicated that the NLRC did in fact make a bid, which was not successful. Alaska Highway News regrets the error. ​

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