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Latino advocate brings addiction services to city

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Miguel Tellez is a former addict who now runs a residential group home in Rockwood for Latino men recovering from addiction. Miguel Tellez knows what it’s like to need help.

As a teenager who moved with his family from Mexico to Arizona, Tellez turned to drugs and alcohol as a release from being frustrated with the discrimination he faced as a poor teen who didn’t yet speak English.

“My social circle was mostly a lot of youth in the same predicament,” Tellez said. “We gathered together, which is now considered a gang. We were juvenile delinquents, and addiction was the driving force.”

Tellez has lived in Gresham almost two decades now and been sober for 25 years. Last month, Tellez, an employee of Volunteers of America, became the director for Gresham’s first residential addiction program for Latino men.

With help from Multnomah County, Tellez opened the addiction treatment center at 154 N.E. 168th Ave., which has room for eight men and looks no different than any other house on the block.

Each room has bunk beds, and there’s a common area with a couch, TV and some books. On the wall is a large calendar where appointments are noted down, and another white board has a list of emergency contacts.

The men need to be at least a few days sober when they first arrive at the house. Residents attend daily treatment services such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous and counseling sessions.

Many of the men who seek help through a residential program have already tried and failed at outpatient treatment programs, while some are homeless or unemployed or don’t speak English, or don’t yet have legal status in America, Tellez said.

The men go through three phases in the program, each lasting about two months. The first phase is about becoming stable and getting used to going to AA meetings and support groups. In the second phase, the men are allowed visits with their families and begin volunteer work. During Phase 3, the men can look for jobs and develop a plan for leaving the house and staying in recovery. During each phase, the men must pass a drug test twice a week.

While they are working and living in the house, half of their pay goes into a savings account that they inherit when they leave the program.

“Demand for social services in Gresham has outpaced the supply for a long time,” said Joe Walsh, senior manager of Neighborhood Prosperity and Youth Engagement in Gresham. “It is promising to see organizations like Volunteers of America working hard to address those needs.”

Tellez said among most important aspects to keeping the Latino community away from drugs are alcohol prevention programs that begin in middle school and high school. To that end, the city has two gang outreach workers in the police department who work with at-risk youth in the community around problems such as substance abuse.

The city has a mindfulness program at Rosemary Anderson High School and the Friday Night basketball program.

“Though none of those programs are specifically aimed at reducing substance abuse, all of them provide youth with different assets, which do have an impact on youths’ ability to avoid unhealthy decisions such as substance abuse,” Walsh said.

Tellez said there is a growing awareness that organizations providing addiction services need to be more inclusive of the Latino community, but there is still a huge gap in coverage.

“I’ve been in this work for 17 years and because I am Latino, all my work has been concentrated in trying to fill the gap for addiction services in the Latino community,” Tellez said. “Years and years ago it was almost nonexistent. They fall through the cracks. There are no services available.”

Tellez is a certified drug and alcohol counselor and a certified gambling addiction counselor. He’s also a qualified mental health practitioner and has a bachelor’s degree in human services.

Barriers for Latino men to getting and staying sober include the lack of affordable housing and employment in the Portland metro area.

“It can be a pretty disparaging lifestyle, and despair breeds depression and anxiety,” Tellez said. “When you can’t get a job and can’t speak the language and don’t have legal status, that creates a lot of anxiety and depression and anger, and lots of people resort to addiction to substances to alleviate that.”

He’s hoping for a 75 percent success rate at the house and to eventually get more funding to expand the program.

Spots are currently available in the house.

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