After three years of operating two registered recovery houses, in January 2016 Cole Izsak found what he believed — and still believes — is the perfect place.
But before taking possession, the owner and executive-director of Back on Track Recovery applied to the provincial health ministry to essentially grandfather his operation and transfer the registration of one of his houses to the new site.
Because Back on Track has never had any substantiated complaints, he didn’t expect any problems and, a month later, shut the registered house and opened a four-plex now called The Fortress.
The next month, Izsak closed one of the two houses that were registered by the provincial government and moved to the new compound with internal, off-street parking at 9889-140th Street in Surrey.
He still wasn’t concerned when in May, the ministry said it was putting a hold on his application while both the province and Surrey were formulating new regulations.
Since then, it is rare that any of the 40 beds — two per bedroom in each of the five-bedroom houses — are empty.
While Back on Track continues to operate the one registered house, The Fortress remains unregistered, with only two of four business licenses that it needs.
For the last 2½ years, Surrey’s bylaw inspectors have been telling Izsak that unless all four houses at The Fortress get their provincial registry, the city can’t license the houses until the registration from the health ministry comes through, certifying that services offered meet its standards of care.
In mid-May, Back on Track and its residents were told that the licenses were being revoked and the four houses would have to close at the end of July. It has since been given a reprieve, pending a decision from the provincial registrar.
“If Mr. Izsak’s registration comes through, we’ll be prepared to do our own inspections for renewal or issuance of the licenses,” bylaw services manager Kim Marosevich said this week.
In late May, after Maggie Plett first spoke publicly about her son Zachary’s death at another Surrey recovery house called Step by Step, Addictions Minister Judy Darcy told News 1130, “We’re trying to make up for lost time over the past many, many years since the scandal started to break.
“But I would expect that we will have new, stronger regulations and enforcement in place by the end of the year.”
Throughout all of this, the government has paid Back on Track the $30.90 per diem that covers the cost of room, board and recovery services for each welfare recipient living there — a rate that has remained unchanged for 16 years.
Izsak doesn’t know why the ministry has yet to make a decision on his application. The mental health and addictions ministry has not yet responded to my questions about it.
On Tuesday, Izsak gave me a tour of the four neatly kept houses. He showed me the well-supplied pantry where residents are free to take whatever food they want and as much as they want. There is also an open-air gym and smoking lounge. Every room has a naloxone kit in case of an opioid overdose, and every few weeks, residents are given training on how to use them.
The half-dozen residents that I spoke to privately — including one who said he had been in at least 20 such facilities — said The Fortress is the best. They talked about feeling safe, well-cared for, and even loved.
Izsak makes no apology for not having more set programming in the houses.
“People who are coming off the street or out of prison are not going to surrender to eight hours of programs per day,” he said. “But what they will surrender to is coming to a place like this where they are fed well, have a clean bed, a TV, and programming from 9 a.m. until noon.”
He acknowledged that there are no certified counsellors or therapists working there. He devised a recovery program called MECCA based on his own experiences in recovery that is delivered by others who are in recovery.
Izsak also said he cannot afford to hire certified addictions counsellors and specialized therapists, as they do at recovery houses where monthly rates are anywhere from $3,000 to $9,000 a month.
Right now, registered facilities don’t require that, according to the registry’s website.
What’s required is that all staff and volunteers “must have the necessary knowledge, skills, abilities and training to perform their tasks and meet the health and safety of residents.”
Far from bridling at more regulations, Izsak has a long list of his own that he would like the province to enact to weed out bad operators.
It includes random site inspections, manager-on-duty logbooks documenting what happens every two hours from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m., and a requirement that all operators provide their expense receipts.
After three recent deaths in recovery houses, Izsak is now a man on a mission.
“I want to close operations that are bad so that I’m not treated almost like a criminal because they acted unscrupulously.”
Of course, he first needs to save his own.