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Spokane’s Opioid Emergency: Religious Organizations Adapt to Aid Addiction Crisis

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News Story by Mia Gallegos | FāVS News

Mayor Lisa Brown recently declared a state of emergency in Spokane due to the rampant opioid crisis. While unsurprising to many residents, this announcement has prompted local religious organizations to reevaluate their approaches to helping those struggling with addiction on the city’s streets.

Adult and Teen Challenge PNW is a Christ-centered organization that uses a comprehensive approach to take people off of the streets and away from the lifestyle that they may have taken up when living in the elements. Tyson West, the executive director of the  all-male Spokane campus, said that he’s noticed a difference in the last few years in terms of the severity of the drug crisis he’s seen among the homeless people that his organization seeks out.

“The crisis should have been declared years ago. We’re definitely seeing (an increase) in our street outreaches. We’re seeing people overdose, being administered Narcan or CPR,” West said. 

From Addict to Advocate

Street outreaches are a chance for the men who are going through the Adult and Teen Challenge program – which lasts 12 months and includes several stages of training that work to detach the men from their addiction – to go out and encourage others to step away from their inclinations and to seek hope in something greater: Jesus Christ. 

Tyson West/Contributed

West explained how he came through the program back in 2011 after living on the streets of Spokane with several addictions of his own to overcome. 

“I tried numerous programs, I knew I needed to change and just didn’t know how. I got saved,” West said. 

He went on to explain that he doesn’t believe he was using drugs because it was the only thing to do when you’re homeless. In my time of living in Spokane, I’ve gleaned that this is a commonly held conception: that the unhoused population of the city is getting into addictive usage of these substances merely because there is nothing more to do on the streets. However, West had a different take on the reason behind many homeless people’s draw to these drugs.

“From personal experience, I wasn’t using (drugs) because I was homeless. Our perspective here (at Adult and Teen Challenge) is that we see substance abuse and addiction as a part of the fact that we live in a fallen world. It has sin’s fingerprints all over it. How do we address the sin issue, well that’s Jesus,” West said. 

Four-Stage Recovery

The Adult and Teen Challenge’s program has four stages. The first stage is Residential Recovery, which moves on to Behavioral Health and then on to Vocational Training, with the last stage in the program being Outreach. The latter of these steps to completing the program is when the aforementioned street outreaches take place, to draw new men into the program and encourage them to see how Jesus can work in their lives.

Adult and Teen Challenge INW/Mia Gallegos – FāVS News

West believes that Adult and Teen Challenge’s approach to aiding those afflicted with addiction may be different than some of the other governmental organizations that the mayor has enlisted to confront the issue. The main reason for this difference is the fact that they are a Christ-centered nonprofit. Another thing that West and his team are taking into consideration as they continue to move through this opioid epidemic is the fact that their year-long program is not going to be appealing to many who are stuck in their ways.

“People want the path with least resistance. We embarked on a campaign to do a facility expansion where we can provide outpatient services. Let’s get people here, experience healing and get some confidence and some self-dignity and maybe if they have clarity of mind they might make that decision to step into the long program,” West said. 

This outpatient program involved the integration of four new counselors within the organization, which West said would aid in helping 1,000 more people annually.

Differing Approaches Downtown

Another reason why Adult and Teen Challenge differs from other organizations in their approach to handling addiction is within their “cold-turkey” method of helping the men they bring in and through the program.

“We’re an abstinence based program. We’re not about managing addiction,” West said. “We’re about transforming it and setting it free.”

Churches in the downtown area where this crisis has been declared most prevalent (Between the Division and 2nd Avenue corridor), are also dealing with some challenges as they face the drug crisis that surrounds their buildings.

Chris Merkling, the pastor of Orchard Christian Fellowship, explained how the location of their church has caused low attendance numbers within the parish.

“We have a congregation of about 100-125 people. It’s not the part of town where a lot of people are attracted to. We think that has contributed to the fact that we haven’t gotten much bigger. Many people don’t feel safe coming into the area,” Merkling said.

Similarly to West, Merkling also has noticed a shift in the attitudes and numbers of the unhoused community living in Spokane just within the last couple of years. Orchard Christian Fellowship has a similar method of outreach to Adult and Teen Challenge PNW, where parish members go out and serve breakfast to the homeless people around the church and near the most prominently affected area of the opioid crisis. This is a way to feed the hungry, while also giving them tidbits of the gospel and inviting those interested back to the church for a short Bible study catered to one in their position. 

“The folks we would interact with, they always demonstrated a bit of respect to the church. They even demonstrated a bit of protectiveness towards the church. That started changing about four years ago,” Merkling said. 

He explained how after COVID, the vandalism, break-ins and vehicle thefts seemed to increase, along with less of an aptness for these people to come and see the Good News that parishioners of Orchard Christian Fellowship were seeking to deliver along with the breakfast burritos. Merkling explained how it seemed as though something needed to change in terms of their approach, but he wasn’t sure of what. 

Church Outreach Meets New Challenges

Merkling believes that Spokane’s generosity as a city in terms of housing shelters and other homeless initiatives may be having an effect that is not helping the unhoused population of the city, but teaching them how to rely on these resources and become complacent rather than growing a desire to get off of the streets.

“I believe (the housing facilities) are well-intentioned but they really become a magnet of sorts to different people who want to live off the system without any intention of wanting to change. That’s a real dynamic in the homeless community, I’ve seen. It is way too easy to get resources without any accountability or demonstration of any desire to make a change,” Merkling said. 

Merkling emphasized that the real change he’s seen within members of the unhoused and opioid-addicted members of the community took place in moments when these people came into the church and sought out Jesus.

West had a similar opinion, believing that it was Christ who saved his own life. The approach and overarching characteristic of God is love: unabiding and unconditional. This is something that West emphasized was another necessary element in the battle against this opioid epidemic that has inundated the city for years.

“Addiction is not a problem to be solved, it’s people who need to be loved and healed,” West said.

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Mia Gallegos
Mia Gallegos
Mia Gallegos is a junior studying Journalism and Digital Marketing at Gonzaga University. Her love for journalism began in high school within her hometown of Broomfield, Colorado. She has written for the Gonzaga Bulletin since she first began at GU. Aside from writing, she is a passionate dancer and member of the Gonzaga University Bomb Squad, GU’s exclusively Hip-Hop dance team. Mia is a dedicated Catholic and is excited to be interning with FāVS during the Spring 2024 semester. She is looking forward to learning about religions aside from her own and to gain more journalistic prowess by working with the skilled reporters of FāVS.

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Chuck McGlocklin
Chuck McGlocklin
11 hours ago

People, were, and still are, drawn to Jesus when they see Him in others as the answer to their problems. When they see Jesus living out His life in those who are surrendered to Him, giving them victory over the sins that have enslaved them. To desire Jesus is to recognize that “I” have a problem that only He can fix.
It was not the absence of the 10 commandments or the Bible in the classroom but being taught that they are “special” and “deserving” which is translated as “I am better than you”. “I deserve” means you owe me. That has created an entitlement culture that blames others for what they do not have.
Yes, Jesus gave before we asked and when we did NOT deserve forgiveness; but the only acceptable response is to give others what Christ has given us. That shows that we understand what it is that we have received; power to overcome sin.
That is never acceptable to those who blame you for what they do not have.

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