Phoenix House of Venice Beach

Discovering Phoenix House
An Antioch University Paper

I got a great deal out of the class and the field trips, but I have to admit that I had a hard time integrating the theoretical constructs from the class time with the practical issues of the non-profits we visited.  The packet talks of various ways that one can conceptualize one's environment as points, volumes, etc.... If I'm honest, I still don't see a practical use for those specific characterizations, but I certainly see a very important need to think critically about the way we set up our environment.  Even previous to coming to Antioch, one of my major issues with the universe was the way it appears to be constructed to maximize the possible alienation of humans in it.  We divide ourselves in as many ways as possible and then we wonder why rates of depression are on the rise.  We take great lengths to earn enough money to have the maximum amount of space between us and our neighbors and then we wonder why we feel lonely.  In this sense, I can draw a connection between the ways that space is used in my community and the trip we made to Phoenix house.

I live down the block from Phoenix House and pass it all the time on my way up or down the beach paths.  It is quite distinctive in my Venice neighborhood because there are often groups of intimidating looking men outside, smoking, and generally minding their own business, but definitely a bit out of place on the Venice boardwalk.  I am ashamed to admit that one of my primary thoughts when I pass them was that this was a waste of space that could be used for beachfront housing.  Such is the way that society has insidiously worked it’s way into my thinking, that the beach ‘belongs’ to the wealthy.  This thought is quite shocking in light of the fact that I consider myself somewhat of a populist and am one of the first people to get upset at the way that, for example, the wealthy residents of parts of Marina Del Rey monopolize access to their beach by refusing to extend the bike path and boardwalk from Venice.

The beach and the ocean are a precious resource and we should spend it wisely.  Is it better spent on another apartment building where 5 or 6 wealthy young couples can live the bohemian dream on the Venice Boardwalk?  Or is it better spent as a place where hundreds of people can get their lives back on track each year?  If a few young professionals have to live a bit farther from the beach, is society really that impacted.  How affected are their lives really?  But if a few of the people who go through Phoenix House are inspired by their surroundings to live a more peaceful and serene life, what effect can that have on society?  What effect will that have on their families and the communities that they eventually return to?  Just what is an effective use of space on the Venice Boardwalk.

Taking an inventory of the boardwalk, there are countless shops which sell souvenirs to tourists.  There are people who take their guitars and play in the hopes that they will entertain the tourists.  Venice Beach hosts more tourists than any place in Los Angeles…more than Disneyland or Universal Studios…and so I can’t say that the existence of so many places that cater to the tourists is a poor use of space.  But it isn’t as if there is a shortage of places which cater to tourists either.  Indeed, there are actually lots of empty storefronts on the boardwalk.  During the week, many of the vendors don’t even bother to show up as there aren’t enough tourists to support them all.

Also existing on the boardwalk are a few social institutions.  There is a home for senior citizens perhaps a 100 yards from the Phoenix House.  Right next to the Phoenix House is a Jewish Community Center which labels itself the ‘schul on the beach’.  Further down the boardwalk, near the skatepark, is a place that is designed for young artists to go and spray paint walls.  Down one of the sidestreets from the Phoenix House is an art gallery which shows movies about Venice history every Wednesday.  In contrast to some of the tourist establishments, these areas are used during the week or even during the evenings.  One might say that they are more fully utilized than the tourist establishments if you think of utilization as a function of the amount of time that a space actually is used versus when it remains empty.  Perhaps even more illuminating are the people on the boardwalk who actually come out most every day, during the week and on weekends, when it is cloudy and when it is sunny.  Those are the people who display artwork telling people to ‘make love not war’, sell stickers dedicated to animal rights, or write billboards dedicated to 9/11 conspiracies.  I don’t agree with everything they say and some of those billboards are downright scary if you asked me, but I have to admit that the people of Venice seem to want to make the world a better place, whatever that happens to mean to them.  The mission of the Phoenix House is to “serve those whose lives are threatened, disordered, or devastated by drug abuse, to heal families, and to strengthen communities”.  The people who sell hemp t-shirts with marijuana leaves and the people who sell ‘My Governor can kick your Governor’s Ass!’ t-shirts with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the front would probably agree that the Phoenix House makes the world a better place.  Is the Phoenix House a good use of space?  Does it serve the goals of the community?  Absolutely!  It certainly is more effective than the vacant building on the beach a few blocks to the north, more unique than the hat shops next to the vacant building, and more utilized than the condos being built next to the hat shops.

Aside from thinking about the use of space in our communities, the class appears to be a direct call to action to take concrete steps to improve the situation around us.  Through the various exercises, he is clearly attempting to get us to question the justness of society.  Through the quotes, he seeks to inspire us to action.  Through witnessing the actions of others at the non-profits we visited, he seeks to show us the possibilities for contributing towards solutions to the problems we may have thought of in class.  At least that is part of my interpretation of events.  Is Phoenix House contributing towards the level of social justice in society?  I am not sure how qualified I am to judge them based on my second hand information, but there are some very good clues as to their effectiveness.

For one, the Phoenix House organization has been doing the work they have been doing since 1967.  According to their website, it is the nation’s largest non-profit substance abuse services organization.  “We treat some 6,000 men, women and adolescents each day in more than 100 programs at close to 60 locations in nine states (California, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Texas and Vermont).”  One can assume that an organization does not reach such scope and sustainability without impressing a lot of people with the results of their work.

Indeed, Phoenix House has an admirable tradition of actually tracking the results of the work that they do and adjusting their practices accordingly.  There is a rather large study being done by the RAND corporation which will not be completed in time for this paper, but the scope of it shows some of the emphasis which RAND places on research.

 

DPRC researchers are joining with the staff of the Phoenix House to answer some of these questions. More specifically, the work will address three areas. First, it will attempt to fill in some of the gaps of earlier research on the process of care by designing and testing better instruments for measuring the process in Phoenix House programs. Second, since any approach to assessing and improving the quality of care must take into account differences among clients, the study will consider variation in client characteristics. Finally, the project will analyze the effects of new ways of financing and the structure of treatment processes on outcomes. New ways of financing could lead to more efficient ways of delivering care or, depending on the incentives, make them less efficient or equitable. Drawing on research about the delivery of other health services (e.g. fixed-price contracting) may lead to important insights about drug treatment at Phoenix House.  http://www.rand.org/publications/CP/CP201(99)/collaborating.html

 

RAND has completed smaller studies of Phoenix House work.  One study of 175 teenage youths who attended the Phoenix Academy of Los Angeles because of their involvement in the criminal justice system yielded this quote by one of the researchers.

 

"This is the first clear evidence that the kinds of substance abuse treatments commonly available to teens can be effective," said Andrew Morral, a RAND researcher and lead author of the study, in a RAND press release. "In the program we studied, improvement began immediately and continued for at least 12 months." http://www.jointogether.org/sa/action/dt/news/reader/0,2812,574572,00.html

 

In addition to RAND, a well respected research institution based in Santa Monica which regularly does research for the US Government in highly sensitive and important areas such as bioterrorism, Phoenix House has enlisted the aid of leading universities such as UCLA and Columbia University in New York.   Clearly, Phoenix House is dedicated to continuously examining the results of their work in a critical manner such that they ensure the continued effectiveness and improvement out their outcomes.

Statistics and academia aside, just what does the work that Phoenix House does look like from a personal perspective?  Consider the case of Robert Smith, a homeless man in Illinios who was quoted as saying "I love this place because I have no place else to go, I'm homeless." (http://www.pjstar.com/stories/021305/TER_B5I5OAP5.009.shtml)  Consider the plight of the director of the Venice Phoenix House who led us on our tour and related his own story of how a Treatment Community set him on his path to 50 years of sobriety and a life dedicated to sharing that gift with others.  The “improvement” and “positive outcomes” which Andrew Morral talks about in his research are not mere numbers but reflect a dramatic impact in the lives of people who, in an age where centers like Promises in Malibu can charge more than $30,000/month of residential treatment, may have no place else to go.

Social programs such as Phoenix House are often seen as social programs that fiscal conservatives would love to cut from their budget.  I wasn’t able to get figures specific to the Venice Beach Phoenix House facility, but ironically, the figures I did get came from the heart of current conservative thought, Texas.  The Department of State Health Services in Texas estimates that under 5 percent of people who need treatment are able to receive it, yet “A study by Texas Perspectives, an economic analysis firm, finds that for every dollar spent on treatment, Texas saves $5 in areas such as reduced truancy, crime, incarceration, health-care costs and increased productivity” This only counts the direct costs associated with the individual who is experiencing the issue with drugs, but what about all the people who are involved in this persons life.  What about the costs of the child who grows up parentless and ends up in jail himself? In the words of a board member of Phoenix House quoted in a Texas newspaper, “The health care and education systems in Texas would both reap the benefits of a reinvestment in treatment services….more teens will graduate from high school and become productive workers, or move on to college where they will acquire the skills Texas businesses need.“ (http://www.statesman.com/opinion/content/editorial/02/7farabee_edit.html)  

Seeing the work that Phoenix Housed does is indeed a call to action and a wake up call as far as my traditional ideas about how space and resources should be used in my community.  The ocean is a precious research which belongs to the poor and disenfranchised as much as it does to the wealthy.  I am glad that we live in a country where there is at least a small area where people can park their motor vehicle on the street by the beach and play their guitar on the boardwalk to buy a slice of pizza.  I am glad that I live in a community which shows a real interest in bettering the world around us.  And I am honored to live near a place like Phoenix House which does so much for so many people on a daily basis.




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