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The 'treatment' at Whangārei addiction centre: Chopping wood – Stuff

A Whangārei addiction treatment programme advertised itself as “the best rehabilitation programme” in New Zealand. But a Hutt Valley man said the rehab involved only hours and hours of chopping firewood.
After more than five months on the Victory House course, Clint Holmes decided he would rather risk ending up in jail than continue.
Another former resident said there was “zero clinical rehabilitation”. Yet another said it was a firewood business for men trying to get out of jail.
Just five people have graduated in the 3½ years Victory House has been running, although the centre doesn’t disclose how many have enroled for the course that takes at least 12 months.
The Department of Corrections has found new accommodation for men who were concerned about their safety, and advised local courts that the course had not been assessed and might not be suitable for bail or release.
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Victory House is promoted as a faith and activity-based addiction recovery programme, modelled on an Australian one of the same name.
The Whangārei programme was started by Chris Nahi, a reformed drug addict and former National Rugby League player, who attended Victory House on the Gold Coast, run by his brother and sister-in-law, Vibe Church pastors David and Louise Nahi.
Chris Nahi, 48, started using drugs while playing rugby league professionally in Australia, and ended up in prison.
After he returned to New Zealand in 2017, he started a programme here and was now house supervisor. It has space for eight residents.
Victory House is a not-for-profit, with strong links to Arise church, the controversial religious organisation accused of “cult-like behaviour”, racism, sexual assault and conversion therapy, which received nearly $15m in donations last year.
However, none of the former residents Stuff spoke to complained about the church although they were curious about the connection and how much the church knew about what happened at Victory House.
“A couple” of church members sponsored Nahi to run the programme, and most of the seven-member trust board are from Arise. Residents attend church services at Arise and recovery church services at the Salvation Army.
A video posted online of one man graduating the programme showed a pastor inviting the congregation to donate to the programme, or buy firewood from it. The pastor said church members were involved with governance and supporting the programme.
The church did not respond to attempts to contact it.
Residents pay $260 a week from their disability allowance to attend the programme, which does not have its own counsellors or treatment staff. Residents paid another $30 if they wanted to see an external​ counsellor.
It was, according to one former resident, a firewood business that used men who were trying to get out of jail.
Holmes went to the programme on electronically-monitored bail wanting treatment for methamphetamine use earlier this year. He was awaiting sentencing for breaching a domestic protection order and making threats.
“I went up there because I wanted to change, ” he said in an interview. “I have just had the worst six months of my life splitting firewood and being put down. I know rehab is not a magic pill but I want that chance to see what others see.”
Holmes, 47, was arrested for breaching his bail but is now out on bail again, working and doing an outpatient programme through CareNZ.
He left the programme after sleeping in a lounge instead of sharing a designated room with a “world record snorer”.
Two other residents were demoted – adding months before any possible graduation – for failing to tell on him. One of the rules of Victory House was that you broke a rule if you didn’t call out others for breaking rules.
Holmes said he tried to talk about the demotions with Nahi and was told to leave.
Nahi said Holmes wouldn’t wait his turn to speak, and when he was told he was perhaps in the wrong programme, Holmes cut his electronically monitored bracelet and took off.
There would always be people who left disgruntled, Nahi said, but the working and activity programme was about accountability.
“We’ll give anyone a chance, like, at the end of the day change isn’t easy and it’s up to them to put in the hard work,” he said.
Another man said he lasted a week at the centre. The first couple of days were spent copying the rules three times – 140 general rules and dozens more for driving and behaviour at the property.
He asked to withhold his name due to concern about his upcoming court case. He said he tried to stick to the rules but was “hammered” with hours chopping firewood.
Others who disputed breaking a rule were given even more hours. “I would have started crying if he had done that to me,” the man said.
He straightened a floor rug he thought was a trip hazard. He was booked for not wearing enclosed shoes while doing house maintenance. He put on shoes and then was booked for wearing his shoes in the lounge.
Another man, who also asked to remain nameless because of his concerns for his future, said he stayed on the programme for months and there was “zero clinical rehabilitation”.
He felt good about the connection to Arise church. “I am a Christian but for people not on that journey it would be almost nonsense for them to be provided with God as an option, and that is the only option.”
The Department of Corrections, which does not fund or monitor Victory House, nevertheless has concerns about the programme.
It has helped find alternative accommodation for people concerned for their safety there, and has told
local courts the programme might not be suitable for those on bail or looking for a place to live while serving a sentence.
The programme lacked planning and wraparound support for participants to successfully reintegrate after leaving the programme, said Stuart Harris, the Corrections acting operations director for the northern region.
Feedback from men who had been on the course was that it focused on physical tasks as opposed to addressing their addictions, he said.
Asked about Corrections’ concerns, Nahi said he would not answer “any more absurd or untrue comments about our programme”. He pointed to positive testimonials posted on the Victory House website.
Nahi said the programme aimed to have residents “work ready” when they finished.
People could do work other than chopping wood, such as gardening, he said. Selling firewood raised money for extra activities such as paintball, movies and restaurants – although not all residents were allowed those, Nahi said.
Residents worked for only 4½ hours a day, three days a week, Nahi said. But former residents said they were chopping firewood many more hours than that.
Nahi agreed Victory House had a lot of rules and the consequences of breaking them could be chopping firewood or other tasks.
Stuff spoke to five people who had been to Victory House and a close family member of another man.
One man stayed for a month. He had learning difficulties and found weekly paper-based study hard and frustrating.
The men studied the bible to answer sets of questions, he said. Without someone to guide him, he struggled.
He tried to find another treatment centre, but an alternative had a 20-week waiting list. However, a different course took him when it learned he was at Victory House, he said.
One man said he was “walking on egg shells” the whole time because of the punishments.
Chopping wood was like a full time job, he said. A probation officer helped find him somewhere else to go.
A woman whose family member went on the course was disappointed at the lack of clinical therapy. One hour a week was not rehabilitation, she said.
When Stuff recently spoke to Nahi four men were living at Victory House and it had room for four more.
He had previously started to study for a social work degree, and hoped to resume that next year.
He was following a calling begun in prison. In 2018 he told Stuff about that change.
“I was in jail, I was paranoid and broken and I cried out, ‘God if you’re real, help me’. Then I heard his voice, ‘Follow me and I’ll restore you’, so I’ve been following him ever since.”
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