There’s a plot of land in North Texas that has a curious future. Right now, the natural, grassy slopes are waiting to be leveled, but then, every single inch is going to be dotted with tiny houses. Shannon White, founder of Grace to Change and the mother of this particular brainchild, couldn’t be happier.
Grace to Change is a substance abuse outpatient treatment center serving Collin County. They offer intensive outpatient services three days a week and supportive outpatient services two days a week. Their McKinney offices are a good place to be on a rainy day. They’re warm, with mismatched lamps—no fluorescents—and soft leather couches, piled with microfiber blankets. It feels like home. There’s someone curled up under one blanket, watching the news. Her name is Robbie.
Robbie is a recovering drug addict in outpatient treatment. She has a class later in the evening, but for now, she’s just there to hang out. She has an easy smile and a tattoo along one wrist, a pulse ending in a heart.
Robbie has been drinking and doing meth her whole life. But about three years ago when she started cycling in and out of jail and treatment centers, her addiction truly took over. For years, drugs ruled her life.
“You take a left going home and next thing you know you’re at the liquor store and you don’t even know why you’re there,” she says. “This last time [I was arrested], I knew that I was done. I had no more room to mess up. If I didn’t get treatment right away, I’d go back out there and that scared me.”
For Robbie, it’s a miracle that she ended up at Grace to Change. She hadn’t heard of it before, but while looking through different treatment centers, she stumbled across a brochure for Grace to Change.
“I just felt weird about the treatment center I was supposed to go to,” she says. “I can’t explain it. I said I wanted to come here instead. I told them I’d done treatment. If they didn’t let me do it my way, I’d rather go back to jail.” She made the right call. “Something is different here. It’s personal. You can feel their heart and their compassion. If I have a bad day, I come here. I can text my counselor in the middle of the night if I’m struggling. This is a place that changes lives.” She shrugs. “It’s gonna change me.”
Shannon White walks into the room and gives Robbie a hug. A former elementary school teacher, her natural gentle demeanor hides a steel backbone and a mathematical mind. She wears burnt orange shoes, a very proud graduate of The University of Texas at Austin. She jokes that these days, she probably wouldn’t be able to get in, which is why she’s so proud to be an alumna. She likes to talk about college as much as possible. Some of the people she serves never thought college was an option for them, and Shannon wants to prove them wrong. Grace to Change isn’t just about addressing the physical effects of drug addiction, but bringing hope back into the lives of their clients.
“We meet the needs of people, above and beyond their substance abuse issues,” Shannon explains.
Drug addiction has no single face. Grace to Change serves clients coming from Collin County’s most monied zip codes alongside others staying at Samaritan Inn. The drug problem here is bigger than it might appear.
“Things have changed,” she says. “Kids smoke weed in school and don’t get caught. Drug addiction stems from this need to feel different, no matter what the different is. We see a lot of opiates; a lot of Xanax and alcohol. There’s recently been an uptick in heroin. Meth is always a problem. With kids, it’s marijuana. Some drug dealers put meth or heroin on the weed so people will think it’s just really good quality and keep coming back,” Shannon explains grimly. “We have all these kids coming in and they swear they’ve never done anything harder than weed. They end up testing positive for heroin and meth.”
Shannon sees athletes who are put on pain medication and can’t get back off, and people with money who are hooked on prescriptions. Some of her clients had their doctors give out ridiculous prescriptions for pharms. “Hydrocodone goes for $20 a pill, Oxycodone goes for $80. I knew one guy whose doctor prescribed him huge amounts of hydrocodone, Xanax and morphine, all of that. He was selling and going through his whole supply in 10 days.”
People can be very deceptive about their drug use. Not all alcoholics drink all day every day; some might save it for huge, destructive binges. And yet, drugs take over the survival mechanism in our brains. Fulfilling an addiction becomes a matter of life and death.
“Drugs are a coping mechanism,” Shannon explains. “Our job is to get the physical addiction out, but you also have to learn other coping skills. You can’t expect a drug addict to get better without treatment.”
Times are tight for Grace to Change, but it’s so peaceful there, you’d probably never know it. There just isn’t much money to go around for substance abuse in Collin County. In 2009, 650 people in the county could get outpatient treatment at any one time. Since then, Collin County’s population has increased by a quarter of a million. The drug problem has gotten exponentially worse. But this year, the entire county is set to provide outpatient treatment to just 210 people. Grace to Change and other treatment centers have had to establish waiting lists, some three months long. But Shannon hasn’t let that slow her down.
“Waiting lists don’t work. If you wait, they’ll fall back into drugs,” she says. So Grace to Change began treating people for free, immediately, whether or not their funding had come in. “Honestly, the people who get it for free work the hardest to stay clean.”
Robbie started coming to treatment a full month before she started getting credit for it; credit that goes to helping her get off probation. She has never missed a class. Grace to Change never got paid for treating her, but she’s now considered a “lifetime member” and will receive aftercare for free for the rest of her life.
Shannon teaches a moral reconation therapy class at the jail every Tuesday. She’s done it for four years, working with six to 12 women at a time. Through the friendships she built, she began to notice a trend.
She explains her frustration: “I could get them excited about recovery, but once they got out of jail, they couldn’t get into a homeless shelter because of their charges. If you have a felony you can’t get an apartment. It’s hard to get a job. Plus, if you have a child endangerment charge, that’s assaultive, so you won’t get in [to a shelter]. If you have an open CPS case, most places won’t take you.
“So people have nowhere to go but back to their drug environments. If they do that, they will use again.” Shannon remembers one client who walked an hour from county jail to Grace to Change. She went there first because she knew if she didn’t get into treatment right away, she’d use again.
The first couple of days—even the first couple of hours—after someone with an addiction is released from jail are critical. If they relapse, chances are they’ll be arrested again and the cycle will continue.
According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals—an organization made up of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and clinical professionals who work to improve the justice system’s response to substance abuse—95 percent of people who are incarcerated with a substance abuse problem leave with one too. They also come out better equipped to use, having learned more tricks and expanded their network of dealers. Shannon has a client who spent over 400 days in jail and still walked away with a drug problem she couldn’t overcome.
In other words, jail doesn’t cure drug addiction. A conviction tends to net someone 130 to 150 days in jail. We, taxpayers, pay $70 a day for each individual in a cell. Though there are some notable local judges who are looking to beef up the treatment available in our county, that jail time and money add up very quickly .
“But if we can get them right as they walk out the door, we can help them,” Shannon explains. “If not, they might go straight back to their doctor for a prescription. If we can give them a place to stay, they won’t go back to the environment where they became addicts.”
If they can’t go home, there is no place in Collin County for the people coming out of jail with drug addictions. So, Grace to Change is building a place. The project is called Tiny House, Big Recovery.
“I love tiny houses,” she says. “I’m hooked on all the tiny house shows.” She went on the news to float the idea to the public. Almost immediately, someone called and offered up several acres of land to start a tiny new community.
They’re starting—no pun intended—small. At first the houses will be for women only, but Shannon hopes that with enough momentum a community can be opened for men as well. They’ll only have one or two houses at first, but when a woman comes in with no place to go, they’ll provide her with a house for free. She’ll have three roommates, other women in a similar situation. Once employed, she’ll be eased onto a payment plan, and then, she’ll move into another tiny house where she’ll only have one roommate. Eventually, she’ll get a tiny house of her own. They’ll never be asked to leave. Their home will be the starter kit for a new kind of family.
Each house will be simple. There will be four lofted beds, a large bathroom and a closet to share. Shannon envisions a living area and wrap-around kitchen with bar stools and a small place to eat. The first house, made for four, is being built by students at the Career and Technical Education Center, part of Frisco ISD. Another student has started interning with Shannon to help work on future designs.
“It’ll be minimalistic, but with the basic comforts of home,” she says. “I want it to be big enough to fit a couch. They’ll have bathtubs. We want it to feel like home.” She plans to offer them for free for the first 90 days, while Grace to Change provides food, transportation and treatment. People coming out of jail need identification and jobs, both of which Grace to Change will help them acquire. There will be drug tests and staff there at all times. Their goal will be to get their clients into the city during the day to rebuild their lives, then they’ll come back for support and a safe place to sleep.
“If they’re clean for 90 days and have a job, they can move to a two-person tiny house.” This house will cost $250 a month. The goal is to keep them moving forward. No one will ever be kicked out.
“I want my own house out there,” Shannon says. “I’m having so much fun planning it.”
While living there, each resident will receive Intensive and Supportive Outpatient substance abuse treatment. Eventually, Shannon hopes to have a community of 500 living together with staff members there at all times. This way, the bigger the project becomes, the better it’ll work. After all, someone fresh out of a cell and someone who’s been clean for a year are perfect partners for recovery.
“We’ve found when we give them supportive environments and love them and help them, their recovery becomes so much easier,” she says. “They don’t have the desire to go back. Drug addicts don’t want to be drug addicts.”
Grace to Change has run the numbers. It costs $70 every day to keep an individual in jail. It costs the state $1.63 a day to keep someone on probation. Tiny houses could be the key to keeping recovering drug addicts from becoming repeat offenders, giving them a chance to change their lives.
“It costs so much less to treat them than to jail them,” Shannon explains. She’s a former addict herself. At one point in her life, drinking “got the best” of her. After religiously attending AA meetings and fighting for her sobriety, Shannon is ten and a half years sober. She understands the struggle.
“I [started this] wanting to help people like me, people from great families with good jobs,” she explains wryly. “I’d never had legal issues—not that I didn’t deserve them. At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to work with people with records. Now, though, that’s my passion.”
The project is already taking off on little legs. Grace to Change is currently fundraising to build even more tiny houses. They’re also asking for assistance from roofers, plumbers, electricians, or any other tradesmen that would be willing to donate their time and/or supplies.
As the Grace to Change motto states: change a life, change a community. Grace changes everything.