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Austin Recovery Says It Can't Afford To Keep Addiction Treatment Centers Open Because Of COVID-19

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Austin Recovery said it decided to close now rather than missing payroll and having to "put people out on the curb."

Austin Recovery, a nonprofit that's provided substance abuse treatment in Central Texas since 1967, says it's closing its doors because of the coronavirus.

In a letter to staff last week, Austin Recovery board members said the organization's existing funding gaps were further widened because of the pandemic and that it had made the decision to discontinue its programs for inpatient and outpatient treatment for adults.

"Given our current operating and funding constraints, it is only a matter of time until we run out of money," the board wrote. "We do not want to put you at risk of missing a payroll and that is exactly what will happen if we continue to operate."

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Austin Recovery stopped accepting patients Friday for its inpatient treatment and detox programs at the Hicks Ranch, which it has operated since 1971. It will also discontinue outpatient treatment programs at its Edith Royal location on South Congress Avenue and at the Community First Village in East Austin. All programming will wind down by May 15.

Austin Recovery Chair Lynn Sherman says the nonprofit has had a rough time financially for the better part of a decade. While it has been one of the longest running options for drug or alcohol treatment in Austin for more than a half-century, it's still one of the few nonprofits.

Sherman says Austin Recovery has been reliant on contracts with Austin and Travis County, which subsidize care for low-income people seeking treatment. Mounting deficits pushed the nonprofit to sell its North Cross facility a few years ago, which cut the number of beds for its inpatient treatment and its capacity to break even. On top of that, Austin Recovery has seen three rounds of turnover at the administrative level over the last 10 years. 

"For the past four or five years, we have been fighting this with one arm tied behind our back," Sherman said. 

Recently, he said, the nonprofit sought bridge loans just to make payroll and had to borrow $500,000 against its facility on Hicks Ranch to close out 2019. While fundraising efforts were promising at the beginning of the year, Sherman said, COVID-19 changed the outlook for 2020.

"We made the very tough decision to go ahead and close, rather than having to do it in the middle of a maelstrom – where we'd miss payroll, have no money and basically have to put people out on the curb," he said. "And we just were not willing to do that."

Not all the nonprofit's services will discontinue, however, though it's rebranded as the Austin Recovery Network. The nonprofit's partnership with the UT Charter School System, which allows teens to participate in both treatment and high school classes, will continue – online, for now. And Austin Recovery's alumni group and youth program services will connecting people seeking help through online meetings, as well.

Austin Recovery co-CEO Julie McElrath says she thinks those meetings have been helpful for people in isolation, but that she hopes in-person meetings can pick back up in some fashion in the future.

"The idea that in this time we're in right now that we can connect the people that we serve virtually is critical," she said. "I think that the services will be needed more now than ever. I think that when this is over ... getting back to person-to-person support is going to be critical."

Sherman said it's possible some of the nonprofit's in-person services may come back, but he couldn't say for sure, in light of uncertain financial futures for both the city and the county – which are already facing state-mandated revenue caps.

"We are going to try, but we are doing it in probably the most difficult financial environment," he said. "So sufficed to say, we're committed enough to try and make it work, but it remains to be seen whether or not we can put the pieces together."

Sherman added he hopes that, when this pandemic is over, some focus will shift back to addiction services and to the most prolific cause of death for people under the age of 50 before COVID-19: accidental overdose.

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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