A drug treatment program in Whangārei has billed itself as “the best rehabilitation program” in New Zealand. But a Hutt Valley man said rehab only involved hours and hours of chopping firewood.
After more than five months on the Victory House course, Clint Holmes decided he’d rather risk ending up in jail than move on.
Another former resident said there was ‘no clinical rehabilitation’. Yet another said it was a firewood business for men trying to get out of prison.
Only five people have graduated in Victory House’s 3.5 years of operation, although the center does not disclose how many have enrolled in the course which lasts at least 12 months.
The Department of Corrections found new accommodation for the men who feared for their safety and advised local courts that the course had not been assessed and may not be suitable for bail or release.
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A firewood company first
Victory House is billed as a faith- and activity-based addiction recovery program, modeled after an Australian program of the same name.
The Whangārei program 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 professional rugby league in Australia and ended up in jail.
After returning to New Zealand in 2017, he started a program here and was now a house supervisor. It has room for eight residents.
Victory House is a non-profit organization, closely linked to the Arise Church, the controversial religious organization accused of “bigoted behavior”, racism, sexual assault and conversion therapy, which has received nearly 15 million dollars donated last year.
However, none of the former residents Things complained about the church even though they were curious about the connection and what the church knew about what happened at Victory House.
“A few” church members have sponsored Nahi to run the program, and most of the seven board members are from Arise. Residents attend church services at Arise and recovery church services at the Salvation Army.
A video posted online by a man who graduated from the program showed a pastor inviting the congregation to donate to the program or buy him firewood. The pastor said church members were involved in governance and supportive of the program.
The church did not respond to attempts to contact her.
Residents pay $260 a week from their disability allowance to participate in the program, which does not have its own counselors or treatment staff. Residents paid an additional $30 if they wanted to see an outside counsellor.
It was, according to a former resident, a firewood business that used men trying to get out of jail.
“The Worst Six Months of My Life”
Holmes went to the electronically monitored bail program, wanting treatment for methamphetamine use earlier this year. He was awaiting sentencing for breaching an internal protection order and uttering threats.
“I went up there because I wanted a change,” he said in an interview. “I just had the worst six months of my life splitting firewood and being slaughtered. I know rehab isn’t a magic pill, but I want the chance to see what other people see.
Holmes, 47, was arrested for breaching bail but is back on bail, working and on an outpatient program through CareNZ.
Former NRL player Chris Nahi lost it all to a drug addiction he started while playing professional rugby league. (First published March 2018)
He left the program after sleeping in a living room instead of sharing a designated bedroom with a “world record snorer”.
Two other residents were demoted – adding months to any possible graduation – for failing to report him. One of the rules of Victory House was that you broke a rule if you didn’t call others out for breaking the 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 told he might be in the wrong program, Holmes cut off his electronic bracelet and took off.
There would always be people leaving unhappy, Nahi said, but the program of work and activities was all 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 work hard,” he said.
Another man said he spent a week at the center. The first two days were spent copying the rules three times – 140 general rules and dozens more for conduct and property behavior.
He asked not to release his name due to concerns about his upcoming trial. He said he tried to follow the rules but was ‘hammered’ with hours chopping firewood.
Others who disputed breaking a rule were granted even more hours. “I would have started crying if he had done this to me,” the man said.
He straightened out a floor mat that he thought was a tripping hazard. He was reserved for not wearing closed shoes when doing house maintenance. He put on shoes and was then booked for wearing his shoes in the living room.
Another man, who also asked to remain anonymous due to concerns for his future, said he had been in the program for months and there was ‘no clinical rehabilitation’.
He felt good about connecting to Arise Church. “I’m a Christian, but for people who aren’t on this journey, it would almost be nonsense for them to have God as an option, and that’s the only option.”
Concerns about the program
The Department of Corrections, which does not fund or monitor Victory House, nevertheless has concerns about the program.
He helped find alternative accommodation for people concerned about their safety and said
local courts, the program may not be suitable for people out on bail or looking for accommodation while serving a sentence.
The program lacked planning and overall support for participants to successfully reintegrate after leaving the program, said Stuart Harris, acting director of correctional operations for the northern region.
Feedback from men who had taken the course was that it focused on physical tasks rather than resolving their addictions, he said.
Asked about Corrections’ concerns, Nahi said he would no longer respond to “nonsensical or false comments about our program.” He pointed to positive testimonials posted on the Victory House website.
Nahi said the program is intended to have residents “ready to work” when they are done.
People could do jobs other than chopping wood, such as gardening, he said. The sale of firewood has raised money for additional activities such as paintball, movies and restaurants – although not all residents have been allowed to do so, Nahi said.
Residents only worked 4.5 hours a day, three days a week, Nahi said. But former residents said they cut firewood for many more hours than that.
Breaking the rules had ‘consequences’
Nahi agreed that Victory House had a lot of rules and the consequences of breaking them could be chopping firewood or other chores.
Stuff spoke to five people who had been to Victory House and a close family member of another man.
A man stayed for a month. He had learning difficulties and found the weekly paper studies difficult and frustrating.
The men studied the Bible to answer sets of questions, he said. With no one to guide him, he struggled.
He tried to find another treatment center, but an alternative had a 20-week waiting list. However, a different course took him when he learned he was at Victory House, he said.
One man said he was “walking on eggshells” all the time because of the punishments.
Cutting wood “a full-time job”
Chopping wood was like a full-time job, he says. A probation officer helped him find another place to go.
A woman whose family member took the course was disappointed with the lack of clinical therapy. One hour a week was not rehabilitation, she said.
When Things spoke to Nahi recently, four men lived in Victory House and there was room for four more.
He had already started studying for a degree in social work and hoped to resume next year.
He was following a vocation begun in prison. In 2018 he said Things about this 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 have since.