PROVIDENCE — Stephanie Lafleur’s childhood wasn’t easy. She and her sister bounced from one house to the next as her parents were in active addiction. When she was 15, her father went to prison.
That same year, she was introduced to ecstasy. By 17, she was kicked out of her parents’ house and had started using heroin. For the next few years, she would seesaw between sobriety and using everything from Vicodin and Oxy to cocaine and crack, crystal meth at one point, and heroin.
“I was sober and then I would relapse again... It was a constant cycle,” she said recently. “My parents wanted nothing to do with me because I couldn’t stay clean.”
She started working a the Foxy Lady, an adult nightclub in Providence, and eventually started working as an escort. She went to jail, mostly because of heroin and shoplifting.
“My life was truly chaotic. It was horrible,” Lafleur, now 37, said. “I had seen so much with my parents when I was younger. My dad was abusive to my mom and myself. When I was introduced to drugs, I was trying to numb myself.”
Years later, while in a long-term relationship, she suffered seven miscarriages and once again relapsed. Then she became pregnant again.
Her son, Devin, was born with a cleft lip and palate. And he was taken away by DCYF when he was 4 days old because she was high.
Her mother, who had overcome her own addiction at this point, told her to “grow up” and “be there for her son.”
“I still had no hope for myself when I hit 8 months clean. That’s when I relapsed,” she said. She overdosed and totaled a car. “That moment was a real wakeup call for me. I could have killed myself, but I could have killed other people.”
She put herself through treatment centers and social services programs, and slept in homeless shelters. She analyzed her own addiction, getting to the root of her issue with substances. When her time at one long-term treatment program was coming to an end, though, she and her son needed a place to go or else they’d end back up on the streets. She was connected to House of Hope, a non-profit, community development corporation, and moved into her own apartment at Rockville Mill last November.
The building was previously vacant and in receivership until Marathon Construction purchased and rehabbed it for housing. Marathon, a Boston-based developer identified House of Hope as a service provider and brought them into the project. Lafleur was one of the first residents to move in about a year ago, with her son, who will be 4 in March. And she’s now nearly 3 years clean.
“I didn’t want to live before. It was so tough to even wake up for the day. You just want to die. And it’s a vicious cycle,” she said. “My son saved my life. But having our own home has kept me straight.”
The building that Lafleur and her son are living in has 12 other units filled with families who had previously been couch surfing or living in cars, shelters, or on the streets. The House of Hope program comes with wrap-around services, according to Adrianne Kinsey, a case manager, to help the families become stable mentally and physically, offering help with transportation and support for children in school.
“We often help them realize the harsh realities of taking control of their lives and learning to advocate for themselves down the road when case management is able to take step back,” said Kinsey. “The ultimate goal is to see them gradually learn how to obtain and be consistent with the services they need to be successful.”
Stable housing can play a vital role in recovery from substance abuse. The risk of not being able to pay bills or the risk of losing housing can lead to stress that could trigger a relapse, according to a study from the Yale University School of Medicine. People with substance abuse disorder who are also experiencing homelessness usually find it difficult to address their addiction without a safe place to live, according to the American Journal of Preventative Medicine.
Jasmine Fortes, 30, also lives in the Rockville Mill after she fled domestic violence in 2016. Her ex came home drunk one night, found out where she was, and allegedly kidnapped her. Then he strangled her and broke her jaw.
When he took her to the hospital, her face bloody, a Rhode Island State Trooper saw her. They went to court, but she ended up dropping the charges.
“I felt bad, that was the father of my children,” she said. She started drinking and doing cocaine after she took the kids and left. They went from house to house, never settling in one spot. She lost custody of her children, who went to live with their grandparents, and she put herself in rehab.
In February 2020 she was able to regain custody, and a few months later, she moved with them into Rockville Mill.
“The only way the system is going to help is if you let it help. I didn’t want help before,” she said. “Now, I can raise my kids how I want to raise them. I can stay focused and healthy. And after growing up in the city my whole life, it’s nice to be in the middle of nowhere. It’s more family-oriented and my kids are doing well.”
Fortes is now hoping to purchase a car by February or March so that she can go back to school for nursing.
She added, “We’ve all finally found a peace of mind.”
According to the Domestic Violence Counts Report for Rhode Island, which is compiled by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, 584 victims were served in a single day in September, all of them looking for help with emergency shelters, transitional housing, counseling, legal advocacy, or children’s support groups. Fifty-eight percent of their requests for emergency shelter or housing were unmet.
While Crystal Lambert’s kids were sleeping inside her mother’s cramped house, she was alternating between living in her car and a shelter. Her ex, father of most of her children, was an addict. They were evicted from their home because he took the money they had saved and used it to buy drugs. As a single working mom, she couldn’t afford an apartment for her and her five kids (her oldest, now 21, lives on her own). Her ex went to prison after he broke into someone’s house to “steal what he needed, to sell and buy more” drugs. He now lives in a tent city along Route 95.
Late last year, Lambert got a call that changed everything: There was an opening for her and her kids at the Mill.
”We’ve all had a lot of ups and downs. Here, and before we all moved here,” said Lambert recently, from her home at the Rockville Mill. “But we’ve built this community, we look out for each other. It all still feels like a dream.”
“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” she said. “This is more like a whole community raising a neighborhood.”