Sean White hasn’t used heroin in 17 months. Prior to getting clean, White spent 17 years battle with substance abuse. He served multiple stints in prison and couldn’t stay clean. His reason: he said he was fearful that recovery specialists wouldn’t acknowledge — or understand — his trans identity.
“I didn’t want to surrender who I was to get help with my substance abuse. I felt like that would put me in more depression and I would fall deeper into using,” White said. “I didn’t want to be addressed in a matter that wasn’t true to me. Most places wanted to use the name on my birth certificate or chose to ignore my trans identity. I thought my drug addiction wasn’t serious enough for me to compromise who I was in order to get help.”
White said sobriety wouldn’t have been a reality he imagined for himself without the help of Morris Home, the only residential substance abuse recovery program in the country to offer services specifically for the transgender community.
White, a Chicago native, found himself in Pennsylvania after being released from prison on a drug-related conviction. He was without a place to live, no legitimate sources of income and no guidance on kicking his drug addiction. After joining — and exiting — several recovery programs, White was referred to Morris Home.
“The program is so intimate and it’s completely different from anything else that’s currently available. The intimacy creates a different value to the people that are here. None of my success would have been possible without the nurturing support from the Morris Home staff,” he said.
With the help of Morris Home, White was able to find and maintain employment at a juicery in Rittenhouse Square and completed training to be a peer specialist to assist others with their recovery journey.
“I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the program,” White said.
Morris Home began in 2011 after Sade Ali, former deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS), pushed for transgender-affirming services in Philadelphia for those struggling with substance abuse. The program is named after Nizah Morris, a transgender woman found by a passerby with a fatal head wound shortly after the victim received a “courtesy ride” from Philadelphia police. Dec. 22 marked the 16th anniversary of her death. Her homicide remains unsolved.
Morris Home is a component of the Resources for Human Development, a national human-services nonprofit that provides supportive services to people because of intellectual and developmental disabilities, behavioral-health issues, homelessness and addiction recovery. Morris Home, located in Southwest Philadelphia, connects trans men and women working through substance abuse with community resources to help them transition back into society while maintaining their sobriety.
The program is a short and long-term recovery program (average length of stay can be as long as 6-8 months) that “looks to successfully move participants into some form of supportive, long term housing,” said Laura Sorensen, Morris Home’s program director.
“We’re doing all that we can to assist trans-identifying people to heal from trauma and explore recovery. We helping folks build their life skills — budgeting, laundry, nutrition and food prep,” Sorensen said. “We are assisting our participants with the skills they’re going to need to be successful back out in independent living.”
Morris Home receives funding from the DBHIDS’ Journey of Hope Project, a program that offers individuals experiencing prolonged homelessness and behavioral health issues with permanent housing opportunities. The recovery program also is part of Housing and Urban Development’s crisis-shelter list.
“Folks are considered homeless when they’re living here which wasn’t previously the case,” Sorensen said. “Since joining Journey of Hope last October, it changed the amount of services we’re able to provide people to ensure better long term outcomes.”
The three-story building that currently houses the program can accommodate eight participants. Morris Home has 12 staff members with recovery specialists who are available and on-call 24 hours a day to help with activities and daily living.
Because of the program’s success — and outgrowing its current building — the Resources for Human Development acquired a new facility for the rehabilitation center. With the new location, Morris Home will be able to expand its reach to treat up to 14 patients as well as open up its services to the wider LGBTQ community.
The program recently launched its Capital Campaign that will help fund the items needed to outfit the space, which is expected to be move-in ready in a year.
“We haven’t locked down the total amount of funds needed, but it would go to purchasing beds, wardrobes, desks, computers and storage for our new building. We’re expanding the scope of programming not only for individuals that are in treatment, but for the program’s alumni and the larger community,” Sorensen said.
Sorensen mentioned that Morris Home’s new location will be in a more secluded area that will give the program’s participants more privacy to focus on recovery.
“The house is known in the community for housing trans folks as a result, we have experienced negative incidents and it’s unfortunate. Our new home will be less exposed to the public,” she said.
In June, an explosive object was thrown onto Morris Home’s front porch. A man set an object on fire and it exploded once the suspect threw it onto the entranceway. At the time of the incident, seven people were inside of the property. No one was injured, and no arrests were made. The event left residents concerned for their safety, Sorensen said.
Despite the incident, the program remained open. Kade Collins, the program’s lead therapist, noted that recovery facility offers individualized treatment options for participants and was the driving factor behind keeping Morris Home’s doors open.
“We take in people that say ‘I need to get back on track’ or those who say they don’t want being on track looks like for them. It disrupts the cycle that a lot of folks went through coming into treatment,” Collins said.
Collins works with participants in individual and group-counseling sessions, assists with family reunification and connects members to trauma therapy specialists.
Jackie Sweat, a current Morris Home participant, said the program’s staffs are the only people she calls during a time of crisis. She’s on her seventh stay at the home and said she doesn’t feel comfortable checking into other recovery programs.
“After relapsing seven times, the staff is still willing to work with me. Every time I come here, I feel so safe. Whenever I leave the program, I get lost. I usually have no backup plan, can’t afford an apartment or fall back into old habits. Despite all that, they still take me in when I need them,” Sweat said.
Sweat returned to Morris Home earlier this month after an altercation with a roommate landed her in the hospital with a broken arm. Unable to find a place to stay, Sweat checked into various hospitals in the area, threatening to kill herself if she didn’t get help.
“I ended up on suicide watch at Kirkbride Center. I was the only trans woman there and it made me feel uncomfortable. I couldn’t share what I wanted to share in the group meetings. I’ve had [HIV] for 28 years and I wasn’t comfortable enough to share that because I didn’t know who it would get back to.”
Sweat said this time around, she’s focusing on completing the program for the second time and remaining sober.
“My mind isn’t on the drugs. It’s about being clean and staying clean,” she said.
Keva Dandridge, one of Morris’ recovery specialists, said she encourages participants like Sweat to “stick and stay with the program. We’re providing our residents with the essentials to help build their confidence in knowing that they can live and maintain a life of sobriety.”
For more information about the Morris Home, visit https://www.rhd.org/morrishome/. To donate to the Capital Campaign, visit https://www.rhd.org/support-our-work/.