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Transportation often a barrier for those in drug recovery

NEWPORT, Vt. (WCAX) – Many people seeking recovery from addictive drugs in the Northeast Kingdom often face another hurdle in their uphill battle, a basic lack of public transportation.

Full of musical instruments, house plants, and pizza, clients say entering Journey to Recovery in Newport is like stepping into a safe haven. But the problem for Belinda Turk is getting there.

“I failed miserably on myself because I couldn’t get to where I needed to go when I needed to be there,” said Turk, who says she is nine months sober. She says a few months into her recovery, her car stopped working. She tried calling Rural Community Transportation for a ride but says she told she was not eligible. “I wasn’t able to get RCT because I had a vehicle registered in my name.”

Turk says she had a relapse and saw the work she put into her recovery — and the flowers she planted outside to represent it — wilt.

Journey to Recovery’s Lila Bennett says recovery can be like a house of cards. “Sometimes it just takes one thing for people to get pushed back over the edge,” she said. “Many of the struggles that people in recovery face here in Newport and the Northeast Kingdom have to do with transportation and sober living.”

RCT’s Highland Route runs just four times a day and their “micro-transit” program provides personalized rides for people with Medicaid and disabilities.

“There was a gap in certain access and eligibility to ongoing therapy and services that assist people in recovery,” said Ross MacDonald with VTrans’, which helped create Rides for Recovery through a state grant and federal transit money. It helps those looking for help to get where they need to go.

But Bennett says the program’s 14-day ride limit along with RCT’s staffing shortages prove the cash doesn’t stretch far enough. “It’s not likely that you’ll have enough money saved in two weeks or even maybe have received your first paycheck to be able to have a car and start driving yourself,” she said.

Bennett estimates she asks RCT for over 1,500 rides a year for her clients. But with RCT’s staff made up 90% of volunteers — many of whom VTrans says quit during the pandemic — MacDonald says they are forced to prioritize. “Overwhelmingly, we are able to provide essential services. We don’t do quite as well for those social connections,” MacDonald said.

Brinna Turk was eventually able to get her car fixed and the sunflowers she planted outside are growing tall. “I’m doing good again. It’s coming back to life, they’re growing. It’s awesome,” she said.

Money in the state budget is expected to bring more recovery residences and sober living spaces to Vermont, including in the Northeast Kingdom. Advocates hope that funding will come with more money for transportation.

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