As she got close to completing a 90-day inpatient addiction-treatment program, Brenda Meizo thought she should be feeling jubilant. Sober for the longest stretch in years, she was about to step out into the world, to go back to her real life. But instead of feeling excited, she was scared.
Though she’d successfully made it through treatment, Meizo knew she needed more time to make her newfound make sobriety stick. At her treatment center, she’d learned about sober-living programs, temporary housing where people fresh out of addiction treatment could live beside others committed to a sober lifestyle. For many people, a few months spent living in sober housing can be an essential step in the recovery process.
Meizo found a spot in a sober-living program, but there was one major hurdle: She needed to come up with $250 for the “sober deposit” required of all residents, a one-time, refundable damage deposit collected before a resident moves into the program.
While $250 might seem like a drop in the bucket for many people, for Meizo, who’d come to treatment directly from jail, the sum felt astronomical.
“Prior to being incarcerated,” she explained, “I was homeless and battling with my mental health and addiction. I was coming out of treatment with absolutely nothing. For most people in my situation, to come up with that $250 is an impossibility. But I knew that if I wanted to keep getting better, I needed to get into sober living.”
When Meizo mentioned her predicament at her treatment center, one of her peers told her about the Pink Cloud Foundation, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit that pays sober deposits for people facing financial hardship.
Meizo went to Pink Cloud’s website, where she completed an application. While her application was initially declined due to lack of funds, she was surprised the next day when she heard back from Travis Winship, Pink Cloud cofounder and executive director.
“He said they came up with the money, and could pay my $250 deposit,” Meizo said. “I was so incredibly happy.”
Founded in 2018 by Winship and his friend Anthony Sorensen, Pink Cloud Foundation works under the guiding principle that the cost of a sober deposit (usually $250-$500) is a worthwhile investment that pays back to the individual in recovery — and to the larger community.
“When a person in recovery is given money to cover their sober deposit,” Winship said, “Everybody wins, because we are keeping someone off the street and focused on the road to recovery.”
That was the case for Meizo, who just celebrated 18 months of sobriety.
“Sober housing was a real godsend for me,” she said. “It made all the difference in my sobriety. I’d had five years clean and then my husband passed away and I relapsed. It took me another five years to get back into a program that I could complete. If it wasn’t for sober housing, I think I would’ve been back on the streets. I didn’t have another option.”
Meizo’s financial struggles aren’t uncommon in the world of addiction, Winship said. Many people in recovery struggle to keep a job or a healthy bank balance. “Research shows that one of the No. 1 things that pulls someone out of sobriety is financial burden,” he said. “Just a little bit of money can turn a person’s life around.”
Meizo lived in sober housing for nine months, and is now renting a room in a shared independent-living home. While she’s happy to be moving on to the next step in her life, she said that she’s confident she wouldn’t have gotten this far without her time living around other people who share her commitment to sobriety. She has Pink Cloud to thank for making that possible.
“That $250 made a world of difference for me,” Meizo said. “I wouldn’t be clean and sober today if I hadn’t spent time in that sober house.”
Inspired to act
In December 2018, Winship and Sorensen were at a recovery meeting at Pride Institute, an LGBTQ+ focused addiction-recovery program based in Eden Prairie, when they heard a story that changed their lives.
“There was a trans woman in the group who was being discharged on Friday,” Winship recalled. “This was a Monday. She was about to complete her 90-day program and she was in tears.” The woman said she’d interviewed with a local sober house, been accepted, but couldn’t afford the deposit.
Before coming to Pride, the woman said she’d been homeless, and she had no extra money and no place to live when she completed the program.
“She was so stressed out,” Winship said. “What was she going to do? She was from another state. She didn’t have family or friends here. No one was going to give her the $500 she needed for the sober deposit. She’d just finished up her 90 days. She should be on track: In the scheme of things, $500 is small amount of money. But it was clear that the financial burden could easily pull her off the train.”
After the meeting, Winship and Sorensen had a serious talk. They both had good jobs and enough money to cover the woman’s deposit. They contacted the sober house, paid the woman’s deposit — but decided that their involvement couldn’t end there: If pulling together enough money to cover a sober deposit was a true burden for many people in recovery, they wanted to figure out how they could help.
“Our original thought was there’s got to be resources out there for this,” Winship said. The next week, Sorensen and Winship did some research and found out that, though the idea of paying sober deposits wasn’t unheard of, there were no organizations in the Twin Cities that provided these funds to individuals in recovery on a regular basis.
The two decided to create a nonprofit. “We felt in order for this to last, it needed a foundation underneath it,” Winship said. “We agreed that if we are going to do this we are going to do this right,” They picked the name “Pink Cloud,” Winship explained, “after a psychology term. ‘Pink Cloud Syndrome’ occurs in the first 90 days of recovery, when your body starts to over-compensate, making way too much dopamine.”
A “feel-good” hormone, dopamine creates a natural high, Winship explained. When a person in recovery is riding the pink cloud, he said, “That’s when you start to get overconfident, thinking, ‘I’ve got this licked. I could use again because I know what to look for.’ This is a period when you still need help.”
Sorensen and Winship’s vision was that Pink Cloud would become a one-stop shop, providing recipients with not only a sober deposit but also with links to resources in the sobriety community — and a bridge between the sober-house manager and treatment centers. Because Sorensen owns two Twin Cities sober homes, he’s closely connected to the Minnesota Association of Sober Homes (MASH). He and Winship decided to require that grants only go to homes that are MASH members in good standing.
“We wanted to protect our clients and make sure our money is going to a legit place that is going to foster recovery,” Winship explained. The MASH member-in-good-standing requirement is, he added, “a high bar to make sure that the client is safe.” They also met with local treatment centers and got the word out about their program.
In the beginning, Pink Cloud was financed through individual donations, mostly from Sorensen and Winship’s friends and acquaintances in the local recovery community. In the beginning, the idea was that the program would focus on supporting members of the LGBTQ+ recovery community. But that quickly changed.
“We thought that we would naturally gravitate toward that community,” Winship said, “but it’s been quite the opposite, actually. Only about 10 percent of our recipients are LGBTQ+.“
This month, the organization will be placing its 200th recipient in a sober home. So far the majority of Pink Cloud grantees have been heterosexual women in their 20s and 30s, Winship said.
Winship said he’s happy with this shift, because he and Sorensen both want to be able to offer help to anyone who needs it.
“This experience has been good because it shows me that other folks struggle, too,” he said. “I’m happy that we’re able to help so many people get their feet back on the ground.”
‘Sober living is a lifeline’
For many individuals, sober housing is a central element in an ongoing process of recovery. William Cope Moyers, Hazelden Betty Ford’s vice president of community affairs and public relations, said that too often sober housing is an afterthought.
“It is actually one of the most integral components of early recovery,” he said. “What happens after treatment has to include support for the next phase, and for many people that next phase includes figuring out where to live — and how to live.”
In 1989, after completing inpatient addiction treatment at Hazelden Betty Ford, Moyers spent several months living in what was then called a “halfway house,” a predecessor of today’s sober housing.
“That’s where I learned to take everything that treatment taught me and apply it,” Moyers said. “Sober living is a lifeline for people who are learning to swim.” After treatment, he said, a person in recovery “can relapse or feel desperate or lonely or not be sure how to take care of themselves. Treatment is not the end. It is the beginning or the rest of the journey. For many of us, the rest of the journey includes learning how to live and deal with life as sober people — so having that support in this new lifestyle is critical.”
Luke Miller, director of marketing and business development for Pride Institute, said that staff members at his organization encourage program graduates to spend time in sober housing. The experience of living with a group of other people similarly focused on maintaining a chemical-free lifestyle builds a base that’s an essential step toward creating a life of long-term sobriety.
“Sober housing is a great way to maintain accountability and structure post-treatment,” Miller said. “It introduces clients to people who have a similar situation to them. Those relationships can be really important going forward.”
It’s not uncommon for Pride graduates to have a hard time coming up with enough cash to cover a sober deposit, Miller said. Many members of the LGBTQ+ community have strained relationships with family, and addiction can do a number on a person’s finances. But financial hardship isn’t limited to one population, he added.
Coming up with sober-deposit funds “is a constant challenge for all clients in all treatment centers,” Miller said. “Treatment should be a beautiful experience that relieves stress. Very often it is the opposite. You should be happy that you’ve been 30 days clean and now you are getting ready to come out of treatment. A lot of the time it is a source of stress — because now you have to scrounge up $500 or $600 for a sober deposit.”
Meizo said that for years she let her financial concerns keep her from seeking the addiction treatment she so desperately needed.
“I know I stayed homeless a lot longer than I probably needed to,” she said. “If I would’ve known that I could enter treatment and then find housing that would be appropriate for me afterward, I would’ve gone into treatment so much sooner.”
Pink Cloud’s first year has been a success, but now Winship knows that things have to change if the organization is going to last far into the future. While he and Sorensen were able to add to the nonprofit’s original endowment through casual fundraising with friends and well-placed phone calls, the organization is going to need a more reliable — and deep pocketed — source of support.
“If we’re going to give Pink Cloud Foundation legs for the long term we cannot rely on private donations forever,” Winship said, adding that not so long ago Sorensen stepped away from Pink Cloud to focus on other projects, leaving him at the helm.
With an eye on gaining foundation support for their cause, Winship is taking a grant-writing class, and he’s working to initiate conversations with state officials to see if there is a way the program could qualify for funding from state coffers: When a relatively small amount of money so often stands in the way of lasting recovery, wouldn’t it be wise for the state of Minnesota to step up to help citizens in recovery fill the gap?
Often state and federal assistance programs help pay for addiction treatment for Minnesota residents, Winship said: “How dare we as a state invest all this time and money in a person’s treatment and then let this little tiny gap of $300 to $500 derail the whole thing? Once someone is in a sober house, the state will often pay their rent, but they won’t pay for their sober deposit. We are interested in petitioning the state to make sure they realize that this gap exists.”
Though Winship is proud to report that Pink Cloud was able so far to help so many people pay their sober deposits, he is also dismayed that he had to turn so many away. “In the past 16 months, I’ve received between 800 and 900 applications,” he said. “Clearly there is such a massive need for this and a huge gap of funds available. I have to say no to 40 people every month. That’s tough.”
Pink Cloud Foundation now has around $4,000 in the bank. “It’s like this every month,” Winship said. “We do a fundraiser and we just scrape by, but we really need to find a more permanent solution.”
Beyond strengthening his own grant-writing skills, Winship, who works full time as a medical sales rep, is looking for board members — and for someone to fill Sorensen’s shoes. “We took off so fast so now we’re reeling it in a bit,” he said. “The reception from the community was so great — the money up front was so gratifying and rewarding— we wanted to make sure it got turned around as fast as possible to recipients. Now we want to make sure this is sustainable.”
Moyers said he fears that Winship has his work cut out for him.
“Raising money in these times is particularly difficult,” he said. “Between the virus and social justice issues, there is not much oxygen left in the room for many other causes.”
Miller agrees. “Pink Cloud has been very successful in the amount of time they’ve been around. The challenge they’re facing now is getting the word out — and finding donors — in this COVID-obsessed world.”
Winship said he’s not discouraged — yet. Though the coronavirus is sucking all the air out of the room, he thinks that the right foundation could likely respond to Pink Cloud’s mission. He also sees the strength of the argument that governmental bodies may be willing to throw in some support for this cause.
“From what I’m told there is a lot of money out there,” he said. “We just need to find it.”