The ‘treatment’ at Whangārei Addiction Centre: Chopping wood

A Whangārei addiction treatment program advertised itself as “the best rehabilitation program” in New Zealand. But one Hutt Valley man said the rehab only involved hours and hours of chopping firewood.

After more than five months at the Victory House course, Clint Holmes decided he’d rather risk prison than continue.

Another former resident said there was “zero clinical rehabilitation”. Yet another said it was a firewood store for men trying to get out of prison.

Only five people have graduated in the 3½ years Victory House has been running, although the center does not say how many have signed up for the course, which takes at least 12 months.

Probation services have found new homes for men who were concerned about their safety and informed local courts that the course had not been assessed and may not be suitable for bail or release.

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First a firewood company

Victory House is promoted as a faith-based and activity-based addiction recovery program, based on 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 rugby league professionally in Australia and ended up in prison.

After he returned to New Zealand in 2017, he started a program here and was now a house tutor. It has room for eight residents.

Victory House is a not-for-profit with strong ties to the Arise church, the controversial religious organization accused of “cult-like behavior”, racism, sexual abuse and conversion therapy, which received nearly $15 million in donations last year.

However, none of the former residents Stuff talked to, complained about the church, though they were curious about the connection and how much the church knew about what was happening at Victory House.

“A few” church members sponsored Nahi to run the program, and most of the seven members of the board are from Arise. Residents attend services at Arise and recovery 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 firewood from it. The pastor said church members were involved in managing and supporting the program.

The church did not respond to attempts to contact it.

Residents pay $260 a week from their disability benefits 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 counselor.

According to a former resident, it was a firewood business that used men trying to get out of prison.

‘Worst six months of my life’

Holmes entered the electronically monitored bail program and sought treatment for methamphetamine use earlier this year. He was awaiting sentencing for violating a domestic protection order and making threats.

“I went up there because I wanted to change,” he said in an interview. “I’ve just had the worst six months of my life splitting firewood and being laid off. I know rehab isn’t a magic pill, but I want that chance to see what other people see.”

Holmes, 47, was arrested for breaching his bail but is now out on bail again, working and doing an outpatient program through CareNZ.

CHRIS SKELTON

Former NRL player Chris Nahi lost everything to a drug habit he started while playing professional rugby league. (First published March 2018)

He left the program after sleeping in a lounge rather than sharing a designated room with a “world record snorer”.

Two other residents were demoted — added months before an eventual graduation — for not telling about him. One of the rules in Victory House was that you broke a rule if you didn’t yell at others for breaking the rules.

Holmes said he tried to talk about the demotions with Nahi and was told to leave.

Nahi said Holmes would not wait his turn to speak, and when told he might be in the wrong program, Holmes clipped his electronically monitored bracelet and left.

There were always going to be people who left unsatisfied, Nahi said, but the work and activity program was about accountability.

“We want to give everyone a chance, because at the end of the day, change isn’t easy and it’s up to them to put in the hard work,” he said.

DELIVERED

“Awareness” tickets result in hours of punishment, these for leaving the light on and saying an “S-bomb” – shit.

Another man said he spent a week at the center. The first few days were spent copying the rules three times – 140 general rules and dozens more for driving and behavior on the property.

He asked that his name be withheld out of concern about his upcoming trial. He said he tried to stick to the rules but was “hammered” with hours of chopping firewood.

Others who contested breaking a rule got even more hours. “I would have started crying if he had done that to me,” the man said.

Victory House has extensive rules about its rules.

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Victory House has extensive rules about its rules.

He straightened a carpet that he thought was a trip hazard. He was convicted of not wearing closed shoes while doing house maintenance. He put on shoes and was then booked for wearing his shoes in the lounge.

Another man, who also asked not to be named because of his concerns for his future, said he remained on the program for months and there was “zero clinical rehabilitation”.

He felt good about the connection to Arise church. “I’m a Christian, but for people who aren’t on that journey, it would be almost nonsense for them to be provided with God as an option, and that’s the only option.”

An extract from the rules for Victory House contains a rule that residents must

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An excerpt from the rules for Victory House includes a rule that residents must “book” a different resident each week.

Concerns about the program

The Department of Corrections, which does not fund or oversee Victory House, nevertheless has concerns about the program.

It has helped find alternative housing for people who are concerned about their safety there and have told them

the local courts program may not be suitable for those on bail or looking for a place to live while serving a sentence.

The program lacked planning and wrap-around support for participants to successfully reintegrate after leaving the program, said Stuart Harris, Corrections’ acting director of operations for the northern region.

Feedback from men who had been on the course was that it focused on physical tasks as opposed to addressing their addiction, he said.

Part of the T-shirt from Victory House, whose rules impose a dress code that emphasizes modesty.

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Part of the T-shirt from Victory House, whose rules impose a dress code that emphasizes modesty.

Asked about Corrections’ concerns, Nahi said he would not respond to “any more absurd or untrue comments about our program”. He pointed to positive testimonials on the Victory House website.

Nahi said the program aimed to get residents “work ready” when they graduated.

People could do work other than cutting wood, such as gardening, he said. Selling firewood raised money for extra activities such as paintball, movies and restaurants — although not all residents were allowed to, Nahi said.

Residents worked only 4½ hours a day, three days a week, Nahi said. But former residents said they spent many more hours chopping firewood than that.

Arise has 14 churches across New Zealand.  (File photo)

STUFF

Arise has 14 churches across New Zealand. (File photo)

Breaking 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 tasks.

Stuff spoke to five people who had been at Victory House and a close family member of another man.

One man stayed for a month. He had learning difficulties and found weekly paper-based studies hard and frustrating.

The men studied the Bible to answer 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. But another course took him when it found out he was in Victory House, he said.

One man said he was “walking on eggshells” all the time because of the penalties.

Chopping wood “a full-time job”

Chopping wood was like a full-time job, he said. A corrections officer helped find him somewhere else to go.

One woman whose family member attended the course was disappointed by the lack of clinical therapy. One hour a week was not rehab, she said.

When Stuff spoke to Nahi recently, four men were staying at Victory House and it had room for four more.

He had previously started studying for a social work degree and hoped to resume it next year.

He followed a calling that began in prison. In 2018, he told Stuff about that change.

“I was in prison, 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’ve followed him ever since.

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