Addicts are getting help through Anaheim PD’s Drug Free Anaheim initiative

By Lou Ponsi

Armando Cavazos had long given up trying to be a productive member of society.

Totally owned by his addiction to drugs and alcohol, Cavazos spent a chunk of his life in prison and when he wasn’t locked up, he was running game on the streets…and he was losing.

To shake his oxycodone habit, Cavazos got on methadone, but just winded up using both opiates simultaneously.

Alcohol was a mainstay through all of it.

“Whenever I was breathing, I was drinking,” he said.

He was homeless on the streets of Fullerton, changing sleeping spots every few days.

The logical next step was death.

That was more than 100 days ago, and Cavazos is very much alive.

You can see the life in his eyes as he sits at a patio table, clean shaven and wearing fresh clothes, in a neatly landscaped backyard at the Anaheim Lighthouse, a residential treatment center in a suburban enclave.

Armando Cavazos.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Cavazos’ newfound journey from death back to life began with Drug Free Anaheim, an initiative recently launched by the Anaheim Police Department that connects addicts with treatment.

Under the program, anybody wanting help for a drug problem can contact the Anaheim PD, either by phone or in person, and the department will connect them with Social Model Recovery Systems, a Covina nonprofit offering a variety of treatment options for chemical dependency.

“I was out there living on the streets of Fullerton, just drinking really bad, getting really out of control. I noticed it but I really didn’t want to help myself,” Cavazos said.

But Cavazos’ younger sister hadn’t given up on her brother yet.

She’d read a newspaper article about Drug Free Anaheim and mentioned it to Cavazos.

Cavazos told his sister he would check it out but didn’t, so she tracked her brother down on the streets, demanded he get into her car and then drove him to the Anaheim Police Station.

“I kind of thought it’s not going to be for me,” Cavazos said.

Tamara Jimenez, community relations manager for Lighthouse Treatment Center, with Nabil Zein, left, and Armando Cavazos.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Within an hour of his sister’s visit to the police station, Cavazos was at the Lighthouse and was the first addict to receive help through Drug Free Anaheim.

Even after arriving at the Lighthouse, Cavazos still was suspicious. He knew there had to be a catch.

He had been at the Lighthouse a day when Colin Womer, screening and assessment coordinator with Social Model Recovery, came to see him.

“I thought they were coming to arrest me,” Cavazos said. “I thought he was a cop.”

Since launching about five months ago, 14 individuals have been referred to Social Model Recovery from the Anaheim PD, Womer said.

Those getting help include adolescents and even pregnant women.

Nabil Zein benefited from Anaheim PD’s Drug Free Anaheim program.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“I like to say that we are the conduit,” said Det. Randy Adams, who oversees the program from the APD’s end. “There is a great need for us to help these people in the city of Anaheim and in Orange County.”

Nabil Zein, 19, of Anaheim, also found his way to the Lighthouse through the Drug Free Anaheim program.

Amid a series of traumatic experiences, including a horrific car accident, Zein was abusing alcohol and Xanax by age 15.

He’d been arrested for drug- and alcohol-related infractions and was court ordered to attend 12-step meetings.

While at a meeting, he met up with a man who would later become his AA sponsor.

When an attempt to get Zein into the Salvation Army’s treatment facility was unsuccessful because he fell short of the age requirement of 21, Zein’s sponsor reached out to Tamara Jimenez, community relations coordinator at the Lighthouse.

Jimenez referred Zein to Drug Free Anaheim.

Zein and his sponsor walked into the Anaheim Police Station.

A day later, he was at the Lighthouse.

“It was just kind of crazy how it all worked out,” Zein said.

“I never heard of anything like this,” Zein said of Drug Free Anaheim. “It shocked me. Usually they are quick to just lock you up.”

The Lighthouse also is picking up the tab for treatment for Zein and Cavazos, which is typically thousands of dollars.

The program, believed to be the first of its kind on the West Coast, is modeled after a program started by the police chief in Gloucester, Mass. called the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PARI).

Individuals wanting help should be aware of some conditions to Drug Free Anaheim, Adams said.

An addict reaching out for help should be doing so voluntarily, be free of arrest warrants and not show up at the police station under the influence.

Tamara Jimenez, community relations coordinator for the Lighthouse, said the treatment center has taken in addicts from around the country who were referred by law enforcement-initiated programs such as PARI.

Jimenez is thrilled to see Anaheim PD launching the program locally.

“We really believe in bridging that gap between law enforcement and treatment,” Jimenez said. “(We are grateful) to be able to collaborate with the police department. We want to help people in our backyard.”