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City Heights LGBTQ rehab center provides a safe space to recover from substance abuse

Jacob Aere / KPBS
Stepping Stone staff member Damon Robinson speaks with the organization's director of programs, Chris Mueller, at Stepping Stone in City Heights. Jan. 26, 2022.

Recovery from substance abuse can be a non-linear process, fraught with challenges and stigmas.

The process can be especially difficult for LGBTQ individuals, where co-occurring disorders, like trauma, are often factors in their addictions.

“At 16 is when I decided to start messing around with drugs. I found meth really pretty easily,” 32-year-old Joey Johnson said.


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While Johnson is now on a road to recovery, he said the drugs soothed his internalized pain regarding his sexual orientation.

“I never have necessarily been comfortable with the fact that I’m a gay man. I’ve always been in the closet. Growing up, I wasn't comfortable in high school coming out. I pretty much, to be honest, hated the person that I was,” Johnson said.

Jacob Aere / KPBS
The exterior of the Stepping Stone facility in City Heights is pictured, Jan. 26, 2022.

That’s where Stepping Stone comes in. The recovery center first opened its doors in City Heights in 1976, and hasn’t stopped serving the queer community since then, even through an ongoing pandemic.


Stepping Stone Outpatient Director Pam Highfill said the rehab facility has come a long way from its humble roots.

“They got the property, it was at the time four or six little cottages here. That's how we got kicked off,” she said. “Over the years, it’s continued to grow.”

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Now the residential care center has the space to treat over 30 clients at once.

Highfill said the non-profit organization is the region’s only alcohol and drug treatment center that specializes in the gay, lesbian and transgender community.

“A lot of places turn to us when dealing with issues relating to the LGTBQ community,” she said. “We do a lot with transgenders, that’s been out the gate. Of course every place has to now, but back in the day the other facilities didn't know what to do.”

Jacob Aere / KPBS
The front gate of Stepping Stone's City Heights facility is open for visitors and clients to walk through, Jan. 26, 2022.

For graduates of Stepping Stone’s residential program in City Heights, the organization also offers a Sober Living program.

Johnson began that process recently.

He’s been to a couple different rehab facilities and relapsed more than once, but said he felt understood at Stepping Stone.

“Making bad choices and using drugs has constantly led me to homelessness and selling my body — ending up in the hospital more times than I’d want for numerous reasons. I pretty much lost my way,” Johnson said. “This is the one place where I felt a special closeness to people that nowhere else could really provide.”

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Chris Mueller is the organization's Director of Programs, but he was once a client. He said Stepping Stone saved his life.

“Twenty three years ago I went through Stepping Stone outpatient. I’ve been clean and sober since then,” he said.

Jacob Aere / KPBS
A wall at the Stepping Stone residential facility is lined with stone plaques from donors to the program, Jan. 26, 2022.

Mueller said many people still misunderstand substance abuse and how it affects the LGBTQ community. He said many clients feel a sense of shame when reaching out for help.

“There’s stigma of being gay and lesbian, not accepted in the community,” Mueller said. “We serve transgender clients. Some of the individuals are HIV positive. So there’s stigma associated with that.”

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Joe Westcott is the lead counselor at Stepping Stone’s outpatient facility in North Park. Back in 2017, he was a client too.

“We tackle the reasons why they use. The majority of our clients are meth users and there’s a lot of drug-sex links that we have to work through. And this is just a safe place for them, and myself to do that,” Wescott said.

Jacob Aere / KPBS
A small, mixed-media art piece and stuffed animal lean against a window screen at Stepping Stone in City Heights. Jan. 26, 2022.

For Westcott, the best part of the center was, and still is, the community it offers.

“Initially when I left here I would just come back and just sit downstairs on the benches when I was feeling a little squirrely or having a lot of cravings. This place, it just has just a feeling. They call it a miracle here that happens,” he said.

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For clients who have attended different Stepping Stone programs over the years, Mueller said the journey often comes full circle, like it did for himself and Westcott.

They both work for the organization that provided them sobriety to help the Stepping Stone community further grow.

By doing so, they guide others like Johnson to follow similar pathways to recovery.

City Heights LGBTQ rehab center provides a safe space to recover from substance abuse