Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sober house seeks P&Z exception

(Wendi Clark with her New Freedom Recovery Housing Manager)

Wendi Clark's goal is to help people like her. People who have been through a rough patch. People who are willing to fight to escape the demons of addiction and denial. People who want another chance at life.

Wendi Clark's fleeting moment of notoriety was the appearance of her story of recovery in a Hartford Courant series about addiction called "Heroin Town," and she would prefer to remain out of the spotlight.

"I don't really want to be out front fighting," Clark says about an upcoming appearance before Middletown's Planning and Zoning Commission to ask for an exception for her sober house on South Main and Loveland. "I don't want to do this alone. I had a dream of opening a recovery house, and I've done it. I want my people to be free and safe. This is not a joke. It's life and death for so many people. But if this is what it takes, I can to do it."

At the time the Courant article appeared in 2002, Clark was in recovery from serious addiction, and a life of crime and prostitution to support her habit.

"I was 110 pounds, black and blue, no teeth, bleach-blond hair, and I thought I was Marilyn Monroe," Clark recalls.

After fleeing from a recovery house in Willimantic where she was sexually harassed, she ended up on the streets again, and led a desperate life until her choices were narrowed by serious illness.

She made the decision to get clean for good, and she did so with "the help of a policeman friend of mine who told me if I didn't get clean I'd be going back to prison."

Clark has been clean since 1999. These days she feels she looks like a self-described "soccer mom." She's reunited with her now-grown children, and brags about her "two beautiful grandchildren."

After her release from the hospital in 199 she spent time in programs at CVH (Connecticut Valley Hospital) and Rushford Behavioral Services, and after completing those programs, she began to pursue her own goal of helping others to deal with addiction.

Clark, who spent part of her youth in Middletown, feels at home in town. She has helped operate a recovery house on Grand Street, but it was only with the help and encouragement of CCAR (Connecticut Community Addiction Recovery), the generousity of a friend who owned a house he was willing to rent to Clark, and years of pursuing a dream of creating a safe woman's recovery house, that she was able to open her new recovery house in a leased building at 133 South Main.

According to city planner Bill Warner, Clark is taking the legitimate path to opening a sober house, by pursuing certification with DMHAS (Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services), and by appearing before Planning and Zoning to pursue a legal exception.

Unfortunately, this path is not pursued by every sober house in town, and there are at least nine. Of the nine, only one is certified by DMHAS, which for reasons of confidentiality, that state agency is unwilling to identify the address.

A DMHAS reperesentative explained that certified houses are expected to meet certain standards, offer a continuation of care for residents and adhere to city zoning codes. The DMHAS representative also indicated there are good uncertified recovery house operators, with a record of success, and bad operators who are not certified.

According to the DMHAS rep, the unscrupulous operators are often absentee landlords, who pack rooms with mattresses to collect fees from desperate residents.

"In those case's, it's all about money," Clark says. "I don't make a dime here. In fact, I've taken money out of my own pocket to keep us going."

"There are sober houses where it is all about money," said Rosann Rafala, residential manager at Rushford Behavioral Services. "We have a 42 bed residential recovery facility, and it's time to discharge, our patients often don't have anywhere to go. We need more good, reliable sober houses. And for women, finding a good transitional facility is even more difficult."

A recent incident at a sober house on Bacon Avenue has raised the awareness of Sober Houses in Middletown. That house was posted for violations and closed temporarily, and was issued cease and desist orders by Middletown's zoning enforcement officer when it was found to be outside of code. The owners and operators, Guy and Lorena Chimurri, have already addressed some of the issues, and are working to meet code and will appear before Planning and Zoning in February to apply for an exception.

The Bacon Avenue incident, along with the reputation of irresponsible operators make the path more difficult for sober house operators like Clark who says she is working diligently to make her house successful and a benefit to the community.

"People who are doing the wrong thing are taking advantage of people who really need help," Clark explains. "And they make it harder for people like me. People who don't want a recovery house in their neighborhood are afraid of the stigma of addiction, but in reality, every family is touched by some form of addiction."

Clark has a strict set of rules and regulations to help ensure residents at New Freedom continue to remain clean and on the road to recovery while in residence there. She lives on site, and, in addition, has a full-time facility manager.

"I want to be a good neighbor," she explains. "I'm happy to meet with anyone in the community to explain, and to show them how we operate. Believe me, there are other houses in this neighborhood that residents should worry about a lot more."

According to Middletown's zoning enforcement officer, Bruce Driska, town zoning laws are designed to help prevent rooming houses. Property owners are allowed to apply to the Planning and Zoning Commission for operations which exceed the definition of "family" in city zoning code.

State law prevents discrimination against individuals with disabilities, and individuals in recovery are considered to be disabled. Local zoning laws allow up to three non-related individuals to occupy a dwelling, as a "family," without applying for exception.

When it comes to finding operators who may be skirting the law, Driska said that he follows up on complaints and investigates. He said he is often made aware of code violations if city fire, ambulance or police are called to a property for some other reason. If a violation is noted, Driska investigates.

Middletown, especially the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, have a concentration of group homes, treatment centers, sober houses, halfway houses, transitional housing, and supportive housing because of the concentration of mental health facilities in town, and the supply of reasonably priced housing, close to public transit, and potential employers. Two of the sober houses identified in town are within a block of New Freedom Recovery Housing, and there's another agency's transitional housing across the street.

Clark plans to ask for an exception to house nine residents at New Freedom.

"We are a family, a big family in recovery, and the therapeutic value of nine people working together toward a goal is much higher than a single individual attempting to do the same thing," she explains.

Residence in sober house is considered to be temporary, and according to Clark, 10 of the fifteen people who have moved through New Freedom have remained clean.

"I believe that anyone who walks through me door wants to change," Clark says. "And I want to help them make that change."

Clark makes her first appeal before Planning and Zoning on Wednesday February 11, and if approved, will appear for public hearing in February.

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