By Don Cox
January 16, 2005
THE ROAD TO A SOBER LIFE:
For the most part, recovering addicts and alcoholics in Northern Nevada must find their own way back to living something like 'normal.'
Story by Don Cox Photos by Liz Margerum
Reno Gazette-Journal senior reporter Don Cox spent seven months talking to, listening to and watching a group of recovering addicts living in a house in Sparks. He attended their weekly house meeting at 6 a.m every Wednesday. They discussed their lives, their problems and their hopes. Cox tells their stories as he also reports on the issues surrounding operations of such houses.
Doug Mann shovels the driveway of a large home in Sparks because January snow remains on the pavement and he can work up a sweat removing it.
Perhaps most important, the labor might clear his head.
Outside the house, it's cold. But Mann, clad only in a sweatshirt and jeans, seems comfortable. Outside, he's alone. Inside, he's not. That's where it's tough.
"Some weeks are good and some are freaking disasters," Mann, a recovering alcoholic, said as he methodically worked his way toward the street. "It takes time to learn how to live."
The lessons, most of them hard, started in May when Mann and 10 other men and women, all recovering addicts, moved into the six-bedroom home. The lessons haven't stopped.
"Christmas was a terrible time," said Mann, an imposing figure at 6 foot 5 and 250 pounds. Christmas Day was good. We had a big dinner. It was after that."
Nobody says exactly what happened. They give hints.
"It was New Year's," said Carolyn Romero, a 50-year-old recovering methamphetamine user. "That was a little problem. A few slipped in here. I'm not going to say names."
Mann does. He blames himself for at least some of the ongoing turmoil.
"I kind of fell apart a little bit," Mann said. "We always make it through. But it's tedious. It's not easy."
In Nevada, there are 206,501 alcohol and drug addicts, according to state estimates. Only about 12,000 are undergoing treatment in government supported programs, according to Nevada Health Division statistics.
It's about stigma and shortages, state officials say. Many addicts don't seek treatment. For those who do, there aren't enough recovery programs and post-recovery places to live, better known as halfway houses.
It's also about state law that discourages opening more halfway houses, treatment experts say. They claim the regulations increase the cost of operating homes for recovering addicts.
"If you want to go open one today, you'd throw the statute in the garbage and go open a hamburger stand," said John Nieves, treasurer of Grace House in Reno, Northern Nevada's only state licensed halfway house.
The halfway house dilemma may be addressed in this year's session of the Legislature in Carson City. Sen. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, has complained about a growing number of halfway houses in older neighborhoods of her district. Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, wants regulations that will give the state oversight of halfway houses, but reduce the costs of licensing.
For recovering addicts, such as Mann and Romero, group homes are important stops. The houses can be places to restart life after going through intense treatment programs.
"The need is horrific," Nieves said.
Licensed or unlicensed?
The state wants halfway houses licensed. Most aren't.
The unlicensed home in Sparks is where Greg Tate, a 40-year-old recovering drug addict, goes through the daily struggle.
"I was in the shower cursing," Tate said one morning. "I thought, 'If this is what sobriety is like, screw it.' But I can't think like that."
The home in Sparks is where Mann, 49, fights the same battle.
"I'm an alcoholic," he said one evening. "I was getting mad at everything. I couldn't stop being mad, but I'm trying."
The struggle goes on all day every day, morning, noon and night.
"I thought drinking that bottle and going to sleep was OK," Marilyn Trujillo, Romero's 50-year-old twin sister, said one afternoon, discussing her life before coming to the house in Sparks. "It wasn't OK. I was killing myself."
The house in Sparks is where she stopped.
Such homes, or something like them, are necessary, experts say. But they may be illegal. It depends on the definition of a halfway house and what rules exist, or don't, inside.
"People need a place to live while they're getting sober," said Leslie, who works in a Washoe District Court program for drug offenders. "We don't have enough places like that. Sometimes they operate well and sometimes they don't."
The Sparks house is an example of what treatment specialists suspect is widespread. They try to find group homes for recovering addicts. Usually, their only choices are unlicensed.
"We don't say it out loud," said Tom Murtha, chief executive officer of Bristlecone Family Resources, which treats about 3,000 addicts a year at its facilities in Reno and Sparks. "We say, 'You need to go someplace.' "
Grace House has space for 11. Bristlecone has 20 beds for adults seeking longer term care after their initial treatment. There's room for recovering addicts to live in five other state certified treatment programs in Northern Nevada. The number of unlicensed halfway houses is unknown.
"A lot of them fly under the radar screen because they can't afford to be licensed," Leslie said. "They come and go all the time."
Even the term "halfway house" is a problem.
"When you see the words 'halfway house,' that gets translated into 'flophouse,' " said the Rev. Dan Drinan, a Catholic priest who operates Ridge House, a treatment facility in Reno for paroled prisoners with addiction problems.
No matter what it's called, there's no guarantee the house in Sparks will last. But it's where Romero seems to be winning the battle.
"I was lost in my addiction," Romero said. "You don't have purpose in life. I caused a lot of damage."
More homes are needed, but rules and related costs may mean fewer being opened.
"It's a 'Catch 22,' " Leslie said. "It would be better to have all licensed (houses). But you'll price them out. Are we going to say, 'You can only live in licensed places?' The system would come to a grinding halt."
Mann has no intention of applying to the state for a license. He insists he doesn't need one.
"It's not a 'halfway house,' " Mann said of the Sparks home. "It's 'sober lifestyles.' That's what we are. That's all we're doing here, renting rooms to alcoholics."
State officials are skeptical about such claims.
"I'm quite familiar with numerous places like that," said Paul Shubert, a supervisor in the state's Bureau of Licensure and Certification, which regulates halfway houses for recovering addicts. "It has been our experience that many of those facilities that claim they are 'sober living' facilities meet the definition of a halfway house."
The state defines a halfway house as "a residence that provides housing and a living environment for alcohol and drug abusers and is operated to facilitate their reintegration into the community."
Function over form
No matter what it's called, the house in Sparks is filled with promise and problems.
"It's a good home when everybody gets together and pitches in," Mann told the group once during the holidays. "I'm enjoying it."
A month earlier, he wasn't.
Mann sat in the home's garage with most of the same people he would smile with after Thanksgiving. But that time Mann was angry.
It was shortly before 7 a.m. on a Wednesday in October and Mann, awake before sunrise, had spent the last 30 minutes listening to complaints about his behavior, attitude and habits. Finally, he replied.
"I ain't drinking," Mann said forcefully. "If you all want to leave, you can leave. It's my house."
The garage was quiet. Nobody talked. Nobody moved until Romero got up from her chair.
"I'm leaving," she said, breaking the silence. "If you can't be honest about it."
The confrontation between recovering alcohol and drug abusers came suddenly. But it had been building slowly. The group, after two weeks of increasing suspicion and resentment, finally turned against its leader.
"Something had to be said," Romero said after the meeting. "It's hard for me to say, but something had to be said. Trust was lost."
Since the opening of the house, Mann, the home's co-founder, had been its head, responsible for collecting rent from the others and paying bills. But, even more than that, he'd been a sort of father figure, guiding the others through difficult times, urging them to get jobs and encouraging them when things were tough.
Finally, it all caught up to Mann, who admitted his own failure. He'd been drinking.
"There's a lot on my mind, running this place," said Mann, who grew up in Southern California and worked in the oil fields of south Texas before coming to Northern Nevada in 1986. "I slipped."
The group felt betrayed. Mann wasn't supposed to slip. Some of the others did, but never Mann, until now.
"I don't feel safe anymore," Romero said.
The confrontation ended. Romero sat down and Mann relaxed. The situation remained uneasy, but Mann, Romero and the others in the garage tried to resume their long difficult process of recovery.
The odds are against them.
Long recovery road
About 25 percent of recovering addicts stay clean, Murtha estimates. About one-third go straight, according to a Harvard University study.
"It's a struggle," Murtha said of the daily lives of recovering addicts. "You've got these addictions tearing at you every minute. You've got all these external problems."
Inside the Sparks house, there's suspicion and mistrust, often about alcohol and drug abuse. There are arguments, sometimes about small things such as dirty dishes, and other times about major questions, such as who should be allowed to stay in the house and who should be kicked out.
After the holidays, the arguments increased.
"There's been tension around here," said Romero, who had assumed Mann's old responsibility of collecting and paying rent. "It was a pretty iffy thing because a lot of people were talking about moving out."
One argument, according to Romero, got so bad that police were called.
But there's also support. People go to church together. They watch out for each other.
"There's a lot of things going on in these peoples' heads," Mann said one day, early in the life of the house. "People don't realize in these homes, there's a lot of things going on, different personalities."
One is Romero's.
Other residents call Romero the "mother" of the home. She, along with Mann, does much of the grocery shopping. She cooks. She cleans. She laughs a lot. She's undergoing treatment for hepatitis.
Romero is recovering from years of meth use. It started in Northern California in 1978.
"I met somebody," Romero said. "He was secretly using meth. I was washing his clothes. I found a needle and a spoon. I was upset. I was totally, madly in love with this guy. He says, 'It won't hurt you. Try it.' I did."
Romero kept using. She came to Reno in 1996 and got arrested a year later.
"I was with friends," she said. "Our car got pulled over. We were coming out of a bar. I had a needle."
After that, Romero was on the run. She skipped court appearances. There was a warrant for her arrest. She managed to evade it for several years.
"I avoided getting in cars," said Romero, who feared being stopped by police. "I took a taxi everywhere I went. It was a living hell."
Finally, Romero turned herself in. She spent two-and-a-half months in jail. She completed a six-month treatment program and ended up in the house in Sparks.
"It was either that, die or go to prison," Romero said.
Her presence in the house seems to make a difference. Residents acknowledge there's more arguing, more tension and more "chaos" when she's not around.
"She runs this home, I don't," Mann said. "She's the backbone of this home. If it wasn't for her, this place wouldn't run like it runs."
Although Romero smiles most of the time, one morning she was fed up about one of the little things that causes problems in the house.
"People need to do their chores and you need to do them every day," Romero told the group. "It's overwhelming. If you leave a mess in the laundry, clean it up."
A list of duties is posted on the wall in the kitchen. Everyone is supposed to share the work. With usually eight to 11 people living in the home at any one time, this is how it has to be.
Somebody's responsible for the upstairs bathroom, somebody else for the downstairs bathroom, somebody for the kitchen floor and somebody for the family room. But it's only a list. The jobs don't always get done.
"My sister needs a break," Trujillo said. "Wash those plates. I don't like it in the kitchen in the morning."
Trujillo began drinking in 1998.
"I started dating this guy," she said. "He was a drug dealer. I started drinking every day and going to work. I got into drinking hard alcohol every day."
Trujillo broke up with her boyfriend in California, came to Reno and kept drinking. She lived in Elko for a while, quit drinking, then moved into the Sparks house with her sister.
"This is as close as we've ever been," Trujillo said. I don't have a desire to drink anymore. I drank because everybody else drank."
House residents attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
For a time, Mann stopped going.
"I didn't take care of myself," he said. "I think I can get a drink, that I can get away with it. No, I can't."
Mann calls the behavior "sidewinding." He uses the words often.
"You're lying and cheating around, so you can drink," Mann explained. "That's 'sidewinding.' "
Many of the home's small disputes and bigger arguments occur during another meeting. It takes place once a week and last about an hour, in the family room during bad weather, in the garage when it's nice. There's no smoking in the family room. But it's allowed in the garage.
"We sit here so they can smoke and have coffee," said Mann before a meeting in June. "What the deal is, we make sure everyone is doing OK We've got a couple guys looking for jobs that are having a tough time."
Paying their way
Work is a constant meeting topic. Everyone needs a job so they can pay the $125 per week room and board. That's how the house operates.
"It's another level of responsibility," Mann said. "Life is not easy. We've got to get up and go to work. We have to pay the rent."
With everyone working, the rent and the rest of the bills get paid. When people aren't working, they aren't contributing.
"I shouldn't have to hound you," Mann said during one of his many lectures about paying rent on time. "Get responsible. I'm not being mean. Make a budget. Live within your means."
He does hound them.
"I hate to get on this point," Mann said a week later. "When you get paid, please come and pay the rent. Let's stay on top of that. We need that badly."
Mann also encourages them.
"We're addicts," he said. "We have problems. Let's work them out. Now that some of us are doing better than others, let's help the ones who aren't."
Monthly rent for the house is about $1,500. It's a spacious home. Men live on one side, women on the other. Along with six bedrooms and family room, there's living room, kitchen, dining area, garage and laundry room. There's cable television. The home, in an older Sparks neighborhood, was expanded by one of its earlier owners. Mann expanded the house again, building a seventh bedroom in one section of the garage. In the back yard, there's a patio with flower boxes and an indoor Jacuzzi.
Mostly, the Jacuzzi is idle. Turning it on adds too much to the house power bill.
In the family room, there's a wet bar with wood cabinets, a sink and a small refrigerator. Since the addicts moved in, only coffee is served at the bar.
"We really lucked out when we got this," said Mann, who, with Romero, Trujillo and Tate, has been in the home since it opened.
Paving the way
Like other homes for recovering addicts, including Northern Nevada's one licensed
halfway house, the one in Sparks was started by a group of recovering addicts looking for a place to live.
You can show up with no money and no job, but still get a place to live, if there's an empty bed and the residents approve of you filling it.
"You've got nothing, zero," Mann said. "Where are you going to go? We encourage you to go get a job. We feed you. We house you."
There's no time limit for living in the house, but you don't stay forever.
"You get it together and get out," said Romero, who may leave in the spring. "You get structured, then you get out and get on with your life.
The Sparks house has no addiction counselors or paid staff members. The residents run it. They make the rules. The main one is no drinking or drug use. Residents can be voted out of the house for breaking rules.
Drug and alcohol treatment professionals question such systems.
"I'm not a great fan of halfway houses," said Steve Higgins, an administrator for the 55-week addiction recovery program at the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission. "You present (yourself) and say, 'I want to stay clean and sober and go to a meeting a week.' "
But the Rev. Harlan Weber, a recovering addict who works with the Washoe District Court's drug program, sees the Sparks house as potentially successful.
"That's how you change one life at a time," Weber said. "It's all through personal experience. It's the personal experience of those people jelling together."
Since New Year's, house residents have talked less about experience and more about rules.
"They're all looking for the same thing," Romero said of herself and others in the house. "They're looking for somebody to put structure in here."
One person was voted out of the house shortly before Christmas. It's a rare occurrence.
The Sparks house, Mann insists, is a place for second and sometimes third chances.
"People throw other people away," he said. "I hate that. Why even take them in if you're going to throw them out? If they screw up, you can't just kick them to the curb."
Mann knows about screwing up.
"The memory of an alcoholic is about that long," Mann said, holding his thumb and forefinger a fraction of an inch apart. "There's nothing steady about an alcoholic or addict."
One of Mann's biggest summer projects at the house, along with trying to repair a 1986 Toyota with an overheating problem, was Tate.
"I got so mad at him sometimes," Mann said. "When he starts side winding, he burns me up."
Tate described his life as a long battle with drug addiction and a series of failed treatment programs before coming to the Sparks house.
"He's had a hard time," Mann said. "We threatened him with a little tough love. We said, 'You get a job, pay your rent.' "
At first, it didn't work.
Tate would get a job, then lose it and tell the group he was sorry.
"I really apologize about not coming to you about losing the other job," Tate said to Mann one morning in June. "When you lose a job there's some shame there."
At other times, Tate would be sorry for other things, such as his behavior in the house.
"I want to apologize to every one of you," he said one morning. "In the last two weeks it's been hard for me to get into this game of life. I've taken things out of context. I've snapped back."
Mann stuck with Tate, sometimes scolding him, sometimes encouraging him and sometimes doing both at once.
"Greg you've got to work on your attitude a little this morning," Mann said during one house meeting. "Now, I'm having a bad day because I'm worried about Greg."
Another day came and things looked better.
"You're giving it your all," Mann told Tate. "You're getting up and getting there. I see a lot of growth in you."
Finally, Tate got a job he liked, driving for a delivery company. Mann was overjoyed.
"Our man Tate is going to work," Mann said with a smile. "He's acting like a real gentleman. With all the time I've put into this guy, please God, let me see some difference in this guy."
Tate kept the job. His outlook changed.
"I'm doing wonderful," he said. "It was brought up to me that I have a lot of animosity. I bitch a lot. A lot of that is from the addiction."
Tate got better, but the Toyota remained a problem.
"It bugs the heck out of me," Mann said. "It can't be that hard to put a part between this and that. I bought a book. It's (a matter) of taking it apart and putting it back together."
Fixing a car may sound like an everyday activity. But Mann and the others acknowledge that no matter how much they try to be normal, they aren't.
"None of us are here by choice," Mann told the group. "I'd love to be home with my wife and kids. I lost all that because of my addiction."
Being "normal," is something Tate wonders about.
"I wish I could be one of those normal people," he said. "But I'm not."
But the men and women in the house get up every morning and go to work, just like their neighbors. Residents with cars give rides to those who don't. Their hours differ. They try to eat dinner together. They do other "normal" things. On the Fourth of July, they had a back yard barbecue. For Christmas, they decorated the house and exchanged gifts.
"We're going to have a merry Christmas," Mann told them. "No matter what."
Since the holidays, Mann's biggest project has been himself.
"I got a job, so that's good," said Mann, who wants to get back into his old profession, cabinet making. "I don't handle (being at) home good after too long. I need to work."
Inside the house, life goes on.
Group activities are created, such as watching football on television in the family room on Sundays. They don't want to be alone. When you're alone, they say, it increases the desire to drink or use drugs.
"They work with each other," Murtha said. "It's a very common story."
Mann, Tate, Romero and Trujillo are the core group in the house. Around them, people come and go.
Recovering drug users and alcoholics, just like Mann and the rest of the core, often come from treatment programs, such as the ones offered by Bristlecone. They say all the right things. They want to keep clean. They stay for several months, or several weeks. Most don't have to be kicked out. They disappear. Some don't bother to take their belongings.
"For those (four) that have been there, that's an undue hardship on them," Higgins said. "It's not helping them."
One night in November, as Mann sat in the family room watching a football game on television, he counted in his head the number who'd come and gone since May.
"It's about 15 or 20," he said.
The pattern at the Sparks house is familiar to drug and alcohol treatment experts.
"It's a chronic relapsing problem," Murtha said. "It always will be, until someone comes up with a magic pill."
Dan Lohr moved into the house in May. In August, Lohr said, "I'd like to stay here as long as I can." Less than a month later, Lohr was gone.
"I quit my job and got to drinking again," said Lohr, a cook. "I said, 'The heck with it.'"
Lohr returned in November. He was the first person who left the house and then came back.
"I got tired of waking up under a bridge," said Lohr as he worked in the house kitchen, chopping Italian sausage to make spaghetti sauce. "If I live alone and I get bored, I'll start drinking. Around here, there's always something to do."
Lohr was welcomed back by the group. He's a good cook.
"Dan, he's family," said Romero, eager for Lohr's help in the kitchen. "Dan's got nowhere else to go."
This month, Lohr left. He wanted a place of his own, closer to his work, Romero said.
One person who left and didn't return is James Odiorne, who, with Mann, found the Sparks house in May.
"This is what's needed," Odiorne said in July, two months after the home opened. "I call it 'finishing school.' "
A month later, Odiorne was gone. The residents who remained, including Mann, faced their biggest crisis. Mann told the others there were unpaid bills for rent and utilities. The residents tried to reassure each other.
"I have faith in God and faith in us," Trujillo said. "I have a belief we'll save this place."
But, they needed more than a belief. They needed a plan.
"We're trying to pay every week, every Friday," Mann said after a grim house meeting in mid-August. "We've got to patch a big hole."
They did it. But it wasn't easy.
"The electricity (could have been) shut off last week," Mann said, reporting to the group a few days after the August crisis conference. "Luckily, it was on payday."
In January, a long-term lease was signed with the landlord, who lives in San Francisco. Romero is paying the rent every week. But the arguments continue, along with the daily successes and failures.
"It's an everyday learning process," said Johnny Smith, a newer resident who came to the Sparks home shortly before Christmas. "We call it life."
Management and money difficulties are among the reasons houses should be licensed, which requires homes for recovering addicts to comply with rules covering everything from fire safety to record keeping, state regulators point out.
"Being licensed in the state provides a safer environment," said Pam Graham, the Carson City-based chief of the Bureau of Licensure and Certification. "They can't exploit the clients."
There are problems with unlicensed homes, Murtha acknowledged, but they also fill a need.
"Far be it from me to rip them," he said. "There is a place for what they do in the world."
As winter reaches its midpoint, the situation inside the Sparks house, as usual, isn't perfect.
Mann couldn't fix the Toyota, which is sitting in a towing company's yard. But Mann didn't give up. He bought another book. He fixed a 1987 Audi. He's driving it.
Most of those in the home have jobs. There's still work to do. It gets done a little at a time, for instance Mann shoveling snow.
"We've held the roof on the house and we've helped quite a few people," Mann says as he digs, reflecting on life in the house since he and the others moved in. "We don't press stuff so hard here. We let you recover. We're not a program, we're just a house."
THE ROAD TO THE HOUSE IN SPARKS
A stay of three, four, six or more months in a halfway house can be the successful completion of a long treatment program for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts that often starts with an arrest.
That's what happened to Carolyn Romero, 50, a recovering methamphetamine user who lives with other recovering addicts in a six-bedroom home in Sparks.
Romero isn't forced to stay in the house. She moved in with other residents in May. They wanted a place to live as a group. Romero said she plans to leave, possibly in the spring.
Here's a chronology of events described by Romero that began with an arrest and led to the house:
o 1997: Arrested and charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, failed to appear in court.
o 1998: Arrested, sent to drug court administered by Washoe District Court Judge Peter Breen.
"I couldn't make it (to drug court). I was high. I would do (drug court) for a while. I didn't know how much of an addict I was until I had to answer to somebody for it."
o 2002: Arrested again
"I don't want to talk about it. It was really bad. On the third bust they let me sit in jail for two months. He (Breen) said, 'Well Miss Romero, you're going to go to prison.' "
o 2002: Doesn't appear in drug court.
"Instead of going to the program, I run to Elko."
o 2002: Turns herself in to a treatment program in Elko. Arrested and spends a month in Elko Country Jail, then a month-and-a-half in Washoe County Jail.
o 2002: Enters a long-term treatment program in Reno.
o 2003: Completes the program.
o 2004: Joins other residents in the Sparks home.
Drug court is offered to some offenders as an alternative to jail.
It's an 18-month program with from 250 to 300 people going through it at any one time, said Terry Gilmartin, the court's coordinator.
Participants must appear in court for evaluation regularly and are tested for drugs frequently. They must also be in a treatment program.
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