Sober Home Operators Frustrated By Lack Of Opportunity On East End
Elizabeth cannot recall exactly when she first realized she was an alcoholic—denial, as it often does, has muddled that memory—but the 33-year-old knows when she finally made a real commitment to overcoming the disease.
Her parents, weary from the many years they had witnessed her steady decline—it began with the sneaking of drinks as a teenager growing up in rural New England, before devolving into weekend binge drinking during her college days, and, later, as an adult, into full-blown alcoholism—and worn down by their daughter’s past broken promises to come clean, made a confession last year that still chills Elizabeth to the bone.
“My mother said they decided that morning, over coffee, what they were going to do for me when I died,” said Elizabeth, who was living in Miami, Florida, at the time and working as a teacher. “That was the catalyst that pushed me.”
But alcoholism would continue to prove to be a slippery slope. A short time later, she was hospitalized for two days. Elizabeth’s blood-alcohol level at the time of her emergency room check-in was 0.41 percent; alcohol poisoning can often prove fatal for those in a range of 0.35 to 0.4 percent.
The two-day stay at a Miami hospital led to her enrollment in a seven-day detox program, followed by a 21-day inpatient stay at another rehabilitation facility in Florida. She was on the road to sobriety though the same familiar temptations—namely, the liquor store located in her Miami apartment building—would again prove to be too much for her to completely turn her back on her old habits, which had included drinking alcohol every single day for nearly five years, usually at home alone.
Frustrated by her inability to change, Elizabeth—her name has been changed to protect her identity—turned to the friends she had made at the local Alcoholics Anonymous chapter. There, she met a woman originally from Sag Harbor who convinced her that the best way she could break the destructive cycle of alcoholism was to, at least temporarily, sever all ties with her prior life.
“If I had stayed there, there would be nothing left,” Elizabeth said, matter-of-factly.
She arrived in Sag Harbor at the start of last summer, her first-ever trip to Long Island, and took a part-time job in catering—a decision that would derail her sobriety once more. Elizabeth admits that she began drinking again while working at swank summer parties in the Hamptons.
But this time there was a noticeable and debilitating difference. Displeased with her decision to reintroduce vodka into her bloodstream, Elizabeth’s body began to fail her.
“I would lose consciousness or faint,” she recalled during a recent interview. “The tremors then came back tenfold. It was my body’s way of telling me that it could no longer take it.”
She immediately enrolled at Alternatives Counseling Services in Southampton, a nonprofit alcohol and substance abuse prevention program licensed by the State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, or OASAS. She completed an intense 28-day inpatient program at the Seafield Center’s rehabilitation facility in Westhampton Beach, another OASAS-licensed operation.
While she says both rehabilitation facilities are responsible for helping her turn her life around for good this time—she has been sober since August 23, 2017—Elizabeth explains that another local organization deserves the credit for ensuring that she won’t fall back into her old and destructive habits.
Aware of her repeated setbacks, Elizabeth quickly agreed, though finding a place to land proved to be a tad tricky due to a lack of recovery homes—typically referred to as “sober homes” even though those residing in them are often recovering from drug addiction—in Southampton Town and on the South Fork in general. Many blame the shortage on the area’s high cost of real estate and astronomical rent, though the unfair stigma oftentimes associated with facilities dedicated to treating those trying to overcome addiction remains a steadfast obstacle in certain well-heeled communities.
Elizabeth was eventually placed in an all-women recovery home in Mastic that opened in 2014, a year after longtime friends Lauren McNamara of Southampton and Danielle Bruschi of Hampton Bays founded their nonprofit, New Hope Rising Inc. Though they have different reasons for getting involved, both recognized the shortage of recovery homes in eastern Suffolk County, most notably in their shared hometown.
“We have been searching for affordable properties out east for several years and have not been able to locate a property that would be suitable for the needs of our program (i.e. cost, size, location),” Ms. McNamara wrote in an email. “We continue to diligently look for potential program locations out east, but it has been one of the greatest challenges our organization has faced, as we know that the need for housing services is there.
“We absolutely support the creation of more recovery housing on the East End,” she continued, pointing to the expected increase in their demand once those addicted to opioids aspire to kick their habits.
Ms. McNamara, who notes that several people close to her have suffered from addiction, said she and her nonprofit partner remain “very passionate” and committed to eventually offering their services on the South Fork. She also acknowledges that the dearth of affordable housing options remains, at least for the moment, an insurmountable obstacle to meet that goal.
Regardless, that has not stopped Ms. McNamara and Ms. Bruschi from pursuing their shared dream. To date, New Hope Rising has assisted more than 300 people at its three recovery homes, which can serve up to 28 people at once. In addition to its women’s facility in Mastic, where Elizabeth stayed for six months, the nonprofit currently oversees two all-men homes in Shirley and Mastic Beach, respectively.
And next month, New Hope Rising expects to open its second all-women facility in Shirley, just north of Sunrise Highway, that will allow it to offer another 11 or 12 beds in order to meet growing demand for its services.
Presently, Ms. McNamara noted that the men’s program is full, with five individuals on the waiting list. The women’s program is also full, with three people on the waiting list, though she said that should be addressed with next month’s projected opening.
Just last June, the nonprofit opened a Recovery and Wellness Center on Old Riverhead Road in Westhampton Beach, a facility that offers a mix of therapeutic services.
“These were not places that we would send someone we care about, so why would we want to send our clients to them?” Ms. McNamara, who also serves as New Hope Rising’s chief operating officer, asked rhetorically, explaining their motivation to open their own recovery homes.
She explained that both she and Ms. Bruschi, who also serves as the nonprofit’s chief executive officer, chose to focus their efforts in the hamlets of Mastic, Mastic Beach and Shirley due to economics; rent remains considerably cheaper and landlords are also more willing to sign long-term leases.
Still Ms. McNamara said she and her partner remain “very passionate” and committed to eventually bringing their services back to their hometown. While the dearth of recovery homes, coupled with the lack of affordable housing, continues to throw a wrench into their immediate plans, they have done little to deter them from their long-term goals.
New Hope Rising recently secured a $3.5 million conditional grant from the New York State Empire State Supportive Housing Initiative. The money, which can only be spent on operational costs of recovery housing over five years, has been set aside so the nonprofit can “open 30 units of supportive, permanent, affordable housing for individuals in recovery from addiction,” according to Ms. McNamara.
The requirement that the housing be permanent will make it difficult for New Hope Rising to establish roots on the South Fork, though that will not stop the nonprofit’s founders from investigating and exhausting all options. Ms. McNamara explained that, most likely, they would need to lease an apartment building to meet the conditions of the state grant; she declined to offer more specifics, explaining that they are still developing a plan of attack. They have until the end of the year to share their plans with Albany, she added.
Ms. McNamara stressed that such housing is needed on the East End, and that the ongoing opioid crisis all but ensures that additional housing—as well as recovery homes—will be needed once those currently addicted to drugs start to wean themselves off them.
“Just because a community doesn’t have recovery homes doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for them,” she said.
“They are a part of my family,” Elizabeth says of the women she met during her six-month stay that ended on April 1, explaining that she often returns to attend yoga classes and participate in other recreational activities offered by New Hope Rising even though she now has an apartment in East Moriches.
In fact, her landlord is her current Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor.
Ms. McNamara notes that those long-lasting bonds, fostered during group dinners and other supportive services at the organization’s three recovery homes, are what help keep tenants on the path to rehabilitation.
That’s not to say it is all easy sailing for the organization’s clients. In addition to adhering to a strict “zero tolerance” policy, they must submit to random drug screenings, complete household chores, adhere to curfews and, if they’re financially capable, pay rent to help cover the nonprofit’s operational costs.
She stressed that New Hope Rising does not offer on-site services, such as the distribution of medications, at any of its facilities. “Our recovery housing programs are not detox and rehabilitation centers, and all of our residents are required to attend outpatient substance abuse treatment at an OASAS-licensed facility,” Ms. McNamara added.
Rather, they focus on the healing side of recovery by providing safe and nurturing environments in which clients can start to slowly rebuild their shattered lives. In addition to learning or relearning basic responsibilities, such as cooking and cleaning, they attend group therapy sessions, complete art projects and, in the case of the women’s home in Mastic, tend to a community garden each spring and summer that sports an appropriate “Hope Grows Here” sign.
“There are many benefits to recovery housing,” Ms. McNamara said. “First, a well-operated recovery housing program provides structure, support and accountability for those in early recovery as they are transitioning back to living in the community. It assists individuals with establishing healthy connections with others in recovery and helps them to gain a foundation for long-term, sustained recovery.”
Residents are also offered a number of additional support services, such as vocational readiness and job training skills that are intended to help them become self-sufficient again. They can also receive acupuncture, attend meditation and creative art classes, and are offered other handpicked services intended to foster their continued development. “It’s not just about housing,” Ms. McNamara said. “It’s about the supportive services as well.”
That is something that Elizabeth is familiar with as well. Through the contacts she made during her six-month stay, she was able leave behind her risky catering work after landing a part-time job as a private chef for a family of four in Bridgehampton. She explained that the couple who hired her live in New York City and only typically require her assistance on the weekends, giving her the flexibility she needs to continue receiving services that are still available to her through New Hope Rising.
The clincher for her in deciding whether to accept the chef’s position? Neither parent drinks alcohol, so there is never any of it in the house.
“It could not have worked out any better,” Elizabeth said.
Richard, a 27-year-old recovering heroin addict from New Jersey, also credits New Hope Rising—and Ms. McNamara and Ms. Bruschi in particular—for helping him turn his life around. Unlike halfway houses he went through in Florida, where he had been living before moving to Long Island to be closer to his sister, those overseeing New Hope Rising have never made him feel “like a number.”
In fact, he continued, they took a personal and genuine interest in his recovery. “I thought I could just kind of live here, pass the time, zone out—and I thought that was recovery,” said Richard, whose name also has been changed to protect his identity. “And then Lauren and Danielle were, like, ‘No. That’s not how you recover.’
“They got me moving. They told me that I need to work on myself, work on loving myself,” he continued. “At the core, that’s what it is really about. You can do whatever drug you want, but at the end of the day … something inside is broken.”
Explaining that he’s a slow starter, Richard said Ms. McNamara and Ms. Bruschi created a recovery program that suits his individual and specific needs. “The owners are truly good people,” said Richard, who has been living in one of New Hope Rising’s recovery houses since June 2017. “They’re not in this for the money. They do it because they really care.”
Elizabeth agreed: “Danielle and Lauren will do whatever they can for you if you do the right thing.”