Sunday, June 18, 2000

Halfway house eyed for Bradford College building

By Hilary Roxe Eagle-Tribune Writer

A man who operates a network of sober homes for recovering addicts across eastern Massachusetts is looking to move one into a Bradford neighborhood -- but the city is fighting him. Philip A. Malonson, executive director of Twelve Step Educational Program, said he is trying to buy an historic building at 378 South Main St. which has been used both as a nursing home and offices for Bradford College. Sober Recovery program Executive Director Phil Malonson stands out in front of the house he wants to purchase and open as an alcohol and drug-free home on South Main Street in Bradford.
However, the plan has met with resistance. He wants to convert it to a home for former addicts who want to live in a drug- and alcohol-free environment. The city building inspector has denied the project, citing zoning restrictions. Mr. Malonson has vowed to fight the decision.

Mr. Malonson is a one-time addict who said he has been sober since 1988. He graduated from Northern Essex Community College with a degree in substance abuse counseling and mental health in 1990, and went on to earn another degree in social work at Salem State College. After working for a while as a hospital crisis clinician, he started the program, saying he knows what it takes for an addict to stay sober.

In the process of opening 15 sober homes in eastern Massachusetts, Mr. Malonson has learned the drill to make the home a success. Before he goes into a new community, he introduces himself to the police and fire chiefs, and to city officials and knocks on the doors of neighbors to the property, as he did last week in Bradford. He looks into zoning and permitting restrictions and tailors the home he proposes to those guidelines.

So far, Mr. Malonson said fire and electrical inspectors have signed off on the building and plumbing inspectors have given conditional approval. Building Inspector Robert C. Dill has denied the project, however, explaining the area is zoned strictly for residential use. Though educational facilities are allowed in residential areas, he said he believes the program focuses on drug and alcohol rehabilitation, which is forbidden in the zone. The house would be allowed in other city zones, he said, with a special permit from the City Council.

Mr. Malonson said his is a nonprofit educational company and has the right to be in that area. He said he plans to work until the city grants all necessary permits. "I am not a rehabilitator and we are not a detox (center)," he said. "I'm starting to get angry. If they're going to stop me, I want to know why, and we're going to take it to the next step." There has been a "next step" in nearly every community where he has opened a sober home.

In several locations, neighbors staged protests against allowing the homes in residential areas, and in Billerica, one complaint from residents was taken to a five-person appeals board, and voted down four to one, he said. Convincing people the program will not harm a neighborhood usually involves trying to deal with anonymous comments and complaints. "I'd like to see the people in person who are against this, who will say they don't want alcohol and drug free living," he said.

Hiding the real fears?

The Rev. Thomas L. Bentley, president of Emmaus, Inc., which has set up homeless shelters and other housing projects for people in Haverhill, said the issues neighbors raise about group homes or affordable housing are not always their real concerns. When opponents do not want to come out against a particular disadvantaged group, he said, the complaint often centers around the building or its location. "People use the property issue to shield the people issue," he explained. "There's a funny question when someone says these people need permission to move into this neighborhood. That isn't really the American way." He described "a contagion of resistance that grows up in people's conversations," making it difficult for those organizing a group home to address specific concerns. He added state-licensed nonprofit organizations are often held to a higher standard than commercial or private agencies because their licenses and funding depends on frequent inspections.

City Planning Developer William Pillsbury said the city seldom has much input into which groups come in, though officials have discouraged groups like the Team Coordinating Agency from opening a methadone clinic for heroin addicts. In that case, the City Council sent a letter asking TCA to reconsider its proposal. The clinic never opened. There is not much the city can do to stop a home licensed by the state, Mr. Dill said, but the Twelve Step homes are run independently. Mr. Malonson said money to run the home comes from private and public donations, and from the rent residents pay to live in the buildings. A board of directors oversees the company, and every building undergoes regular safety codes inspections.

Though Mr. Malonson said he often hears thunders of protest when he plans a house in a new community, he said he rarely hears a complaint after the home opens. Residents of the sober homes do community service work -- mowing the lawn of a nearby day-care center in Quincy, for example -- and take care of the property. The idea, he explained, is simply to be a good neighbor. One would-be neighbor, Joseph M. Abraham, who said he lives "a football field and a half" from the house, said he hoped the building would be used for offices, as it had been, but understands the difficulties group homes face when trying to get access to a community. "It's got to be put someplace," he said. "Nobody wants it in their neighborhood."

Finding the right spot Mr. Malonson constantly has his eye out for old funeral homes, boarding houses or convalescent centers, and it was the building in Bradford -- the former Lennox Nursing Home -- that attracted him to Haverhill, he said. With large rooms that once served as wards, appropriate bathrooms and safety equipment already installed, he said old nursing homes provide an ideal set up in his houses. Other prospective buyers have had a similar feeling about the building. Mr. Dill said one group wanted to open a home for people with brain damage. That request was also denied for zoning reasons -- the prospective buyer wanted to open a gift shop, and commercial ventures are prohibited.
The building is for sale by the local Consoli Realtors. Though Mr. Malonson's plans for the house are not yet firm, he said it was likely the building would hold 35 men, about half of whom would come from Haverhill. People in his sober homes choose where they want to live, he said, and though house rules allow them to stay for up to two years, most leave within six to nine months. At least six Alcoholics Anonymous meetings convene weekly, and the city hosts at least two Narcotics Anonymous meetings, according to the Boston offices of the two groups.

Haverhill has as much a need for services for substance abuse services as any other community, Mr. Malonson said. "There's a drug problem in every city and town in this country," he said. "Bradford's no different. ... They talk about the 'war on drugs' and 'just say no.' ... What's wrong with just doing something?" They want to get better.

Jim R. Williams, an assistant manager of a 12-Step house in Billerica, however, said addicts often do not want to live in the place their problem started, and often choose not to be in their hometown. Someone from Haverhill, for example, would want to leave the city to get away from the places and influences that fostered the addiction, he said. A revolving-door detoxer for more than two decades, Mr. Williams said hospitals and halfway houses do not offer the same atmosphere as Mr. Malonson's sober homes, and being surrounded by others who understand an addict's problems and temptations makes a difference. Though he said he has seen about the same success rate for people in the sober home as he has in some of the other places he has lived -- "You aren't going to get sober anywhere unless you want to," he said -- he added it is the most caring facility he has been in. Neighbors' concerns about the residents are unfounded, he added. No one with a history of sexual offenses is allowed in the homes and anyone who commits a crime is immediately kicked out. "The people who come here want to get better, not to rob the guy next door," he said. "This place is an asset to the community."
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