In Riverhead, on the East End, the battle has taken on personal meaning for scores of individuals in recovery who are fighting for a new sober house that has sparked controversy among some residents who feel Main Street, directly across from Town Hall, isn't the right place for the facility.
In an emotional outpouring of support, a steady stream of recovering alcoholics and addicts came forward Tuesday to share their stories and express their support for the proposed new sober house.
A public hearing was held at Riverhead Town Hall Tuesday on a special use permit application submitted by Mainstream House, LLC to convert a structure located at 755 East Main Street in Riverhead from office/retail to a single family dwelling, for use as a sober recovery home.
Although the project has sparked some controversy in the community, only one individual spoke out against the proposal Tuesday, while a large number shared their most personal stories in a heartfelt show of solidarity with Robert Hartmann, president of Mainstream House, LLC — the man many said, time and time again, saved their lives and gave them hope.
One by one, they told their stories, which echoed with similar themes of despair, of dreams shattered, jobs lost, families broken, futures destroyed.
"Our region battles an epidemic opiate crisis," wrote Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds of the Long Island Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, who sent a letter in support of Hartmann's work.
According to state law, attorney John Taggart said, individuals living together in a sober home setting are considered a single family.
"We come here to day to ask to attain status as a single family dwelling," said Hartmann. "The family atmosphere is so crucial for men in early recovery."He added that often, sober houses get a bad rap, with misconceptions running rampant and rumors of crime and drug use. "When it comes to recovery, we are one of the good guys," Hartmann said.
Those who relapse are removed immediately from the facility and sent for crisis intervention or back to their families. "They are not released upon the streets of Riverhead, my hometown," Hartmann said.
Hartmann, who lost his sister 19 years ago to an overdose, added, "We are in the midst of a scourge, an epidemic, that's killing hundreds every year. We must stay on the forefront, because it's happening in every town, every neighborhood."
Addicts, as well as success stories, come from every walk of life; one is a son of a former town board member, Hartmann said. The facility would benefit the community and society by helping to build futures, he said.
"I'm going to do something I've never done. My name is Greg Conrad and I'm an alcoholic," said one man, in tears. "I had my last drink on June 11, 1984. These guys come in and they can barely hold a cup of coffee or get a thought out. At some point in time, miracles happen."
Conrad said the board was passionate about downtown revitalization and other issues. "I'd like to think here in Riverhead, you're just as passionate about saving people's lives."
Riverhead resident Joseph Czulada painted a picture of days he'd spent on the wrong side of the law.
With the help of Mainstream House, today, he's a certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor.
"I had to bury a 16-year-old kid last week that died from an overdose. There's an epidemic on Long Island; it's horrendous. People are worried about this house, that's going to save lives? I can take you on a tour of Riverhead and show you where the drugs are being sold."
He remembered a little "run-down, dilapidated house, that saved my life. It's not about the house. It's about what's going on inside."
Hartmann, he said, helps those lost and in despair, giving them a place to stay, a lifeline, without any mention of money.
"We're not bad people," Czulada said. "We're good people who did bad things because of our addiction."
But one Riverhead resident has reservations. Garrett Moore, who lives on Main Street and teaches in the local school district, said he questioned the location of the proposed facility.
With revitalization efforts ongoing downtown, Moore said the sober house is "a chance I don't know that we should take at this point for Main Street."
Another location might work better, he said.
Just recently, he said, he was the victim of an attempted home invasion right near his three-year-old son's room; next, shots were fired 100 feet from his house.
"Temptation does occur," he said. "People say one thing and do another. Recidivism is a major issue and I don't know if locating a sober home across the street from a liquor store is the best idea." He added, "If there's any chance this could be a problem for Main Street, I think it's one chance too many."
John Corbett, clinical coordinator at Mary Haven Center of Hope in Riverhead, also works at the Suffolk County correctional facility, running the youth re-entry task force. He said he chooses Mainstream House, LLC, because the houses are monitored and safe, with clients asked to abide by rules."This is not just in Riverhead, it's in Nassau County, in Suffolk, in the city. Addiction is everywhere. Let's not sweep it under the carpet."
Corbett spoke from experience; he lived at Mainstream House for 14 months, battling addiction.
One man spoke about how finding his brother dead in the living room led to his downward spiral.
But after time in the recovery house, he said he now works, pays taxes, and is studying for a degree in graphic design. "I've learned how to grow up and become a man. I've learned what family is all about."
Of Hartmann, he said, "He saved my life."
Another said he came to Mainstream House, kicking and screaming from New York City after shooting heroin for 36 years.
As for those who protest a "for profit" venture, he said Hartmann never asked him for money and "can barely pay his bills. This is not about profit. It's about helping others. When I met Bobby, I learned a new way of life."
Today, he added, he's been clean for over seven years with no run-ins with the law. "His houses help the neighborhood, not hurt."
Neighbors, he said, might complain about cars, but residents have cars because they are working and finally able to buy and register cars.
Two years ago, said Ian O'Keefe, "I couldn't go six or seven hours without a needle in my arm or a pipe in my mouth." He was arrested four times a month, living on park benches and eating out of dumpsters.
Today, he works at a deli on Route 58, shares an apartment with another friend in recovery, bought a car and has not had any legal trouble, not even a parking ticket."My story mirrors that of a lot of addicts who were broken, and had one phone call to make," he said.
O'Keefe said at the Mainstream House, he and friends as close as brother cooked family dinners and found hope.
Another Selden man, 21, added, "I crawled into this town, broken, 70 pounds lighter, and pale. The only time I'd spent in Riverhead was when I was in jail."
After his time in a sober home, he spoke out about the epidemic that has led him to far too many funerals of young friends. "I don't have millions in the bank, a supermodel wife or a Maserati, but I'm rich beyond my wildest dreams, because I'm trustworthy and loyal."
Local residents, including realtor Larry Oxman, Laurie Downs, former Riverhead PTO executive council president, and Eric Biegler of the Sound Park Heights Civic Association, supported the sober house.
Anthony Coates, who ran for town board in the last election, said he, too, had battled demons and found hope in rehab. "It isn't easy to stand up and talk about these issues but I feel that loyalty, to what Bobby meant for me," he said. "The tentacles of this disease are everywhere."
Recovering addict Sharon Luke of Greenport said the location of a liquor store means nothing; an addict will travel to the ends of the earth, she said, for a fix or a drink.
Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley, who also is the chief executive of the Seafield Center, a rehab facility in Westhampton Beach, supported the zoning change.
Ro Czalada, mother of Joseph, who spoke earlier in the hearing, stood to represent parents facing their worst nightmare as their children fall prey to addiction. "They tell parents to practice tough love, so you have to put your child out. It's not easy. We are a middle-class family, we are good parents. It doesn't matter. The minute they leave your house you don't know what path they're going to follow. I pray that no one has to go through what we did and if you do, I hope you have people like Bobby Hartmann and sober houses."
Perhaps the most moving testimony came from Hartmann's own father, Robert Hartmann, Sr. who described his son's addiction.
"When Bobby finally got clean, he saved my life and my wife's, too," he said, crying, as tears streamed down his son's face.
When his son first started the sober houses, he said, "I told him, 'You've got to realize that you're not going to make a dime.' He looked me right in the eye and said, 'I know. I just want to help people. That's the most important thing.'"
The town board left the hearing open for written comment; a vote is expected on Feb. 19.