In the midst of a growing heroin crisis on Long Island and just two days after actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his Greenwich Village office after an apparent heroin overdose, recovering addicts and supporters of the group of recovery houses known as Mainstream House braved the public eye at Riverhead Town Hall Tuesday afternoon to tell tearful stories of how their lives were changed by Mainstream House.
Robert Hartmann, who founded Mainstream House, would like to lease a rambling victorian house across from Town Hall on East Main Street, which had been briefly used as the town’s building department after a fire in the building department on Howell Avenue in 2010, for use as his latest recovery home.
But the house, which had originally been zoned for residential use, was rezoned and converted to an office use in 2004, and now needs permission from the town board to be zoned as a single family residence again.
State law treats residents of recovery houses as a single family unit, said Mr. Hartmann’s attorney, John Taggart, at Tuesday’s hearing.
Mr Taggart read a letter from Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of Long Island Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependance (LICADD), praising Mr. Hartmann’s work.
In the letter, Mr. Reynolds said there is an acute need for local beds for addicts in the midst of a major opioid epidemic. He described Mr. Hartmann’s houses as “one of a handful of safe and truly sober” sober houses on Long Island.
According to LICADD, cheap heroin has been flooding the Long Island market over the past couple years, and according to a memo from U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer’s office last year, deaths due to heroin jumped 83 percent on Long Island between 2010 and 2012. In 2012, 83 people died from heroin overdoses in Suffolk County.
Mr. Hartmann, himself a recovering addict, told the board that “when it comes to recovery homes, we are the good guys,” adding that all clients in his houses need to be working and contribute to the upkeep of the houses, and clients who relapse are removed from the houses and taken back to inpatient detox centers.
“They are not released on the streets of Riverhead, my hometown,” he said.
About a dozen men, many of whom had been through Mainstream House’s houses and gone on to live productive lives, shared their stories with the board, often tearing up and pausing to collect themselves as they spoke.
Joe Czulada, who grew up in Riverhead two doors down from Town Councilman Jim Wooten when Mr. Wooten was a police officer, said he remembered Mr. Wooten chasing him around when he was using crack and cocaine as a young man.
He’s since become a certified substance abuse counselor who has invested in recovery organizations across the country.
“A lot of people in Riverhead know Joe Czulada as a no-good crackhead,” he said.
“When I look around this room I see human beings,” who make mistakes, he added.
“I had to bury a 16 year old this week. The epidemic on Long Island is horrendous. People are selling drugs all over town,” he said, adding that he could point out plenty of crack houses in Riverhead that posed a much greater problem than a sober house.
“That little house on the corner of Sweezy Avenue (where he got clean), it was kind of dilapidated and run-down, but it saved my life,” he said.
Greg Conrad, a friend of Mr. Hartmann, said he’d brought several friends who were having trouble with addiction to see him.
“Bobby made us limeade, took my friend under his wing and got him well,” he said of one such encounter, adding that he’s since brought two other friends to see Mr. Hartmann about their addiction.
“He’s never said no to me,” he added. “I have seen what these houses do. At some point in time, miracles happen. It’s about saving peoples’ lives.”
John Corbett, who’s the clinical director of outpatient services at Maryhaven Center of Hope on West Main Street, said he often works with destitute teen clients who need serious help.
“I need to chose secure and safe housing,” he said, adding that he would choose Mr. Hartmann’s houses. “When I’m entrusted with young lives, it’s critical I make the right decisions.”
William Artale of Riverhead said he learned what a family was in a Mainstream house.
“You go in there to learn to grow up to be a man,” he said.
Garrett Moore, who lives on East Main Street, was the only person who said he was unsure of the location of the house, which is across the street from a liquor store and not far from where shots were fired at the Hyatt Place downtown several weeks ago.
Steve Altman, who began his recovery in 2006 and still plows the driveways of Mr. Hartmann’s houses, said he didn’t think a liquor store across the street was any more dangerous than a deli, where illegal drugs could be sold outside and beer could be had inside. He also said he wasn’t sure how hearing shots being fired would have anything to do with a recovery house.
Mr. Hartmann’s father, Robert Hartmann, Sr., addressed concerns raised in the media that Mr. Hartmann is running a for-profit business. He said that when his son first came to talk to him about what he wanted to do with his life when he got clean, he told his son he wouldn’t make a dime running recovery houses.
“He said ‘yeah, I know,'” said the elder Mr. Hartmann.
“He saved our lives when he got clean,” he added.
The town board closed the public hearing and is leaving it open for written comment until Valentine’s Day.
Town Supervisor Sean Walter told attendees he appreciates Mr. Hartmann’s work and will put the proposal up for a vote at the board’s Feb. 19 meeting if he has the support of his fellow board members.