CLAREMONT — In a counter to public misinformation and apprehension about the county’s proposed sober house project in downtown Claremont, Sullivan County Manager Derek Ferland met with business owners and other community members over the past month to provide a better understanding of the project and its purpose.
On Monday and Tuesday, Ferland and Superintendent Dave Berry of the county department of corrections held two forums in the Moody Building conference room for members of the Chamber of Commerce to learn more about the proposed transitional program for 19 Sullivan St. , which would provide temporary housing and transitional services to inmates who are returning to the community but lack a safe living environment conducive to staying clean and sober.
In August, Ferland held four similar forums, including one on Aug. 1 with Claremont’s four state representatives: Rep. John Cloutier (At-large), Andrew O’Hearne (Ward 1), Gary Merchant (Ward II) and Walt Stapleton (Ward III).
On Aug. 20 and 22, Ferland held three forum sessions with businesses abutting the property and on Aug. 27 presented to businesses owners at a Claremont small business meeting.
“The meetings have been very positive,” Ferland said. “Many who turned out were more curious than concerned.”
Of the roughly 15 members of the business community who attended these meetings since August, Ferland said they were anxious rather than opposed to the project, due to not having enough knowledge. The most common frustration expressed at the meetings, according to Ferland, regarded matters beyond the control or scope of the project, such as the overall drug culture within the city.
At Monday’s forum, Ferland and Berry told attendees that they believe the continuous activity and presence of counselors, corrections and court employees and building cameras — wired directly to the Sullivan County Complex — will discourage illicit activity around the area, including activity already taking place.
Ferland and Berry also dispelled common misperceptions posted on various community Facebook pages, including assertions that the area does not support enough viable jobs for these residents and that the residents will spend more time loitering downtown instead of finding jobs.
All residents must be employed prior to entering the sober house, Ferland said. The Sullivan County TRAILS program serves county inmates whose arrest ties to substance use or a property crime as a result of substance use. While they’re at the Sullivan County detention center, TRAILS participants must complete a 90-day treatment programs — typically during the last year of their sentence — and take shuttle-transport provided by Community Services to search for employment. Once the TRAILS participant secures employment he or she may receive an ankle bracelet and return to the community. However, when the participant does not have a stable or safe place to live, the participant may either have to remain at the jail or be moved to another sober house, such as Headrest in Lebanon.
Residents of the proposed sober house would be required to have a 40-hour workweek schedule. Residents with only part-time employment would need to make up the remaining hours through community service, Berry said. This service could include volunteering a night at REMIX, a non-profit venue for substance-free events, or The Recovery Center on Pleasant St. .
“There will be a lot of structure and oversight,” Ferland said. “Whenever there has been a sober housing project that hasn’t been successful, that generally has been due to the lack of oversight, structure and accountability.”
Attendees at Monday’s forum included Debbie Freeman of the Tax Workroom in Claremont, community member Ray Yankowitz and Elyse Crossman, executive director of the Claremont Chamber of Commerce. According to Crossman, Tuesday’s forum attendees included Alan Croteau of Real Property Options; Tammy Porter of Lake Sunapee VNA, a hospice provider; and Courtney Porter, a social worker in the Claremont School District.
At Monday’s forum Freeman said that she supports the proposed program on Sullivan St. , which she prefers to the county’s previously-sought site at the JSL building on 45 School St. , because 19 Sullivan St. is not around a residential community. Freeman did see validity in public concerns about whether the program would place additional stress on service providers like Southwestern Community Services, whose services include a loan program to people needing to make an initial payment to secure a lease.
Berry and Ferland said that they did not believe this housing project would create an additional impact on Southwestern’s program, because part of the sober housing’s intent is to allow people in transition to save money during their residency until they’re ready to afford a rental unit of their own.
“The expected duration of residency will be about a year,” Ferland said. “The idea is that they pay $100 per week, to have some accountability as they work toward their goal, but still have money left over to save for a deposit and first month’s rent for their next housing situation.”