Thursday, May 01, 2008

Willows sober living, pt. 2

New Willows sober living house first in Glenn County
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
Glenn County resources for drug users trying to getting clean: none.

That’s what an Orland man found looking in the files of High Desert state prison, where he was living in before being released three weeks ago.

They didn’t list a now-two-month-old sober living house in east Willows – the first in the county, and the seed of an infant network.

“If I hadn’t heard of this place, I’d be high right now, running amok,” says the man, Sean Brooks (not his real name).

“That’s a fact.”

Almost 40, Mr. Brooks has spent 15 years locked up; nine of them for a juvenile gang-rape conviction and most recently for violating parole with dirty drug tests. Five of his six siblings have been to prison; two of his brothers are doing life. The first time he did meth was at age 10.

“My brothers cooked it for me,” Mr. Brooks says. “That’s screwed up.”

The house was founded by former Orland user Mike Lake. After Mr. Lake went through a sober living house in Red Bluff opened by former “tweaking buddy” Jason Gray, he was inspired to start his own.

“We grew up together, behind bars,” Mr. Lake said. “I never thought guys like me could do something like this.”

One challenge his house faces is the local economy: both Mr. Brooks and housemate Andy Walker (also not his real name) are forced to live in Glenn County, where they offended, by their parole agencies.

Here, in addition to old friends, there are few jobs and no temp agencies – unlike Red Bluff or Chico.

“Glenn County has nothing to offer,” says Mike Coyle, who runs the house with Mr. Lake, helping residents find jobs and other resources.

“We have a place for them, but what comes next?”

Mr. Brooks is looking for a job, and worries repeatedly that he won’t be able to get hired when people see his resume and rap sheet.

“Serious job placement, that’s our responsibility,” he says. “But when no one’s willing to give you a chance...”

He concedes he’s willing to omit a bit on applications, hoping that a month or so later when an employer finds out he’ll have proved himself. And he has a bit of government help on his side: the state will pay half of parolee’s salaries, and give their employers a $9,000 tax break.

Statistically, someone who gets arrested is five times more likely to be unemployed as the average person, according to a 2004 Department of Justice study – though because of other factors this doesn’t mean that being unemployed quintuples the risk of being arrested.

Residents choose to live in the house because they know how easy is it to fall back into old ways – especially with the county’s small size.

“Run into a homeboy at fucking Wal-Mart, ‘hey, you want to come to a party tonight,’” said Mr. Lake, who’s tried to quit, and failed, before. “You have a drink, and want to get off that, so you get tweaked. It can be that easy.”

Mr. Walker described a similar cycle.

“You get out of prison, and you want to get some,” Mr. Walker says. “You’re going to run into some homebuddy, and I’m weak to that shit.”

A year and a half ago, living with his mother in Orland, he was clean for five months, and then got high at a weekend party.

“It went downhill,” he says; he ended up with a 10 month sentence for a dirty test.

Staying clean is a constant challenge – even now, housemate Mr. Brooks says, “I could walk down the street and get high.”

“And that he hasn’t done that is astronomically huge,” says Mr. Coyle.

Mr. Brooks doesn’t want to have his real name appear in print “because it would hurt my sobriety” – he doesn’t want old friends to find him.

Their similar past struggles unites those running the house and those living in it.

“We’re both addicts in recovery,” Mr. Coyle says of Sean. He and Mr. Lake “have to piss-test just like they do.”

And at some point, their outlooks changed – whether with a change of heart, a clearer view of consequences, or some combination.

“When you sell dope and stuff, get girls, you think that’s ballin,’” Sean said. “Now, ‘ballin’’ is paying my bills, having a job at the end of the month. Normal society living.”

For Messrs. Lake and Coyle, it was their children.

“I took a shot, went on a high-speed chase down (Wood),” Mr. Lake said. “Two weeks later, my girlfriend said, ‘I’m pregnant.’ I was too high to notice.”

“And that’s when I said, I’m done.”

And for Mr. Coyle, it was when his then 1-year-old daughter found a heroin-loaded needle in a Sacramento park.

“It scared me,” he recalls.

The target population often doesn’t want to change until they get into trouble with the law.

There are hundreds of people out there who could come to the sober living house, Mr. Coyle says.

Are they ready?

“I haven’t come across a lot of people who aren’t on parole, who aren’t on probation, who want to stop being addicts,” Mr. Coyle replies.

That was a big part for Mr. Walker.

“I had hella fun, don’t get me wrong,” he says of his experiences. “But it just ends back in prison.”

That’s where he’s been for more than 10 years of his life; now, he’s nearing 30.

The men look back on a former resident who reoffended and went back to prison, and draw lessons.

“He had other people come over, spend the night,” Sean says. “That’s not going to happen – if either (fellow resident) Jerry or I did it” the other person would pipe up.

He didn’t want to change, Mr. Coyle says.

The path back can be long.

Mr. Walker was just released from High Desert prison last Friday.

“At first when you get out, you have stage fright, you’re too scared to go anywhere, do anything,” Mr. Brooks says.

Then, there’s the problem of missing job, and life, skills.

“Up to now, I’ve never paid a bill, never had an ID, a driver’s license,” says Mr. Lake, 32. “PG&E? That cuts into your drug money!”

Told the only jobs this reporter knows about are selling ads, Mr. Lake replies, in jest: “Is that anything like selling dope? We all know how to do that.”

“My only struggle is with employment,” Mr. Brooks says – and then rethinks.

“I’ll be at peace a moment,” he adds. “Then I’ll start to worry about my kids.”

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