Tomorrow I’m flying to Grand Rapids, Michigan and driving an hour north to the town of Greenville. It used to be prosperous when there was an Electrolux vacuum cleaner factory there, but the factory moved to Mexico in 2006. 2700 people lost their jobs, and the economy has not recovered. The town is 90% white, and many people drive an hour into Grand Rapids for jobs. There are no treatment opportunities in the county.
This is my fifth visit to Greenville, to speak on addiction and recovery. The first four were fund-raisers, for a sober house. Now, Greenville has a sober house. The recovery community, and the larger community wanted one, because of all the people who are addicted to alcohol and drugs, and all the people who died, mostly of opiate overdoses.
People went to treatment in Grand Rapids, but there were not enough sober house beds for them, anywhere, and even though there isn’t much money to be had in Greenville, people wanted a sober house.
We got support from politicians. I suggested we round up all the AA and NA people who were not registered to vote, and count the ones who would commit to attend our first fund raiser. We counted a hundred and fifty people. Then we scheduled voter registration, and told the politicians we would be registering a hundred and fifty new voters. A lot of local politicians came. They supported some public money for the sober house. Zoning variances were no problem.
In California right now, there is a proposed state law that would limit how many sober houses can be close together. It is sponsored by the legislators from Malibu and Costa Mesa, wealthy towns with a lot of sober houses. Their philosophy is “not in my back yard.” They are also trying to limit how many treatment centers there can be in those wealthy communities.
In Saint Paul, one neighborhood tried to get the Saint Paul City Council to restrict sober houses so that they had to be a quarter mile apart. My first thought was that perhaps we should have a state law that require crack houses to be a quarter mile apart in our bad neighborhoods. Then we could tear down the violators.
The Saint Paul Planning Commission refused to recommend it, and the Saint Paul City Council did not do it. Part of the reason is that the Federal Fair Housing Act gives disability rights to sober houses, because alcoholism and addictions are disabilities. Another part of the reason is that sober people are a visible, and highly successful part of the Saint Paul community.
In a democracy, the majority does not rule. Well organized groups rule. I live in Summit Hill. We have a neighborhood association that has a non-profit association with a paid staff, a website, a newsletter, and a representative to the district council. It is active in speaking up for our neighborhood.
I wrote my city council representative, thanking her for upholding the sober house rights. I pointed out that I’m sober, and that I just paid the first installment of my $10,118 property tax bill. Sober people contribute a lot to this city, and both here, and across the country, we can do our part to see that sober houses will be there for the alcoholic and addict who is still getting started in our program.
John MacDougall is the Spiritual Care Coordinator at The Retreat.
He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
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