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Cold Comfort 

Recovery home residents complain of shabby treatment.

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By Linda Lutton

When Lauren Kramer went to check out the Newman Foundation Recovery Homes in the Austin neighborhood on the west side, she liked what she saw. The 18-unit building, a residence for people recovering from substance abuse, was in the process of being rehabbed, and counseling and AA meetings were a short distance away at McClellan Training, Education and Counseling Services, Ltd., the Oak Park counseling service that owned and ran the Newman Foundation.

Kramer, who'd been referred to Newman by her former in-patient treatment center, was shown a nice-looking finished apartment and decided to move in. But she says that when she actually arrived with her four-year-old son, they were assigned to an apartment with peeling paint, bare and unswept floors, and cockroaches. Managers told her she could move into a habitable apartment within a week. That was mid-April.

"We are still in the same conditions we were in when we moved in," said Kramer early this month, at a public hearing called by the South Austin Community Coalition Council. "Our hot water is just a dribble. There are roaches everywhere. There are no smoke detectors anywhere in the building. There is no dietary staff on the premises. Our children went without milk for almost two weeks. It's absolutely not what was promised to us."

She also said the AA meetings at MTECS had been suspended.

Michael Servant moved into the Newman Foundation homes about the same time Kramer did. He says he was told that there would be round-the-clock staffing and security and three meals a day for the residents. "Once I got there to Newman's Foundation nothing they said was true. It was ridiculous--it was like an abandoned building. I think we were just there to help pay for the paint."

Servant says that not only was there no security, residents weren't even given keys to their apartments, and construction staff meandered freely in and out of them while rehabbing the building. He says that shortly after he moved in, $400 cash, a TV, and a VCR were stolen from his room. He notified Monty McClellan of McClellan Training, Education and Counseling Services, assuming MTECS would take responsibility for the lost items. "His answer to me was to pack my stuff and get out." So Servant took his story to the local community organization, the South Austin Council.

"When residents came to us there were 37 people living in seven units," says Theresa Welch, a community organizer with the council. Residents--most on fixed incomes--said they were being charged $350 per month in rent plus $60 for each child (several residents said they were advised of the surcharge only after they'd moved in). In some cases this rent approached the residents' entire monthly incomes. Some residents whose children had been taken away from them by the Department of Children and Family Services were living at the recovery home as a necessary step in getting them back. "A lot of the residents told us they were referred there by DCFS caseworkers," says Welch.

Newman resident Kimberly Dotson says she was originally led to believe she'd be living in Oak Park near MTECS, not on Chicago's rough west side. Dotson says she went to the police complaining of harassment by the manager of the home. "Doc McClellan said everything would be taken care of, but there was no suspension, nothing," says Dotson. According to the current manager, Terri Thomas, her predecessor was terminated on May 23, but "not strictly on those allegations." She says he vanished when MTECS began investigating Dotson's charges and hasn't been seen since. Dotson must remain enrolled in a drug rehab program as part of her DCFS service plan: "If I move out on my own I lose the chance of getting my kids back. I lose my whole DCFS case because I'm not showing 'stability.' This is a lot of stress. This can make a person relapse and start doing what they're trying to stop."

Poorly run recovery homes are nothing new to the South Austin Community Coalition Council (SACCC). Last year around this time, hundreds of Austin residents were attending housing court, where inspectors testified to dozens of building code violations in homes run by New Beginnings. The neighboring Northwest Austin Council created the Austin Recovery Home Task Force to look into the problem, and eventually the city's Office of Substance Abuse Policy commissioned a citywide task force on recovery homes. The city is still in litigation with New Beginnings over zoning requirements and building conditions.

The recovery home debate in Austin isn't simple not-in-my-backyard opposition; residents by and large acknowledge their community has a pervasive substance abuse problem and needs recovery homes. "We're not out to close them down," says Carolyn Taylor, of the Northwest Austin Council. "But we do definitely need some help out here. We've got to be careful about who comes in as operators."

The fact that residents are faced with the issue yet again highlights the need for a watchdog, SACCC argues. Though the Illinois Department of Alcohol and Substance Abuse (DASA) licenses in-patient drug and alcohol treatment centers, it does not monitor recovery homes, which are usually meant to provide a drug-free, supportive, semistructured environment for people who have already completed an in-patient program.

Help may be on the way. DASA filed a proposal in the May 24 Illinois Register that among other things would force an operation like the Newman Foundation to be licensed in order to call itself a "recovery home." DASA wants to set minimum qualifications for staff, establish dietary and sanitation standards, require a staff person to be on the premises full-time, and require recovery homes to comply with all local laws in terms of building codes and zoning.

But these standards are at best months away, and SACCC is staying on the attack. After failing to arrange a meeting with McClellan and the MTECS staff, SACCC staged an impromptu protest outside the Oak Park counseling service. When no one from MTECS accepted an invitation to the June 10 public hearing, SACCC pulled out the placards again and protested outside the Newman Foundation. In addition to rallying community members, the group has been working with 15th District police, the Legal Assistance Foundation, the principal of Emmet School (located across from the home), Chicago zoning officials, Alderman Percy Giles, DASA, and Oak Park officials. SACCC also turned to DCFS, which instructed its staff to visit all recovery homes where DCFS clients have been placed and report back on conditions.

McClellan responds that SACCC's attack is unfounded. "The allegations that have been made are completely false. They are libelous and slanderous. They have spread lies about the true nature of what's going on." McClellan claims he's the wrong target; he says he doesn't own the recovery home--McClellan Training, Education and Counseling Services does. "I practice medicine in an office adjoining MTECS," he explains, going on to say he receives no pay from MTECS and collaborates with the service only as a consultant. He says his name is a part of MTECS's name only because "conceptually I was the one that started this type of organization."

McClellan Training, Education and Counseling Services, Ltd. does appear on the deed as the current owner of the Newman Foundation property, but the address listed on the deed for MTECS is that of McClellan's home in Wadsworth, Illinois. What's more, Monty McClellan appears as the registered agent of McClellan Training, Education and Counseling Services in the 1990 articles of incorporation; his wife, Dorothy Krone, is listed as president and secretary. Again, the corporation's listed address is their Wadsworth home.

"They've tried to use Gestapo-type tactics to punish me," maintains the doctor, who went to court last week unsuccessfully seeking an injunction to keep various critics from "spreading lies." Terri Thomas listed some of those critics as SACCC, 15th District police, and the Legal Assistance Foundation, as well as the Austin Weekly News and Channel Five, who both have run stories on the recovery home controversy.

Another was Michael Servant.

"A gentleman tried to extort money from me," says McClellan, referring to Servant's request that MTECS replace his property. "What person living in a recovery home situation would leave $400 cash in a chest of drawers and walk out and just leave it there? People who have $400 usually put it in their sock or in their billfold."

McClellan contends that he and MTECS are unfairly targeted do-gooders: "Maybe a mistake was made by not closing it down and rehabbing it and then letting people in there. But gosh. People needed places to stay. Nobody had their arm twisted to move in there."

"By the time that place is filled up it will be running smoothly," says Terri Thomas, the new manager at Newman. This is trial by fire for Thomas: she's never managed a recovery home before, and she's still got her old job of running MTECS's office to do as well. She finds SACCC's hostility puzzling. "These people just want to close us down. Right behind the school is a crack house. Why aren't they out there with their bullhorns and picket signs? We won't shoot back, that's all I can think."

Not all of Newman's residents have joined SACCC's protest. "I'm fine here," says Kristine Pace, who says she spent two weeks living with five other women and three children in a one-bedroom apartment at Newman but now lives in a less-crowded rehab. "When we moved in here we knew what was in store for us. I didn't have anyplace else to go, but I'd rather be here than half of the other places I've seen around here."

Lauren Kramer says she understands this attitude. "There's a lot of fear," she says. "We're really vulnerable people right now. We're very easily taken advantage of."

Servant seconds that. "Many of us don't have too many options because of our financial situation. Their backs are really against the wall. [McClellan] is banking on the fact that a lot of people don't have anywhere to go." Servant says McClellan is trying to distance himself from the corporation he helped create only because the heat is on. "When I first got to MTECS it was always 'Dr. McClellan's this, Dr. McClellan's that, Dr. McClellan's program.' That's how they talked. Now he's trying to cover up some of the stuff he's done--he's trying to cover his tracks."

Residents say the rehabbing accelerated after they brought their complaints to SACCC, and MTECS staffers claim that by now all 32 residents in the home have been moved to rehabbed apartments. "They're really scrambling a whole lot," Welch acknowledges. Lauren Kramer got a new place a week after SACCC's public hearing and the AA meetings at MTECS have resumed. "I think the pressure that was put on was very effective," Kramer says.

But SACCC isn't satisfied. "We know there is a need for recovery homes, but we're saying [McClellan] needs to sit down with people in the community," says Welch. "He needs to get the building code up to par. He needs structured programs for people. They need jobs. They need baby-sitting services so they can go out and look for work. We're saying they need 24-hour security. He needs to evaluate his rent procedure. He needs to be responsible for items on the property. He needs quality staff."

SACCC and the residents have still been unable to meet with anyone from MTECS. "They're not willing to answer to the community, and we need to know why," says Welch.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Michael Servant and Theresa Welch by Bruce Powell.

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