CERES — I love writing this column. I'm always learning something new, and this week is no exception.
Hector Barrera of Ceres wants to know why a couple of signs were put up in front of homes on Fifth Street that read "Taking Back Our Town: Drug-free Zone."
"Who is putting up these signs?" Hector asked. "Is it part of a city plan?"
No, said city officials. It's something one neighbor decided to do.
Hector also wants to know about an "alcohol and drug program" that recently opened at another Fifth Street address "without informing the neighborhood."
Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra said the organization is called Valley Sober Living, and it leases a multiunit property on that street.
"The city is not involved in this program, but we are supportive of it as long as it operates effectively and under the prescribed guidelines," he said. "The city does not have oversight over it."
Why not? Ten unrelated adults live in three of the two-bedroom units along with an on-site manager. Before they moved in several weeks ago, weren't they required to hold hearings and notify neighbors?
This may surprise you: No.
Under federal fair housing laws, the four people in each unit are considered a single family unit, and thus don't need a special permit to operate. In addition, the units are not a treatment center, but rather offer a sober living residence for those trying to avoid slipping back into their addictions.
No group home has to notify the city, said Ceres Director of Community Development Tom Westbrook, if the number of residents per home or unit is low enough. "Generally, that threshold is six," he said.
That means a similar group home could move next door to you without first seeking a city's permission.
In the Ceres complex, the on-site manager is Lon Stromnes, who had his own struggles with addictions but has been sober for five years. In 2009, he helped start Valley Sober Living with a friend, Bob Klinger of Stockton, who has a property management back-ground. They have two homes in Stockton and one in Lodi, as well as the Ceres location.
"Basically, we're more like a property management company that mandates no drinking, no using," Stromnes said. "It's just for people who don't want to be in a troubled environment. We're so far away from being a community liability; we're a community asset. This place had a 15-year history of major drugs and alcohol problems."
He said most of their residents, who pay $450 a month for housing and utilities, including TV and phone hookups, stay about four to six months. They agree to be tested for drugs and alcohol throughout their stay and are "committed to living a clean and sober life," Stromnes said. If they don't, they must leave.
Klinger, who was the director of Second Harvest Food Bank years ago, said there is no shortage of people who want to be in a sober living residence.
"A typical resident has been through treatment three or four times," he said. "For whatever reason, they're not ready yet to go home. We're a transitional home. They have a lot more freedom than in a treatment center, where they live in one room. They gradually learn how to live as real people do and go back to their families."
Klinger, who holds a master's degree in business administration, said he knows the struggles of people with addictions.
"I've got a sister who's 58 years old and has been a drug user since she was 12 years old. I'm surprised she's still alive. I love her, but something's changed in her brain. There are all sorts of alcoholics in our family. We have a whole generation missing."
He said that since they opened the first home in 2009, about 250 people have moved through their housing units.
"I don't know exactly what our track record is, but it's well over 50 percent (who have remained sober)," he said. "We've had some who have relapsed and died OD'd or gotten into traffic accidents but well over half are on the right road. They're productive and they go back to their families."
As for the Ceres location, he said, "The building was trashed when we took it over. One apartment had 7,000 pounds of trash in it. I could see why the neighbors might be upset if they're used to that. We're actually the opposite; we try to help the neighbors and keep the property clean. We've finished cleaning up three of the apartments. When we finish the fourth, we'll tackle the outside of the building next. The stucco is falling off and it's in pretty bad shape."
Valley Sober Living is certified by a state agency, the California Association of Addiction Recovery Resources.
"We could put six people in per unit, but we're limiting it to four," Klinger said. "There's a need for clean and sober transitional housing. There's no shortage of demand in Stanislaus County."
Send questions to Sue Nowicki at email@example.com, fax to (209) 578-2207 or mail to P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352-5256.