Sober Residences in Chicago Face Backlash from Angry Neighbors

By Zachary Siegel 06/25/15

A Fresh Start Sober Living may soon need a fresh start looking for new houses to rent.

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A network of for-profit recovery residences in Chicago has been housing people recovering from addiction without proper permits. Neighbors fed up with excess trash, cigarette butts, and smoke, as well as other alleged seedy activity, are calling for their eviction from residential neighborhoods across the city.

A group of West Town residents voiced their objections to the sober house at 530 N. Marshfield Ave., during a Chicago Grand Neighbors Association meeting last Tuesday. Their collective threat was to bring the residence in front of a city zoning board, forcing A Fresh Start to file for a special permit to stay in the neighborhood. If support for the zoning permit is not granted by the board they would then be evicted.

Angry neighbor Debbie Ryan, who lives next door to 530 N. Marshfield, told DNAinfo stories of drunken residents causing a ruckus and blames them for leaving trash around the neighborhood.

"I have a first cousin who struggles with addiction. This is not about that," Ryan said in an interview with DNAinfo. "We are against the high density, the transitional nature and the home operating more like a hotel or a youth hostel. Our 10-year-old daughter can no longer play outside in our backyard."

Executive director of A Fresh Start Juan Hernandez told DNAinfo that the company is not legally required to obtain special-use permits because their houses are categorized as “family homes.” He also says it is against the law to discriminate against people with disabilities, including those recovering from drug addiction.

Michael Franz, a lawyer who lives across the street from the 530 N. Marshfield residence, disagrees with Hernandez. Franz says the homes are indeed transitional and are therefore required to file for permits.

Franz guesses that if A Fresh Start fails to get a permit to operate in West Town it will have "a domino effect on all the other locations."

Alderman Scott Waguespack (32nd) has been trying to force A Fresh Start to file zoning permits for a number of years.“We don’t have a problem with these kinds of services in our community,” he said to DNAinfo. “But the special-use permit is a way for the zoning board to say where it’s appropriate and where it’s less appropriate,”

Paul Sajovec, Waguespack’s chief of staff spoke of yet another incident with A Fresh Start’s sober house in Lincoln Square. “They decided to open up without permission and ask forgiveness later, rather than go through the process, and that’s not the best way to go about being a good member of the community,” Sajovec said.

DNAinfo interviewed a former resident who lived at A Fresh Start’s Bucktown residence. "It was full accountability, or you had to leave,” he said. "I was an alcoholic for 30 years, and I will always be one. What happens inside a recovery house is just like anyone else's house and is nobody's business."

A Fresh Start affiliate who chose to remain anonymous told The Fix that she hasn’t heard anything from the higher ups but is sure they’re feeling the heat. She added, “I’m grateful for the services they provide and it’s given me the accountability I need to stay sober.”

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.