Recovering Addicts: 'There's An Epidemic on Long Island'

Dozens turn out to support a new sober home on the East End.

As heroin use surges and addiction claims lives across Long Island, public health officials and treatment facilities are struggling to provide hope and life-saving services.

In Riverhead, on the East End, the battle has taken on personal meaning for scores of individuals in recovery who are fighting for a new sober house that has sparked controversy among some residents who feel Main Street, directly across from Town Hall, isn't the right place for the facility.

In an emotional outpouring of support, a steady stream of recovering alcoholics and addicts came forward Tuesday to share their stories and express their support for the proposed new sober house.

A public hearing was held at Riverhead Town Hall Tuesday on a special use permit application submitted by Mainstream House, LLC to convert a structure located at 755 East Main Street in Riverhead  from office/retail to a single family dwelling, for use as a sober recovery home.

Although the project has sparked some controversy in the community, only one individual spoke out against the proposal Tuesday, while a large number shared their most personal stories in a heartfelt show of solidarity with Robert Hartmann, president of Mainstream House, LLC — the man many said, time and time again, saved their lives and gave them hope.

One by one, they told their stories, which echoed with similar themes of despair, of dreams shattered, jobs lost, families broken, futures destroyed.

"Our region battles an epidemic opiate crisis," wrote Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds of the Long Island Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, who sent a letter in support of Hartmann's work. 

According to state law, attorney John Taggart said, individuals living together in a sober home setting are considered a single family.

"We come here to day to ask to attain status as a single family dwelling," said Hartmann. "The family atmosphere is so crucial for men in early recovery."

He added that often, sober houses get a bad rap, with misconceptions running rampant and rumors of crime and drug use. "When it comes to recovery, we are one of the good guys," Hartmann said.

Those who relapse are removed immediately from the facility and sent for crisis intervention or back to their families. "They are not released upon the streets of Riverhead, my hometown," Hartmann said.

Hartmann, who lost his sister 19 years ago to an overdose, added, "We are in the midst of a scourge, an epidemic, that's killing hundreds every year. We must stay on the forefront, because it's happening in every town, every neighborhood."

Addicts, as well as success stories, come from every walk of life; one is a son of a former town board member, Hartmann said. The facility would benefit the community and society by helping to build futures, he said.

"I'm going to do something I've never done. My name is Greg Conrad and I'm an alcoholic," said one man, in tears. "I had my last drink on June 11, 1984. These guys come in and they can barely hold a cup of coffee or get a thought out. At some point in time, miracles happen."

Conrad said the board was passionate about downtown revitalization and other issues. "I'd like to think here in Riverhead, you're just as passionate about saving people's lives."

Riverhead resident Joseph Czulada painted a picture of days he'd spent on the wrong side of the law.

With the help of Mainstream House, today, he's a certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor.

"I had to bury a 16-year-old kid last week that died from an overdose. There's an epidemic on Long Island; it's horrendous. People are worried about this house, that's going to save lives? I can take you on a tour of Riverhead and show you where the drugs are being sold."

He remembered a little "run-down, dilapidated house, that saved my life. It's not about the house. It's about what's going on inside."

Hartmann, he said, helps those lost and in despair, giving them a place to stay, a lifeline, without any mention of money.

"We're not bad people," Czulada said. "We're good people who did bad things because of our addiction."

But one Riverhead resident has reservations. Garrett Moore, who lives on Main Street and teaches in the local school district, said he questioned the location of the proposed facility.

With revitalization efforts ongoing downtown, Moore said the sober house is "a chance I don't know that we should take at this point for Main Street."

Another location might work better, he said.

Just recently, he said, he was the victim of an attempted home invasion right near his three-year-old son's room; next, shots were fired 100 feet from his house.

"Temptation does occur," he said. "People say one thing and do another. Recidivism is a major issue and I don't know if locating a sober home across the street from a liquor store is the best idea." He added, "If there's any chance this could be a problem for Main Street, I think it's one chance too many."

John Corbett, clinical coordinator at Mary Haven Center of Hope in Riverhead, also works at the Suffolk County correctional facility, running the youth re-entry task force. He said he chooses Mainstream House, LLC, because the houses are monitored and safe, with clients asked to abide by rules.

"This is not just in Riverhead, it's in Nassau County, in Suffolk, in the city. Addiction is everywhere. Let's not sweep it under the carpet."

Corbett spoke from experience; he lived at Mainstream House for 14 months, battling addiction. 

One man spoke about how finding his brother dead in the living room led to his downward spiral. 

But after time in the recovery house, he said he now works, pays taxes, and is studying for a degree in graphic design.  "I've learned how to grow up and become a man. I've learned what family is all about."

Of Hartmann, he said, "He saved my life."

Another said he came to Mainstream House, kicking and screaming from New York City after shooting heroin for 36 years.

As for those who protest a "for profit" venture, he said Hartmann never asked him for money and "can barely pay his bills. This is not about profit. It's about helping others. When I met Bobby, I learned a new way of life."

Today, he added, he's been clean for over seven years with no run-ins with the law. "His houses help the neighborhood, not hurt."

Neighbors, he said, might complain about cars, but residents have cars because they are working and finally able to buy and register cars. 

Two years ago, said Ian O'Keefe, "I couldn't go six or seven hours without a needle in my arm or a pipe in my mouth." He was arrested four times a month, living on park benches and eating out of dumpsters.

Today, he works at a deli on Route 58, shares an apartment with another friend in recovery, bought a car and has not had any legal trouble, not even a parking ticket.

"My story mirrors that of a lot of addicts  who were broken, and had one phone call to make," he said.

O'Keefe said at the Mainstream House, he and friends as close as brother cooked family dinners and found hope.

Another Selden man, 21, added, "I crawled into this town, broken, 70 pounds lighter, and pale. The only time I'd spent in Riverhead was when I was in jail."

After his time in a sober home, he spoke out about the epidemic that has led him to far too many funerals of young friends. "I don't have millions in the bank, a supermodel wife or a Maserati, but I'm rich beyond my wildest dreams, because I'm trustworthy and loyal."

Local residents, including realtor Larry Oxman, Laurie Downs, former Riverhead PTO executive council president, and Eric Biegler of the Sound Park Heights Civic Association, supported the sober house.

Anthony Coates, who ran for town board in the last election, said he, too, had battled demons and found hope in rehab. "It isn't easy  to stand up and talk about these issues but I feel that loyalty, to what Bobby meant for me," he said. "The tentacles of this disease are everywhere."

Recovering addict Sharon Luke of Greenport said the location of a liquor store means nothing; an addict will travel to the ends of the earth, she said, for a fix or a drink.

Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley, who also is the chief executive of the Seafield Center, a rehab facility in Westhampton Beach,  supported the zoning change.

Ro Czalada, mother of Joseph, who spoke earlier in the hearing, stood to represent parents facing their worst nightmare as their children fall prey to addiction. "They tell parents to practice tough love, so you have to put your child out. It's not easy. We are a middle-class family, we are good parents. It doesn't matter. The minute they leave your house you don't know what path they're going to follow. I pray that no one has to go through what we did and if you do, I hope you have people like Bobby Hartmann and sober houses."

Perhaps the most moving testimony came from Hartmann's own father, Robert Hartmann, Sr. who described his son's addiction. 

"When Bobby finally got clean, he saved my life and my wife's, too," he said, crying, as tears streamed down his son's face.

When his son first started the sober houses, he said, "I told him, 'You've got to realize that you're not going to make a dime.' He looked me right in the eye and said, 'I know. I just want to help people. That's the most important thing.'"

The town board left the hearing open for written comment; a vote is expected on Feb. 19.

Archie Bunker February 06, 2014 at 01:43 PM
Regardless of the "miracles" these facilities perform or the countless souls they have saved or the drug epidemic going on, they have a negative impact on surrounding real estate values, period. It doesn't matter if public perceptions are wrong about them attracting crime or whatever, they have a negative impact. As a homeower, I would not want one of these in my neighborhood or even my town. Sorry folks. And I had a sibling pass away from an overdose two years ago.
Daniel87 February 06, 2014 at 03:01 PM
I don't understand how some of you can be so naive with your comments. I am 26 years old, brought up in a good home and raised by amazing parents in Kings Park. 5 years ago at the age of 21, I was a raging heroin addict. Similar to allot of young men and women still struggling, I started of taking pills here and there in high school, worked my way up to Oxycontin and when that got too expensive I turned to heroin. Luckily I managed to turn my life around with the support of an amazing family, a girl who has stuck by me through everything, good friends and I would be crazy to say that the time I spent in a rehab facility here on long Island didn't play a huge role in this as well. 5 years ago, when I was trying to get into detox at NUMC I was turned away the first night I went there due to a lack of beds, they gave me some methadone and told me to come back the next day. Again, luckily I have great people surrounding me and they made sure I went back the next day and after hours upon hours of waiting I finally got in. That was 5 years ago, today, the problem of heroin use has at the very least quadrupled if not more here on Long Island. There is no denying there is a need for more rehabs and sober homes in the area due to the amount of addicts that are currently using. For you people negatively commenting don't forget that these "drug addicts" are people too. That drug addict is someones child, someones mother/father or someones significant other. If it weren't for second chances that these rehab facilities and sober homes offer and the people working at them being willing to help, there is a good chance I would be dead. Here I am, 5 years later with a beautiful wife, a beautiful baby boy and loving family and friends. To you @brookhavenconfucius, to say you should be afraid of us? I ask you this, what if you're house was burning down and the alcoholic/drug addict in recovery who happens to be a fire fighter comes to save you, your family and your home, would you ask him to leave and send someone else to save you? I assume you're answer would be NO, so then its okay if they're helping you? where were you when they needed a place to get help? Standing at the door telling them they're not wanted? Not to sound corny but An eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind! You do realize that it is believed Confucius himself is responsible for the saying "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself" So, if some one is to one day find you a crippling drug addict or alcoholic at rock bottom, you should hope they leave you where you lie ?
Patchogue Snoop February 06, 2014 at 03:04 PM
Why not. It is in a commercial area. I don't think residential values have declined. If Riverhead is concerned with property values they need to enforce the code when it comes to rental housing that are packed to the gills with renters. That is what has killed Riverhead in many areas.
brookhavenconfucius February 06, 2014 at 03:41 PM
It used to be, drug addicts and alcoholics were actually ashamed of their condition, NOW it's a badge of honor, something to be PROUD OF, and NOT stigmatized at all. In fact, it's REWARDED by Society, that you have a weakness. THIS is not helpful to them, OR Society, in the long run.
lilly February 06, 2014 at 03:48 PM
please- how can i stop getting these posts.....
Martha Nassauer February 06, 2014 at 05:36 PM
Lilly, unsub to Patch, that will work. And I don't agree with BConfucius. People who are addicted are not always in touch with their feelings, they are blinded. Having places to assist them is not the same thing as "rewarding" them. It is "treating" them. Congrats to you, Daniel, to your sobriety, and for your very valid points. Helping others is rewarding, looking down on others is the problem with this world.
Archie Bunker February 06, 2014 at 05:50 PM
Daniel87 - sorry you made a bad initial choice and continued to do so because there isn't an addict that doesn't know what they are doing to themselves. And I am not negating the struggle to overcome one's addition. But this isn't about addicts or heartless people. Buy a house, work you butt off to pay for it, somehow figure out how to come up with extra cash to fix it and maintain it, hope one day the equity in it builds up enough to help in retirement or to be able to obtain a better house and then come back and tell me how you feel about loosing all the value they have worked so had to obtain. Your past problems have noting to do with this
Dennis February 06, 2014 at 05:57 PM
I'm thinkin that brookhavenconfucius is an angry, lonely soul and will most likely remains that way };o) I wish you well "Oh Great Grumpy One" Peace along the way Dennis
Martha Nassauer February 06, 2014 at 06:29 PM
Bloated, perhaps you can reread the article, and see how Daniel's story has EVERYTHING to do with this story. Daniel shares how his life was improved for the better after getting treatment, and today is a happy, productive member of society. Funny, the almighty dollar always seems to take precedent over our love for one another. At least for you it does. The homes that were in our posh neighborhood, did not affect property values.
Archie Bunker February 06, 2014 at 06:55 PM
I think I read it correctly. People in mass turned out to support the services provided by this recovery home and how valuable they are to those in need. All I am saying that this zoning issue isn't about how it has helped recovering addicts. It's has everything to do with zoning and property values. Most people have invested their lives' hard work into their properties. Is it fair to them? Whether this is a great service or not, its presence is a huge negative on surrounding homes and the overall community.
Martha Nassauer February 06, 2014 at 07:00 PM
Where is your proof?
Archie Bunker February 06, 2014 at 07:02 PM
common sense, wake up please
Archie Bunker February 06, 2014 at 07:04 PM
It's pure coincidence these places seemed to wind up in Shirley, Mastic, Riverhead, Central Islip...
Martha Nassauer February 06, 2014 at 07:13 PM
Common cents, you mean? Yet, no common heart.
Jeralyn Lash-Sands February 06, 2014 at 07:27 PM
It's a disease with no cure. If there is any help to be found, God bless!
Daniel87 February 07, 2014 at 01:01 PM
Bloated, for your information, this is me coming back to you, guess what? I purchased a home, on my own at the end of 2013, with no ones help, with my own hard earned money (and the banks of course)! How was I able to earn that money? by having a good job, which I would not have been able to do if I continued to use. Do I have concern for the value of my home? Of course I do, anyone investing that amount of money would. Am I willing to prevent others from getting the same help I got to do so? Absolutely not. If your concern is the value of your home, your argument is invalid. You would rather have drug addicts, with the number only increasing, roaming the streets your kids play on outside the windows of the house that you sleep in, instead of having them in a safe place where they can get help? As someone who just went through the process of looking for a home I can tell you if I drove by and saw a drug addict shooting up in his car a few doors down from the house I was looking at, I would have left. If I was looking at a house, that had a Sober Home two doors down, I would have certainly continued to look at that house. Coming from someone who lost a sibling to addiction I would think you would be more educated on the topic. I do not mean to ruffle any feathers but was your sibling able to get help before passing? If not, maybe if there were more places to go for help, they could have. If they did, then I apologize as I understand many people go to these places and only end up relapsing shortly after. I too have a sibling who suffers from addiction. I personally had to carry him out of my parents house on a stretcher after finding him barely breathing and gargling. That happened twice. Finally, we were able to make him realize what he was doing to himself and the people who loved him. He could not see what he was doing because he was blinded by his addiction. You say addicts know out right what they are doing. Are you an addict? My guess is no, because if you were you would never say such a thing. Please, don't apologize to me as if I am child or if I am looking for your sympathy regarding my stories. I don't know you, I don't want to know you and I certainly do not want or expect any sympathy form you. I know I messed up and I am fully accountable for my actions now and in the past.
Martha Nassauer February 07, 2014 at 01:18 PM
^^ Amen, Daniel. Well said. Thank you. I appreciate you, your courage, and strength.
Gabe Gonsalves February 07, 2014 at 01:45 PM
@ Daniel87 - I admire you for taking responsibility of your own actions rather than blame others for what you did. Isn't it great now to sit and look where you are and be able to say that you got there on your own and you did not take handouts to be where you are today.
Archie Bunker February 07, 2014 at 01:49 PM
"Coming from someone who lost a sibling to addiction I would think you would be more educated on the topic" What I really think you mean is more compassionate. My sister did seek help several times through the years. She used drank heavily and started with crack cocaine at one point (as a teen me and father i broke her out of the house she was crashing in), was an alcoholic for many years, and finally opioid and xanax. Young man, don't school me on downside of addiction. I lived through it and carried my sisters coffin. And I never said that addicts know what they are getting into - I said they know how their current addictions is harming them. I smoked for 15 years, 2 packs a day. While nicotine addiction isn't a socially destructive as other drugs, it's a powerful addiction nonetheless. Most people cannot kick it. I did. So I do understand the grip an addiction has. Would I build a halfway house right next door to my house if it would mean my sister would still be alive? I don't know, that's a hard one. If i said yes, its only purely because I still want her here and to ease the pain my family feels. I would fully understand my reservations saying no though and also why my neighbors would think it unfair. I don't live in Riverhead and could care less if this thing goes through. I just presented the other side of the argument and why I can understand residents reservations. Everyone does deserve help sometimes. Its does come at a cost though and has to be fair to everyone
Martha Nassauer February 07, 2014 at 02:16 PM
I agree, with you Bloated Bowels, that everyone does deserve help sometimes. That is what love, and family is all about. To help others when they are trying with all their might, but just can't make it. I will forever appreciate the help I received from those who cared enough about me to give me a chance at life. I was not struggling with addiction, but rather the victim of a car crash after a broken axle driving paperwork for my job. Not long after, I had a son who also got into a terribly debilitating car accident, rendering him permanently brain damaged. Not being able to work, in needing to care for my son, my parents helped me to find a home where I now live. As they are getting older, and always worry about their children, I tell them always this: The help you gave me I can never repay, but know that you can rest easy...do not worry about your other children, for if they ever are homeless, or in need, my door, to the house you helped me get, is always open to them. I am sorry for your sister, it seems like you loved her very much, and the loss of not having her in your life must be lousy. May you all find peace, and blessings.
Daniel87 February 07, 2014 at 02:17 PM
Sir, please do not try to "school" me on addiction, have you not been reading? Being an addict and being related to one are two completely different things. I just so happen to know both sides of it, you, do not. To compare nicotine addiction, which granted is horrible, to that of an addiction of shooting heroin or smoking crack cocaine is a joke. I too do not live in Riverhead, but this island is only so big. Its only a matter of time before it is widespread. The more facilities spread out across the island the better. You mention these places only being in certain areas. I went to Seafield which is located in the Hamptons. Right outside the back fence of that center are Multi-million dollar homes. How much could something like this, a single sober home, really devalue a property if a facility the size of Seafield sits right next door to some of the most expensive homes or should I say, estates, on this island? When I said, I do not mean to ruffle any feathers, I was trying to make it clear I was not "attacking" you in regards to your sister so I do apologize if you took that the wrong way I was simply asking a question. As for the word, you are 100% correct, however what I meant to put was "educated and compassionate". You are absolutely entitled to your opinion and your side of the argument as am I to mine. Plane and simple, the fact of the matter is that regardless of where it is, there are too many people that are against the ideas of sober homes and rehabs in their neighborhoods. These same people are the first to complain about the addicts roaming "their" streets. How blind can people be that sober homes and rehabs are the only way, if any, to get these addicts help, off the streets and back to being a functioning member of society.
Archie Bunker February 07, 2014 at 02:23 PM
And to imply I need to be an addict to fully understand why soberhomes need to be in every neighbor is also a joke. But I guess if mom is walking around with an oxygen tank and still smoking while she is dying right in front of the grandkids, nicotine's addiction isn't such a joke. yes, there is a time and place for soberhomes. To be fair to everyone.
Patchogue Snoop February 09, 2014 at 10:31 AM
Guys look where it is coming from. This guy seems to know all but actually knows absolutley nothing. OOPs I am wrong. His insults seem to be his specialty. Never any facts. No facts...... ie increase in crime, lower property values as evidenced by actual sales nothing just his twisted opinion. I blame Obama and gang who allow our southern border to be essentially wide open allowing the drugs to flow into our communities. Not to mention their future voters!!! Our police force is a joke when it comes to drug and gang activity.....the County and Balloon is more interested in making out of state companies and themselves rich with red light camera spy programs. Illegal and unconstitutional period but go try to change it!!! Illegal surveillance, search and seizure period! You can guess where the info will go on your whereabouts and what else may be recorded at these intersections. The law requires notification of this illegal search like the "speed enforced by radar" signs seen on the highways....
Chris February 10, 2014 at 02:54 AM
When the economy was great the island was full of people addicted to prescription dope. Doctor scripted addictive opiate pills. These were expensive but everyone had disposable cash. When the economy went down the tubes and the $$$ disappeared these newly created addicts couldn't afford docs prescription anymore. Now the only way they had to deal with their cravings was to move onto cheaper versions of their drug of choice. Eventually they are copping street dope. It's soooooo bad here on LI. Treatment is a joke. Seafield has become a drive thru for munchie craving non violent court mandated pot offenders when their seats should be filled with addicts. Addiction is a Medical issue not a Criminal one. Don't legalize drugs. De-criminalize them. 12 years ago the Portugese decided to do this and the results speak for themselves.
Archie Bunker February 10, 2014 at 09:13 AM
All the recent changes in law regarding prescription opioids has also tightened up the supply making it much more difficult to obtain prescription drugs. One could argue it's forced many to use cheaper, more widely available heroin.
Martha Nassauer February 10, 2014 at 02:15 PM
Spot on, BB. Yes, they have changed the laws. The DEA changed them to the point where any doctor prescribing pain medication for chronic pain sufferers is under such scrutiny that they are afraid to lose their licenses. They only prescribe now for documented cases, which should have been the case all along. Somewhere along the line, an explosion happened where anyone could get them. Now, with the cutbacks, yes, there are people who got hooked and are turning to street drugs and death (suicide) to end their pain. But because the regulations tightened too much, there are legitimate people who were not drug addicts, but pain sufferers, that can no longer locate doctors who will prescribe anything. It is a fear based policy and its working. I just moved, for instance, and if I want to continue pain management, I have to go back to my original doctor, 5 hour drive one way, just to get treatment. No doctors are willing to take new patients anymore. Fear based. What are the choices left? It is truly a large problem for many, with few solutions in sight. I agree with most of what Chris said, but don't know how I feel about de-criminalizing drugs, although I would check it out as he suggested.
Patchogue Snoop February 12, 2014 at 09:01 AM
Bloated Face Noted: It's has everything to do with zoning and property values. Uhh, I would like to think it has everything to do with helping those in need. ie Humans before zoning. Anyone who wants to legalize of decriminalize hard drugs is an enemy of our country and those who lives are destroyed after their first high.
Archie Bunker February 12, 2014 at 09:19 AM
You must be high because your comments are from left field. Keep em coming, you genius!
Archie Bunker February 13, 2014 at 11:50 PM
Admirable but um no thanks
joesph McCormick March 03, 2014 at 09:26 AM
DA RICE does nothing!! Locks addicts up for as long as she can!! DTAP program complete FAILURE!!


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