Recovery Center Seeks to Correct Initial Missteps

By Beacon Staff

The Freedom House, at 1128 Third Avenue West in Kalispell, opened in April with the goal of providing a safe, stable place for men recovering from drug and alcohol addiction to get back on their feet. But due to a number of early missteps – some of which include a failure to file with the city for the proper operating permit and taking on a board of directors vice president who was a registered sex offender – Freedom House has angered some of its neighbors and drawn a rocky reception thus far.

Now, the new leaders of Freedom House are working hard to show their facility will have a positive impact on Kalispell.

“We’re not here to make money, we’re not here for prestige,” William Hawk, the manager of Freedom House and a recovering alcoholic, told the Kalispell City Council at its Aug. 2 meeting. “We’re here because we’re genuinely helping an individual that wants to be helped.”

But the statements of Hawk and others on the Freedom House’s board stood in sharp contrast with those neighbors of the facility concerned about how it would be monitored and whether it would affect the safety of the neighborhood.

“This needs to be a regulated facility with oversight from the DPHHS (Department of Public Health and Human Services),” Phillip Guiffrida III, who owns rental property across the street, told the council. “If you authorize this tonight you’re staring at every taxpayer and saying we don’t care about your property value.”

At the meeting, council voted to delay for a month a decision on whether to issue Freedom House a conditional use permit allowing up to eight unrelated men to live in the facility in a residential area where zoning restricts that number to no more than four. At issue is the council’s need to balance concerns of Freedom House’s neighbors with the Federal Fair Housing Act, which requires the city to provide reasonable accommodation for the handicapped – a definition that applies to alcoholics and drug addicts.

In its mission statement, Freedom House describes itself as a place, “To provide a safe, clean and sober living environment to the man in early recovery and promote abstinence from drugs and alcohol in an atmosphere of support and mutual cooperation.”

In order to stay at Freedom House, residents must be over 18, have not consumed drugs or alcohol within 72 hours of entering and submit to random testing. Residents must be working or have a medical release, or can be full-time students or perform volunteer work. At the council meeting, Freedom House President Rod Nash said residents are not allowed to be there from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and residents can be asked to leave at any time.

“We try to help these guys but we do not enable these guys; we teach them to live,” Hawk said. “I’ve had guys that I’ve had to ask to leave.”

Though Hawk reassured the council none of the men were violent or sexual offenders, he acknowledged some were on probation, but described the case of one man there as typical: He was four months sober, holding down a job, and reestablishing relationships with his young children who were visiting him at Freedom House.

Since beginning the application process for an operating permit, Freedom House has made changes called for by the city, like taking down the wooden sign over its front door, and accommodated neighbors by holding an open house and no longer allowing men staying there to hang out in front of the house.

But because Freedom House isn’t licensed by any public agency, neighbors like Jeannie McFarland said she was concerned the city was initially unaware of Freedom House’s presence, and when she learned a board vice president – since removed – was a registered sex offender, questioned where she could turn in the future should a problem occur.

“We’re not afraid of alcoholics living next door,” McFarland said. “Who is monitoring it?”

“You’re saying maybe four people, maybe eight people,” she added. “What if there’s 10? 15?”

In a later interview, Tim Soul said he and fellow members of the Freedom House board, which has reorganized itself following the departure of the president and vice president, are responsible and accountable for the facility.

“There is oversight, although it’s not a regulatory agency,” Soul said. “It’s a very involved board and the composition of that is what provides the oversight.”

The question of how many men may stay at the facility is also key to the issue. During the debate by the council, Mayor Tammi Fisher said she believed issuing a conditional use permit for Freedom House but limiting the number of men staying there to four instead of eight could be a fair compromise and limit congestion in a residential area.

“I don’t think we can say there is no net effect on a property value next to high density,” Fisher said. “The reasonable accommodation is to allow the facility limited to four people.”

But earlier in the meeting, Joi Gratny, treasurer of the Freedom House board, said the facility was launched with $5,000 in donations, and needed more than four men staying there in order to pay the rent.

Councilman Duane Larson acknowledged the predicament the city was in, faced with a choice between potentially violating the Fair Housing Act or angering some neighbors of Freedom House.

“If we deny the permit, we’re going to be in for a lawsuit for sure,” Larson said. “When you uphold the rights of one person, you trample on someone else and that’s exactly what would happen here if we uphold the Fair Housing Act.”

Larson then successfully moved to table the decision over the permit for a month. Though some city officials said they thought Freedom House may consider moving locations to a less residential area, as of last week, board members for the facility said they had no plans to do so following their most recent meeting.

“We are working with the city as to what our options are,” Gratny said.