An over-the-fence neighbor of a new sober living house in downtown Ceres has given a cold shoulder to a group of 14 men who have decided to break from drugs or alcohol.
In fact, the neighbor of two two-story multiple-family units at the corner of Fifth and North streets now occupied by Valley Sober Living has gone out of his way to display beer and whiskey bottles above the fence line. Last week the neighbor, identified as Hector Barrera, erected a wooden platform facing the Sober Living House on which a beer bottle was displaced within view of those trying to distance themselves from booze. The week prior Barrera allegedly displayed a variety of beer labels on the same board.
Lon Stromnes, 59, the onsite manager of the Ceres facility who is five years sober, said he sees the antics as mostly humorous but acknowledged that it's bothering some participants of the program.
"One of the new guys the other night said, ‘I'm kind of struggling right now and seeing all those liquor bottles has really got me and that really bothered me," said Stromnes. "I'm very passionate about people being supported here and I'm looking at taunting, harassment."
Barrera had fired off letters to city and state officials, and neighbors to raise hackles about the program operating on his block. In that letter, Barrera said: "We are all aware that this particular property has been the source of a number of concerns in our neighborhood in the past. And we see the potential for this to continue."
The Courier made numerous attempts to contact Barrera but he did not return with a call.
City officials have noted that a permit is not needed to operate a clean and sober facility in an R-1 zone unless the number of occupants reaches a specific threshold.
"We exist legally under federal fair housing laws, American with Disabilities laws," said Stromnes. "They're uncovered as long as they use or drink. As long as they're abiding by basic guidelines, then we're what you call a protected class."
"I thought it was a good fit," said Shane Parson, the owner of the duplexes. "It was darn sure a better fit than what was here ... probably one of the worst drug houses in Ceres."
Originally Parson's buildings had been pegged for an expansion of the Children's Crisis Center of Stanislaus County but did not meet state standards for that use. The Crisis Center is pursuing other options, including a two-story building near Ceres High School. Meanwhile, Valley Sober Living had been looking for a place to establish in Ceres out of need largely because the Stanislaus Recovery Center at the former Memorial hospital site is a 15-minute walk away. They moved into Ceres on July 15. Residents helped renovate the two buildings of nine bedrooms.
Valley Sober Living has two homes in Stockton and one in Lodi.
Stromnes understands his neighbor's fear based on past experiences. There is often a stigma that sober living homes attract troublesome characters.
"You have a lot of people that were historically in that mix but when they're here they've gone through treatment," said Stromnes. "They're on the track of recovery, usually 30 days advanced into the process and their whole life is being resurrected, redeemed, reconciled, you know, all those positive words because they're no longer doing the dastardly deed."
He says his program is operated under tight controls that kick out those who violate 53 rules and regulations that cover rules on smoking, noise, and mandatory chores for the upkeep of the property's appearance.
"We have four managers on site, which is huge," said Stromnes. "In Ceres and Modesto, there's probably 25 to 30 sober livings and probably 60 to 70 percent are well run. When you have either a management that is off-site, trust me things can go a little haywire. Because people here are a bit vulnerable, they're in the early stages of reestablishing themselves and we do a lot of encouragement. They go to AA and NA meetings all the time because that is the primary therapy. They sit in those meetings for an hour, an hour and a half and they hear the message of recovery and it's profound. If you removed management, yeah, we'd have a flop house, which some of these are."
Residents are required to pay $450 per month for room and board and many hold down jobs or are given family support. Others work off their rent. All must attend regular 12-step meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous as well as about five house meetings per month.
The program is effective, said Stromnes.
"There's something powerful about fellowship, the strength in numbers thing."
Stromnes said he's hoping his neighbor lays down the gauntlet.
"We've gone nuts over it," said Stromnes of the beer display. "I've said comments like, gee whiz, if I wasn't a normal guy I'd go over and kick his a-- to be honest with you. But we're not going to do that. The boss has said don't even engage because if we don't engage he'll just go away. They call them NIMBYs (not in my back yard.) They're all over. Sober living has had to live with it."
He also made a prediction that his neighbors will ultimately come to accept the home and its residents.
"We're not sitting here at all trying to continue the animosity. It would be great if he started talking. I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes a friendly neighbor because we do things for neighbors. We did their grass recently and we always beautify our properties. We go out of our way to be a community asset, not a liability.
More information on the program is available at Valleysoberliving.com.