Residents push back against latest attempt to establish addiction treatment home for men

After receiving a state grant to support a local inpatient addiction treatment center for men, a faith-based organization is struggling to find a home for that center.

Set Free Alaska has been searching for a place to put a facility for men fighting addiction since the start of 2019 when it announced it was seeking to bring the model of its inpatient treatment center for women in the Mat-Su Valley and apply it in the Homer community. Residents in each area the nonprofit has eyed for the facility have pushed back in one way or another, and those who live near Mile 15 East End Road where Set Free Alaska is currently working to buy property are also mostly opposed to the idea.

They say the facility will alter their neighborhood for the worse.

History of Set Free Alaska in Homer

Set Free Alaska is a faith-based nonprofit organization that has an inpatient treatment facility for women to recover and live sober in the Mat-Su Valley. It connects those women (and men) with outpatient addiction treatment services elsewhere in the community.

While the organization uses Christianity as a core value in its addiction treatment, it also accepts patients who are not religious. Set Free Alaska is a corporation, but receives public money through some avenues, such as billing for services through Medicare and Medicaid. It has also received grants from the state of Alaska.

At the beginning of 2019, the organization’s executive director, Phillip Licht approached the Homer City Council asking for matching funds to go along with a state grant application, hoping to bring a similar treatment facility, for men, to Homer. Licht decided to try bringing the center to Homer after working with the local Southern Kenai Peninsula Opioid Task Force, which he told the council identified inpatient treatment for men as the biggest need in the community right now.

The city council decided in March not to provide matching funding for the state grant Set Free was applying for. The organization was still awarded the grant of about $1.5 million to be used to establish a treatment facility, and began searching for a place to put it.

The Homer Planning Commission in April granted Set Free a conditional use permit to remodel part of the building on Pioneer Avenue that houses the Refuge Chapel. In May, however, a resident of Homer, Frank Griswold, filed a notice of appeal over the decision with the city. Griswold has several open court cases against the city of Homer, mostly having to do with challenges to the city’s planning and zoning powers.

As a result, Set Free Alaska announced it would no longer pursue the location on Pioneer Avenue. It withdrew its application for that location before the appeal process began.

“It was not our intention that this project would cause problems for neighbors or community members leading to additional time and expense to the City of Homer,” Licht wrote in a letter at the time. “This project being appealed at the time and expense of the city violates one of our core values. Furthermore, our leadership team and key stakeholders are concerned about the potential time delays and hassles associated with this appeal process.”

In June, Set Free Alaska set its sights on a property about six miles down East End Road off Portlock Drive. The property included a residential home that had once been a bed and breakfast.

Neighbors in the area, opposed to the facility being there, hired a local attorney and argued that their neighborhood covenants, or rules governing the use of real property, prohibited the property being used for a treatment facility.

“It is clear to us now that this neighborhood is not supportive of us locating here,” Licht wrote at the time in a letter to the area residents. “We have heard and taken into consideration the concerns addressed.”

Again, Set Free Alaska abandoned the idea and went in search of a new location.

Current trajectory

The organization is currently in negotiations with the owners to purchase the Timber Bay Bed and Breakfast, a lodge located 15 miles down East End Road. The sale is not final, but Licht told a group of concerned East End residents gathered at the lodge for a meeting on Tuesday that Set Free Alaska intends to move forward and finalize the purchase.

The meeting was organized by area resident Jack Berry. Berry’s property is not adjacent to the lot containing the bed and breakfast, but he can see the building from his property.

Berry said he contacted Licht after he heard Set Free Alaska might be trying to buy the property and asked why he and other neighbors had not been contacted. During the meeting Tuesday, Licht said he talked to all property owners on Timber Bay Court, the street where the lodge is located, as well as property owners whose lots were adjacent, but that he had not thought it necessary to reach out to neighbors beyond that.

“I talked to the people who have the properties adjacent to this property and I talked to all the property owners on this street,” Licht said. “I didn’t think to go a street down, three streets down, four streets down. Because … the challenge is, how far do I go and at what time? And I know I could ask everybody separately and everybody would have a different answer to that. So I’m not saying it’s the right way. I’m just saying that’s the choice that our team made, and that’s what we followed through with. So I know there’s a lot of contention about that.”

Licht also addressed a few things he called misconceptions about what Set Free Alaska would do to the property if the sale goes through. He told the assembled neighbors that the organization is not building or developing anything on the property. Should the sale go through, Set Free would make necessary renovations to the bed and breakfast building, he said.

One area resident at the meeting asked whether Set Free Alaska has plans to expand the building in the future, to which Licht answered no.

He went on to describe what kind of treatment facility would be there. It would be a home serving about 12 men at the most who would be living there sober and receiving treatment, with the option for some children of patients to live their with their fathers. Often, Licht explained, parents who enter into longterm inpatient treatment have to give their children up to the foster care system.

Participants would enter treatment either voluntarily or on the recommendation of a court-ordered assessment, Licht said. The home will only be for recovering addicts who have already detoxed. Participants have to be medically cleared before they are allowed to enter, he said. Anyone with a sex-offender criminal history is not allowed in the program, he added.

People who live around Mile 15 East End Road and attended the meeting had several concerns about the inpatient treatment home being there. Their main questions were:

• Where did the money to fund the creation of the treatment facility come from?

• How many people will be in the home?

• Will the home have to be up to State Fire Marshal standards?

• What kind of security will the facility have?

• Where will the patients at the facility come from? What percentage of them will be from the Homer area?

• How many people complete treatment with Set Free Alaska?

• What happens with the people who choose the leave the program?

Licht had the following answers to those questions:

• Funding is from a combination of Set Free Alaska’s own general fund money, donations and grants from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. The DHSS grant is a one-time grant specifically for the purposes of getting the Homer facility up and running.

• There will be 12 male patients and up to two children of patients, plus staff.

• Yes. Set Free Alaska has to have the building inspected by the State Fire Marshal and implement any changes needed based on that inspection.

• All doors and windows in the home/facility will be armed with a security system, including security cameras. Participants are monitored by a 24/7 wake staff and cannot leave the home without a chaperone during the early part of the program. Clients will be transported by staff members to and from town for appointments and other needs.

• Patients come from referrals from other treatment programs in the state. People can also come to Set Free Alaska by hearing about it from a friend, loved one, or service in the community that is connected to addiction treatment. Licht said he anticipates about 50% of the participants will come from the Homer area.

• Licht said about 50% of people in Set Free’s current inpatient treatment program end up graduating from that program. The statewide average for residential treatment completion is approximately 35%, he said.

• When patients chose to leave the inpatient treatment program, Licht said staff members help facilitate them leaving. That is, they arrange rides or flights to help get those people back to where they came from, or to the place they want to go.

“You can understand that, you know, out here in the middle of nowhere, it’s not your 50% success rate that we’re worried about,” said one concerned resident. “It’s the 50% that are going to leave that we worry about.”

Beyond questions, several of the people at the meeting said they still had lingering concerns about an inpatient treatment facility for men being in their neighborhood. Their main concerns were:

• That the property values of their homes will go down because of the facility’s presence.

• That safety will be an issue and that their homes will be at risk of being broken into by patients who choose to leave the program.

• That authorities and emergency services resources are far away in the case that the facility ever needed to call for help in an emergency.

• That the facility will greatly increase traffic in the area through people “coming and going.”

• That the facility is not the right fit for their residential community.

Following the meeting, Berry said his own concerns about the project had not been alleviated by the conversation.

Area resident Libby Riddles said she sees a big difference between the property being used as a lodge for tourists and as a full time facility.

“I think it’s great what you guys are doing; it just doesn’t fit into this neighborhood,” she said at the meeting. “It doesn’t add a single positive thing to this neighborhood. It makes the property values go down, the safety go down, the stress go up, people coming and going, light pollution.”

Set Free Alaska is in an earnest money agreement with the owners of Timber Bay Bed and Breakfast, awaiting an appraisal, Licht said.

“We have every intention of moving forward on this program,” he said.

Should the facility come to fruition, Set Free Alaska would connect clients with outpatient services within the city of Homer. Licht said the organization has signed a lease for administrative and outpatient space in the city that will also be remodeled.

Terry Jones spoke about Homer’s addiction issue as a 50-year resident of the area who is 32 years sober.

“Everybody wants somebody to do something,” she said. “Just not in our neighborhood. That’s exactly what you’re hearing here. Don’t do it in our neighborhood because it might inconvenience us.”

Jones said she, too, has her own concerns about the project.

“I also know that if there’s any hope of saving one person — we just had a young man die of an overdose … less than a week ago,” she said. “If there’s hope of saving one through this facility … would you rather bury them or have them walk out of here well and whole?”

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This article has been updated to correct that Homer resident Frank Griswold submitted a notice of appeal to the city about a Planning Commission decision.