A zoning board violation outside a building in Morrell Park Credit: MICHAELA WINBERG / BILLY PENN

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When Barb Williamson attended a community meeting at the West Torresdale Civic Association last month, her mother recommended she wear a bulletproof vest.

The meeting was called on July 19 after a series of zoning complications regarding a property Williamson bought nearly a year ago: a multi-family duplex at 3201 Morrell Ave., which she converted into a sober living facility for people in recovery from addiction.

When her fellow Morrell Park residents heard that she opened a recovery house in the neighborhood, Williamson got pushback.

She saw thousands of offensive comments online, many shared hundreds of times on various Northeast Philadelphia Facebook pages. It wasn’t long before Williamson started receiving death threats.

“They were saying that I deserve a bullet between my eyes, that all the junkies should go in the house and it should be lit on fire, that the people are worthless and they never get better,” said Williamson, the founder of a group of eight recovery houses called Way of Life Recovery. “You hear there’s a stigma with addiction, but when you’re actually living it, it was just unreal.”

At last month’s meeting, Councilman Brian O’Neill, R-10th, gave Morrell Park residents the chance to vote on whether Williamson’s recovery house was welcome in the neighborhood. The neighborhood voted against her, 87 to seven.

“It’s illegal now and has been since day one,” O’Neill said at the July meeting.

[pullquote content=”No one even knew that this house was anything but just a normal house.” align=”right” credit=”Timothy Merlini, Way of Life resident” /]

Williamson found out her property was improperly zoned for recovery housing — it was zoned as a single-family residence, when it should’ve been a multi-family residence or boarding house. Per the city’s zoning code, owners and developers must appear before the neighborhood’s Registered Community Organization for a vote if the intended use of the property does not match the code. Williamson needs a variance to house multiple people in a single-family property.

Williamson served the city with a lawsuit, and now she said her lawyers are working with Philly’s law department to reach an agreement about her house.

“Everyone is addressing that there is an opioid epidemic,” Williamson said. “They all say it from their computer screens or their phones, ‘It’s a shame, this is so sad, we need to do something.’ But then they try to stop the people that are trying to do something. That is the insane part. That blows my mind.”

Williamson first opened her network of recovery houses in Bucks County in 2013, about a year after she entered her own recovery. All of her houses are certified by the Pennsylvania Alliance of Recovery Residences, meaning they’re held to specific standards to encourage residents’ successful recovery from addiction — and to protect the surrounding community.

The Morrell Park residence — which will have to be re-inspected for PARR certification if it stays open — was her first time expanding to Philly.

“They made it seem like an abandoned home with bunk beds everywhere, like I’m some slum lord,” Williamson said. “They just painted this disgusting picture, and I have to live with that. They said my name. They dragged my company in a negative way.”

“It’s just a shame,” she added. “They didn’t even ask me. No one said, ‘Hey, we don’t really like what’s going on, can we look into it?’ It wasn’t that. It was, ‘You are horrible and this needs to be shut down.’”

The standards for certified recovery housing

The living room at the Way of Life Recovery house Credit: COURTESY BARB WILLIAMSON

When a fire inspector visited Williamson’s house in Morrell Park, he told her it was the nicest recovery house he’d ever seen — in fact, he said it was nicer than his own home, just down the block in the same neighborhood.

To obtain PARR certification, Williamson’s house had to meet a slew of requirements. Among them:

  • No bunk beds
  • No smoking
  • Random drug testing
  • Regular fire drills
  • A thorough intake process for each resident

Residents are usually referred to sober housing from treatment facilities, sometimes from prison, and they have to be sober for at least 30 days before they move in.

“They support each other, but they’re also in the real world,” Williamson said. “They get up, they go to work, they come home, they cook together, they clean together, they go to the gym, they go to a meeting, they’re drug tested. They gradually get to transition successfully into the community.”

The city’s Office of Addiction Services currently funds 17 recovery residences in Northeast, North, South and West Philadelphia.

Fred Way, PARR’s executive director, insists that certified recovery housing is very different than the horror stories people imagine when they think of sober housing in their neighborhoods.

To put it in black and white, the difference is that a certified house goes through a process and wants to adhere to operational standards,” Way said. “The certified houses want to go through the vetting process to make sure their property, their operations are running on a certain level.’”

The inside of the Way of Life Recovery house Credit: COURTESY BARB WILLIAMSON

A cornerstone of PARR certification is giving back to the community. Recovery house operators are instructed to reach out to their neighbors with information about the facility, and residents are supposed to help out in the community whenever they can.

“We cut my neighbor’s lawn, we shovel the sidewalks,” Williamson said. “When I first moved here, I knocked on everyone’s door, my immediate neighbors. Those who answered, I gave them my phone number and told them what was going on, and if they ever had a complaint or a problem, to call me. I’ve never had any calls, never any problems.”

“Certified housing is supposed to operate where you don’t even know it’s a recovery house,” Way said. “You should be wondering, ‘What are all the people going in there for? They’re really nice. They’re really helpful.’”

But despite the high standards to which certified recovery houses are held — and the need for sober housing presented by Philly’s urgent drug problem — Way said few are willing to accept sober housing in their neighborhoods.

“It is a challenge to open up a recovery residence because the community is not educated on how recovery housing is supposed to operate,” Way said. “I’ve spoken at many meetings and I explain the standards. It has to be a total educational imprint for people to know about certified recovery housing.”

‘Who’s living next to us?’

The Way of Life Recovery house at 3201 Morrell Ave. Credit: MICHAELA WINBERG / BILLY PENN

Timothy Merlini has been sober for nearly 10 months. For the majority of his recovery, he’s lived at the Way of Life house in Morrell Park. When the community found out he and 13 other men in recovery had been living there, he started to see comments online like, “They’re junkies. Let them all die.”

“It was a shock to me,” Merlini said. “No one even knew that this house was anything but just a normal house. Until somebody made it clear that this is what it was, that’s when the wheels started turning and it was a snowball effect that turned into this big mass hysteria, like, ‘Who’s living next to us?’”

Way of Life Recovery isn’t the first certified sober residence to face community pushback in Philly. In 2013, when recovery specialist Devin Reaves opened a men’s recovery residence called Brotherly Love House in West Philly, residents were stubborn.

“It was terrible,” Reaves said. “We went to a community meeting and we presented research, and they were unwilling to hear anything. They were full of fear that this was going to be terrible for the neighborhood and the community.”

Reaves said he hopes the city will institute more protections for certified recovery residences. He wants a specific zoning process for recovery housing that takes into account federal regulations and NIMBY — the “not in my backyard” attitude that many have about addiction.

“Yeah, you don’t want them here, but they have every right to be here as much as you,” Reaves said. “Politicians are unwilling to say that.”

“Some people go as far as to say, ‘I think you’re doing a good thing, I just don’t want it here,’” Reaves added. “But you know, here I am trying to help people. If that bothers other people, that’s not my problem.”

How important is sober housing?

Reaves said sober housing is pivotal to sustaining long-term recovery, on par with other basic needs like employment, food and water.

“Without those things, how are people ever to get well?” Reaves said. “There’s a ton of research that says they work, and they’re still not getting the support they need.”

[pullquote content=”This is the most important piece: a structured, sober environment.” align=”right” credit=”Barb Williamson, recovery house operator” /]

If Williamson had never lived in a certified recovery house, she said she wouldn’t have been able to sustain her own sobriety for the past four years.

“For me, I wasn’t successful in my recovery until I went to a recovery house,” she said. “Prior to that, I was really one of those hopeless cases. I was in and out of treatment a ton of times. I ended up being homeless in Kensington for a little over three years. I was at my rock bottom.”

She said the transition from the “bubble” of medical treatment back into the real world is nearly impossible, but recovery houses can smooth that adjustment.

“Obviously the medical detox and the actual rehab stay is extremely important, but in my opinion, this is the most important piece: a structured, sober environment,” Williamson said.

“If you surround yourself with the right people, with the right motivation, you’re going to move in that direction,” Merlini said. “When I directly put myself in a circle of 10 to 14 guys all striving for a common goal, most likely I am going to strive for that same goal. It makes it so much easier for me to be able to pursue a better life in recovery.”

Both Williamson and Merlini are worried the Way of Life house could be forced to close soon. Williamson is rushing to finish her next certified recovery residence in Bristol, Pa. just in case she needs to move her 14 Morrell Park residents this week.

A zoning board hearing about the property originally scheduled for August 16 was cancelled so her lawyers could work independently with the city’s law department.

Still, despite the negative feedback he’s gotten from the community, Merlini is holding out hope that Way of Life will stay open in Morrell Park.

“When you have the right mindset and you’re doing the right thing, you know everything will work out,” Merlini said. “I know Barb will fight for us. I don’t see me going anywhere any time soon.”

“When I go to sleep at night, I’m OK with those houses that I know are certified,” Way said. “We’re not perfect, but I know people are getting what they need.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...