Ask former Chicagoan Mike Godfrey, 27, what Oxford House is and he'll tell you it's an organization that helped place him and five other men recovering from alcohol and substance abuse in a home where peer support keeps them sober, and that it's working.
Ask people who live near the rent house at 101 Plaza Drive just off Markham west of the Park Plaza Shopping Center that Godfrey and his roommates share what Oxford House is and they'll say it's an organization whose representatives were abrasive and told them only four men lived in the 1,780-square-foot house, which was not true. That they believe the men are being taken advantage of, since the six are paying $100 a week to live in a house that rents for $1,200 a month, twice as much as the rental fee and more if additional men move in. That their attempt to negotiate limits on the number of residents per house and houses per neighborhood was refused.
Residents and members of the city Board of Directors alike are particularly unhappy with what they perceive as an arrogant attitude taken by persons linked to Oxford House Inc. — including Jack (known as "Daddy Jack") Fryer of Little Rock, himself a recovering alcoholic who was incarcerated just under two years in the Department of Community Corrections for a series of DUIs — who have brought it to their attention that under the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Little Rock can't regulate Oxford Houses more strictly than it does other homes for the handicapped. Oxford House representatives have argued that they don't even need to get a special-use permit for the houses.
Oxford House allies have said Little Rock could accommodate 30 or 40 such homes. That group homes housing felons and some who have mental illness as well as drug and alcohol addictions could multiply in middle-class neighborhoods has some city directors and residents worried.
Yes, says Oxford House Inc. CEO Paul Molloy, "We're arrogant." But Molloy, who founded the 38-year-old non-profit headquartered in Silver Spring, Md., said in an interview with the Times, "We help people get clean and sober and help people stay clean and sober."
"Our hustle is not about money," as some have suggested, Molloy says. "It saved my life."
Under the radar, for a while
Oxford House Inc., which operates 1,607 transitional houses in 45 states, opened its first self-supporting recovery homes in Arkansas in 2010, including one at Brookside Drive and Markham Street in Little Rock. Little Rock's second house — at 101 Plaza Drive — was chartered, in Oxford House parlance, in 2011. The houses flew mostly under the radar in Little Rock until last year.
Several things changed in 2012: Neighbors became aware they were living next to group homes, though no special-use permits had been issued for them. At the same time, a member of a state board that approves grants to providers of drug and alcohol abuse treatment began to question state officials why a grant to Oxford House Inc. had never come before it for approval.
In March, Teresa Belew, a member of the Arkansas Alcohol and Drug Abuse Coordinating Council of the Department of Human Services, learned that a $70,000 grant to Oxford House for December 2011 through June 2012 had been awarded. It "just showed up on the financial report," Belew said. The grant was for an outreach worker to make the non-profit known to communities and potential referral sources and open five new recovery houses, three for men and two for women.
The council knew the state was working with Oxford House on a grant — Republican state Rep. John Burris of Harrison had been pushing for it since 2011 — but members expected it would be awarded in a competitive process. Instead, the grant was awarded as a sole-source. Belew began requesting information on the grant under the Freedom of Information Act, she said, after she could get no answers from the Division of Behavioral Health Services on how the grant was funded and what it paid for.
Meanwhile, neighbors of the Oxford House rental at 102 Brookside Drive (which becomes John Barrow south of Markham) began to complain to code enforcement about yard upkeep at the house.
In a recent interview, Fryer said Oxford House Inc. employees "recommended" that he not apply for a permit when he opened the Brookside house in 2010. (Fryer was not an employee of Oxford House Inc. but was representing the homeowner, Sandy Rogers, incorporated as Arox LLC. However, he worked closely with Oxford House in their "propagation," as the non-profit's regional director put it in an email to DHS.)
"Things went real well for about six months," Fryer said, but then the code complaints began to come in, and he decided to meet with city Planning and Development Director Tony Bozynski. Bozynski, Fryer said, was "well aware" that Oxford House Inc. was legally operating the group home, but the city required Fryer to seek a special-use permit for Brookside from the Planning Commission, which he did, successfully, in February 2012.
The permit requirement troubled Jackson Longan, regional director of Oxford House based in Oklahoma. In January 2012, he wrote Julie Meyer, a policy analyst of the Division of Behavioral Health Services, that "In Little Rock, Jack Fryer and his board have been vital to the opening and sustaining of the two houses here. In fact, he and his team are very close to getting a third house (the first house in Little Rock for women). The city of Little Rock is becoming a problem by requiring us to apply for a special use permit and I fear that if we cannot get the city to back down than [sic] we may have difficulties opening more houses in this area."
Despite Longan's worries, an appeal filed by neighbors of the Brookside house to the City Board of the special-use permit failed. City Attorney Tom Carpenter cautioned directors that to deny the permit would violate federal law.
But what was brewing for Oxford House expansion in Arkansas was a perfect storm, thanks to the way the state had handled the grant, the way individuals affiliated with Oxford House handled neighborhood concerns and the city's reaction to being forced to allow the houses.
Meeting the neighbors
In an effort to smooth things over with the Plaza Heights neighborhood, since the group home at 101 Plaza was also operating without a permit, Fryer, local Oxford House lawyer Mike Shannon, then-outreach director Chris Hart and a DBHS staffer met with neighbors at the house in October 2012. It had been a year since the house had opened. Neighbors were unaware until then it was a group house and some were upset to learn about it. The reactions of some neighbors, said Plaza Heights crime watch coordinator Allen Klak, who attended the meeting, were almost "irrational." But, he said, Fryer and Shannon were "aggressive" and "arrogant" in relaying to the neighborhood that nothing could prevent them from operating a group home there, and that the home could house felons convicted of any type of crime.
Klak, a native of Poland who fought against Communism before moving to the United States 28 years ago, said he understood the federal-law protection of the recovery houses. "But you have to do something right for the people," he said. He and others began to meet regularly about the Oxford House issue. Former state Rep. Kathy Webb, who served on the legislature's Alcohol and Substance Abuse task force for four years and who lives in Plaza Heights, got involved, and Scott Swanson of Harrison, an owner of Oxford Houses and a friend of Webb's, also met with neighbors.
There were older single women in the neighborhood, long-time residents, who were "terrified," Klak said. But the group finally reached consensus that "we had to be civil" and work with Oxford House representatives to see if the number of residents, and houses as well, could be limited.
Before the Nov. 29 meeting of the Planning Commission, when the Oxford House special-use permit application for the Plaza Drive house was scheduled to be heard, Webb thought she had worked out an agreement with Oxford House regional director Longan that the number of residents at the house would be limited to six and that no more than two houses would be opened in one neighborhood.
Those were promises he could not keep, Longan later explained to Webb in an email. The Oxford House permit application said the house would house up to seven men at 101 Plaza. Longan contacted Webb the evening after the commission met.
"I apologize, but I have made a decision to lower the bed count without approving it with the Oxford House central Office. Paul Molloy, our CEO, and Steve Polland, our lead attorney have informed me that the house charter will not be lowered to six and we can make no agreement to limit the number of houses we put into the neighborhood. ... I made a decision that was not mine to make and I did it in haste."
The neighborhood felt betrayed. Webb, who remains a supporter of the Oxford House model and says the need for such houses is significant, replied to Longan's apology that "all the good will we worked so hard to develop is gone. No one in this neighborhood will trust anything anyone from OH says again. ... [T]hey feel like the folks at OH are a bunch of deceitful, ram-it-down the throats of whatever neighborhood they decide to enter." Webb also complained in an email to Fryer that "several neighbors expressed a great deal of unhappiness about your behavior at the neighborhood meeting."
The Oxford House model
The Oxford House model was born when CEO Molloy, who confesses to having tried to kill his wife while drunk, and fellow alcoholics in a halfway house that went bust took over the lease so they could prolong the support that group living gave them. Molloy believed the self-governance was crucial to real recovery. That's why Oxford Houses have no in-house supervisors. Residents run the houses democratically: There is a president, a treasurer, a comptroller and a chore coordinator. They hold regular meetings, and decide who may move in with them. They can also expel anyone who's not abiding by house rules.
Each house is chartered as an unincorporated association with its own bank account and tax ID number. Houses are expected to pay $50 a month to the home office, Oxford House Inc., to help the national organization with expenses. (The fee isn't required, Molloy said, "but we put an Irish Catholic guilt trip on them" to pay it, and about one in four responds.) Dollars left over after rent and utilities are paid may be spent on items for the house like televisions or barbecue grills; the dollars stay with the house.
Some 75 to 80 percent of the residents of Oxford Houses have done jail time, Molloy said. More than half, 63 percent, are homeless when they enter. Some suffer from mental illness as well as addiction. There are 10 Oxford Houses in Arkansas, located in middle-class neighborhoods convenient to public transportation and away from iffy areas where substance abuse is common.
Oxford House Inc. is included on the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's list of "evidence-based" transitional facilities, and the only such SAMHSA-listed organization in Arkansas, which is why it earned a sole-source grant, DHS spokesperson Amy Webb said.
Oxford House Inc. says 65 to 70 percent of the alumni of its self-help houses stay sober and substance-free and cites a two-year study in Illinois by DePaul University that found a relapse rate of 31 percent compared to 64 percent of persons who were treated as outpatients or through other means.
All the Arkansas houses but the Little Rock houses are located in Northwest Arkansas. The first was a house at 1206 N. 25th St. ("Easy Street") in Rogers, which opened April 1, 2010. There is another in Bentonville, one in Fayetteville, two in Harrison, and three in Springdale. (Molloy said that Walmart heiress Alice Walton, whose reported problems with alcohol include a DUI in 2011 and another several years ago in which a pedestrian was killed, was a supporter of the organization early on.)
'Handicapped' status applies
Members of the City Board of Directors have chafed at the federal Fair Housing Act regulation that defines recovering alcoholics and drug abusers as "handicapped" and says they may not be discriminated against, a law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995.
City Attorney Tom Carpenter had to caution the board at its April 2 meeting that the city could be sued if it created special restrictions for Oxford Houses. The city requires only that group homes meet certain square footage requirements and obtain a special-use permit; up to eight non-related individuals may live in group homes.
The caution came during board debate on a resolution to rescind the Planning Commission's approval of a special-use permit for the house on Plaza Drive. Ward 5 Director Lance Hines took Mike Shannon, a lawyer who spoke on behalf of Oxford House, to task, saying the group was trying to "bulldoze" its way into the neighborhood. Hines said the federal law was a "perversion" that needed changing and went so far as to mention that he'd been reading up on nullification (a tactic states have attempted, always unsuccessfully, to override federal laws).
Among those speaking against the permit were Klak, who appealed the permit, approved by the Planning Commission in January, and Jeanette Krohn. Krohn noted that the Plaza Heights neighborhood did not object to a "legitimate" substance abuse recovery location, one that would include supervision and recovery programming. She said the neighborhood had "negotiated" a fair agreement with representatives of the non-profit that the number of residents would be limited and had no objections to the four residents she believed were then living in the house. She noted that the house on Plaza Drive had been bought out of foreclosure for $60,000 and that the requirement that each resident "fork over" $100 a week in rent meant that Oxford House was a not a charity, "but a money-making bonanza" for the owners.
Krohn also asked what was to prevent Oxford House from "jamming in 15, 20 or even more residents" if the city accepted the premise that the Fair Housing Act shields the organization from city regulation and expressed concern about where a felon ejected from the house would go. (Little Rock code does not limit the number of handicapped residents in a group home except by square footage requirements per person.)
Alcohol and Drug Abuse Coordinating Council member Belew also spoke, telling the board she'd done "a great deal of research" on Oxford House and said the city should be aware that one of the goals of Oxford House is to create new Oxford Houses, and that under the non-profit's rules, any two Oxford House residents may start another. "It feels like kudzu," she said.
(Fryer has said the city could accommodate 30 to 40 Oxford Houses. He may have been speaking of the Central Arkansas area. CEO Molloy said it is a "rule of thumb" that it takes a population of 20,000 to support one house, so strictly speaking Little Rock, which has a population just under 200,000, could support 10 Oxford Houses.)
Plaza house resident Godfrey defended the house and its residents, telling the board that what it was hearing was "way off what I'm living in my life. ... My recovery is based on my roommates who'll kick me out" if he breaks house rules, he told the board. Godfrey acknowledged that two of the six in the house were convicted felons, but said the house would not tolerate bad behavior. He said the board had already voted out "one bad seed who was bringing the house down."
Directors, most acknowledging they risked being sued if they were to overturn the Planning Commission's permit approval, denied the resolution to rescind the permit by a vote of 7 present to 2 for. Only Hines and Fortson voted to rescind.
Had the directors voted to rescind the permit, the city could have found itself in the same boat as Jonesboro, which in 2011 lost a federal court case after it denied an application to house eight handicapped children and two house parents in a group home. It cost the city $90,000. Oxford House has also won cases contesting where the homes could locate and how many the houses could accommodate in Washington state and Connecticut.
In an interview, City Director Dean Kumpuris said his "issue" with Oxford Houses is the lack of balance. "It is skewed in a way where neighbors don't have any input at all. ... It's an issue of fairness." The other issue, he said, is "whether the state ought to be [funding] it ... taking taxpayer dollars to put people in neighborhoods" where taxpayers may not want them. "The neighborhoods and the individuals have no way of participating in the decision on the location. That's the hardest part of the whole thing."
Oxford House finally made a concession to the neighbors of the Plaza Drive house, withdrawing its plan to open a third house a block away at 6800 W. Markham, though not until March. It was to have been for women.
Outreach director Randy Baxter and Longan were not allowed to speak with the Times for this story. CEO Molloy was surprised to learn from this reporter that the 6800 W. Markham house was no longer in the picture. "My general position is we don't back away," he said.
An end to state funding
The state, however, has backed away from Oxford House. At its April meeting, the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Coordinating Council voted to not contract with the non-profit in the 2014 fiscal year. It directed that a request for applications or proposals for recovery houses be drawn up by DBHS so other agencies that offer transitional services could get a shot at a contract.
The council voted after member Frank Vega, director of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention at DHS, told it that "the division may not have followed correct procedure in issuing the subgrant." The grants were administered under former DBHS director Jennifer Gallaher, an early supporter of Oxford House.
DHS spokesperson Webb said Vega was referring to the fact that the grants for Oxford House outreach never went before the council, since Gallaher did not believe a grant for recovery services would be required to. DHS lawyers, however, informed Gallaher that it should have.
Even staffers were in the dark about some aspects of the Oxford House grant — especially its funding. There were repeated questions by staff on where the money for the grants — termed subgrants and written by staff for the non-profit — would come from. Oxford House itself assumed the grants were "pre-approved." Swanson, of Harrison, complained to program advisor Julie Meyer in November 2011 that the "old director" of DBHS — Joe Hill — "was told to find the $$$ to fund it — he did not do that and now it has been almost a year since this was approved." If any grant was approved in 2010, it was in theory only.
In response to a Dec. 6 request for a purchase-order number for the grant, which had officially begun Dec. 1, fiscal support supervisor Earlene Buchanan asked program coordinator Tim Bodisbaugh, "Are you sure? No funds!"
In March 2012, program advisor Meyer emailed Gallaher saying, "There's no money for Oxford House!" (She was likely referring to the subgrant that the division planned to award Oxford House for the 2013 fiscal year starting July 2012.) Gallaher responded that DBHS "may have to cut contracts in other areas" to pay for the grant. "Gonna sting a little," she said. On March 12, 2012, Rose Jones, assistant chief fiscal officer, emailed DHBS' Prevention, Treatment and Recovery Director Ann Brown that the $70,000 for Oxford House would be transferred from ADAP (OADAP, the Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention) administration to make up for a deficit in state general revenue obligations. "If the desire is to continue funding this organization, we need to look at reallocating current contracts to include any obligation to Oxford House."
Right up until the issuing of the 2013 grant — which was for $70,000 to be paid over 11 months starting July 1, 2012 — Meyer was concerned about funding, writing Oxford House regional director Longan that "the tricky part is figuring out how to fund it. Not likely by July 1."
Amy Webb said that because there was no legislation allocating money for Oxford House and no line item in the DBHS budget for "recovery services," the division funded the grants from state general revenues and shifted dollars from OADAP to its budget because "that office was being disbanded and reorganized ... it was a natural place to get the funds." No other contracts were cut.
Council member Belew also questioned why Oxford House was receiving $10,000 a month under the 2012 grant without producing documents supporting their expenses. Reply: The terms of the subgrant did not require the grantee to provide them.
Invoices from Oxford House Inc. from December 2011 to April 2012 provided to the Times under the state Freedom of Information law show that the outreach grant was paying for consultation with the central office in Maryland, a percentage of "office time" for handling insurance and government withholding, "overhead" costs, travel for office staff, and a portion of office expenses along with the salary of the outreach worker. Webb said it was not uncommon for grants to be apportioned in that manner, though council member Belew questioned that.
Longan, invited to address the Drug and Alcohol Abuse Coordinating Council in April just 48 hours before it met, said that Oxford House had hired a new outreach director because the non-profit had "started out pretty slow" in meeting its goal of opening five new houses. He said the permit issue in Little Rock was a "challenge," and said Oxford House was "parting ways" with Fryer, whose attitude he described as "very in-your-face," a "strong-arm mentality" that "created a wedge" with the community.
Longan said there was new momentum, with investors calling to open new houses in Springdale, Fayetteville, Jonesboro, Conway, Hot Springs, Fort Smith and Texarkana. He conceded a dip in the "success rate" to 75 percent. Under questioning, he said that people who leave Oxford Houses voluntarily are considered successes, though they aren't tracked by the non-profit.
Longan said he and outreach director Baxter were "unaware" of troubles with the contract and were suffering the "negative consequences" from it. He warned that Oxford House would lose "quality control if we lose this funding," and said that in Missouri, 15 percent of their houses had to shut when there was no outreach director to maintain quality control.
Belew, who has collected piles of documents on Oxford House, had harsh words for Longan, who she called "disingenuous." She said the Plaza Heights neighborhood had been treated poorly, that it had tried to reach an accommodation with Oxford House for four residents rather than fighting them altogether. "I make a motion they not be funded another nickel, not one more dime," Belew said.
The council voted unanimously to draw up a contract for recovery services that clearly stated what the grantee was expected to deliver and develop a request for proposals. The agency does not expect to be able to grant any awards for recovery until Jan. 1, 2014.
"That is all I have ever asked for, is a fair shot" for other providers, Belew said.
"We're going to follow the rules and we're going to do it right," Vega told the council. "And if I say something about the rules and say we're going to follow the rules and it offends you I'm sorry. I don't look good in orange."
'Just like anybody else'
Godfrey was writing in his journal in tiny, neat handwriting when a reporter called at 101 Plaza Drive a couple of weeks ago. He invited the reporter in to see the house, with its recently mopped kitchen floor and minimum of clutter. He declined to be interviewed, but commented, "We're just like anybody else," and said he would ask folks, what if your sons needed help? He said he was glad he was not "in the ghetto," with all its temptations, trying to recover. He also said a friend in Chicago had called, wanting him to come back and work in a restaurant there, but he was going to decline. "I need to get more firmly grounded."
Outreach director Baxter also took a call, but declined comment, except to say "I hope things work out for Arkansas."