Caribou Mayor Mark Goughan and city councilors expressed support for a project to open a recovery house in Caribou, however, Goughan was concerned about how those living in the neighborhood surrounding the recovery house may react.
The council meeting on Aug. 19 marked the second appearance of Recovery Aroostook, a local grassroots organization formed in 2017, regarding plans to open a recovery house on Hammond Street in Caribou. During both their Aug. 19 and July 22 appearances, they asked councilors to approve a letter of intent so they can attain financing for the project.
Recovery houses, as opposed to sober houses, deal with all forms of addiction. Those who choose to move into a recovery house as part of their path to recovery need to be drug- and alcohol-free beforehand. In addition to tenants in recovery, a manager will live at the Caribou recovery house.
A group spokesman said at the July 22 meeting that managers are people who are in long-term recovery. Managers would ensure that medication for opioid addiction recovery is locked, and while managers do not administer this medication themselves, they would monitor residents as they take their regularly prescribed dosages.
“It’s a very noble cause,” the mayor said, adding that some members of the community behind the project may not be so supportive once they find out that the recovery house will be located “next door” to their homes.
Goughan told Recovery Aroostook spokesman and Cary Medical Center Communications Director Bill Flagg that he initially wanted to plan a public hearing for the recovery house, however, City Manager Dennis Marker informed him that the city could not do this.
“Under state law,” Marker said, “this type of proposal has to be treated as if it’s a single-family home. So you can’t create any additional red tape or processes for the city.”
Goughan then suggested that the group speak with those in the area and explain the project and its intent prior to signing off on the letter of approval.
Flagg said that when the organization opened a sober house on Bennett Drive, there were “a couple negative comments on Facebook,” which the organization addressed, but “the vast majority of comments were very positive.”
“By the time someone gets to a recovery house,” Flagg continued, “they must be clean and sober. There’s no partying. There’s no alcohol. There’s no drug abuse. The people in that recovery house must live to a certain standard, which includes multiple AA and NA meetings every week and random drug testing in the home. They must also have a job or volunteer, and they must pay their $115 a week in order to stay in the home.”
If one of the four members of the home suspect that a tenant has started using drugs or alcohol again, the subject is brought to the group, who can then vote to eject that tenant, according to Flagg.
On the economic side, Flagg said he’s noted that landlords in the southern part of the state are excited by the opportunity to lease recovery homes to tenants, as the home “pays their rent a month in advance and continues to pay their rent on time, every time.”
Flagg said that while he can understand Goughan’s concerns, “the overall result of these recovery homes is that they make a positive impact in the community.”
The mayor said he “has no question” about the potential positive impact of a recovery house in the community, but said he still has concerns about public perception.
“Are people in the neighborhood going to hear about this for the first time when they read in the Aroostook Republican that a recovery home is going in their neighborhood?” he asked Flagg. “Or could they receive a pamphlet with all the information you just gave us? That way it’s not a surprise. This was what I was hoping your team had done prior to asking us for the letter.”
Flagg cited releases in the newspaper following their initial presentation in July, adding that he has seen no negative feedback to this news, either in the form of Facebook comments or letters to the editor.
As far as addressing public concerns, Flagg said Recovery Aroostook is planning to hold a town hall meeting on Wednesday at the Caribou Performing Arts Center. In addition to featuring presentations from medical professionals and community members in recovery, Flagg said Aroostook County Sheriff Shawn Gillen is slated to speak about sober houses and why he feels they are important from a law enforcement perspective.
Recovery Aroostook will hold an overdose awareness vigil at 9 p.m. Thursday at 66 Sweden St. in which they will honor lives lost to overdoses and place luminary bags as part of a mass memorial.
“To me,” Goughan said, “it’s just about knocking on some doors around the neighborhood and saying ‘Here’s a pamphlet and here’s what we’re doing.’ It’s real simple. You made an excellent presentation and, from my point of view, narrowing it down to a single piece of paper and passing it out to people in the neighborhood would seem wise. Why ruffle a neighborhood in tranquil peace right now?”
Marker said that the council’s letter of support, while it may help Recovery Aroostook secure funding for the home, is not part of the city’s regular permitting process.
“We’re moving forward with this regardless,” Marker said, “and will not hold them up as far as occupancy permits are concerned.”
Councilor Joan Theriault asked Caribou police Chief Michael Gahagan if he saw any issues with the sober house on Bennett Drive, which opened in late 2017.
“We had no issues,” the chief said. “As a matter of fact, I was fully in support of it. Houlton just had one presented to their council and I sent them a letter of support. For law enforcement, we are totally behind recovery.”
Councilor Thomas Ayer also offered his support for the project.
“This is pretty near and dear to my heart,” Ayer said. “I’ve seen a lot of friends go through [addiction] and it’s not pretty. This needs to happen. And I don’t disagree with you Mark. Go around and let people know what’s coming. It’s not going to be a party house. These people are on the road to recovery, and it’s a long road that never stops. You could be 90 years old and the temptation is still there.”
Goughan then asked Marker to place council’s approval of the letter on the agenda for the next regularly scheduled City Council meeting, which is slated for 6 p.m. Sept. 9.
This story was originally published in The County.