By Nicole Hennessy
A delivery of donated baked goods comes in through the side door of the Julie Adams house, a nonprofit sober-living facility.
A few residents stand around the lobby. One is trying to find a job, having just returned with no luck.
Residential Director Allison Pagrabs encourages her, then begins to organize the boxes piling up, unsure how the 15 to 20 women who live in the house will eat all the pastries before they go bad.
Four years clean and a successful drug court graduate, Pagrabs is obtaining her master’s degree in social work and working at the Julie Adams House without pay in the meantime.
Touring the residence, an old real estate office, she walks through the kitchen, full of mismatched cabinets and furniture, which, like everything else, were donated.
Moving on to the upstairs living quarters, which are separated according to how far residents are in their recovery, Pagrabs walks in and out of rooms, explaining that after the first three months the women are responsible for keeping a job and paying $350 per month in rent.This also comes with more freedom and privacy.
Mostly young women clean or read books in their rooms as Pagrabs continues to roam through. Others are gone for the day, one working remotely, lounging on her bed with her computer, proud to have the cleanest room in the house.
Outside, a large group gathers on the spacious back porch, just past an old payphone wired to the wall, reserved for supervised calls. Two matching chairs sit on either side.
There are few options for female addicts in Northeast Ohio, especially those free of state regulations, like this house. And while staying afloat is a struggle, Pagrabs fears government assistance would come with so many restrictions they would be unable to treat addicts as they see fit. The possibility of cognitive therapy replacing 12-step-program-based treatment is an example she gives, noting that Alcoholics Anonymous-based treatment is what worked for her and every one she’s met in recovery, as it is a lifestyle, not just a weekly therapy session.
Sitting on the steps of a church a few days earlier, avoiding a noisy cafe, Pagrabs discussed her drug use, telling a story similar to that of many young people from the area – a story that devolved from drinking into pill use, to whatever she could get her hands on. Though she never picked up heroin in the end, there’s no denying why the word “epidemic” is used to describe the situation Northeast Ohio and the rest of the country is in. This is why she is a member of a small group comprised of recovering addicts called the Heroin Awareness Team.
With fellow team members like Jeff Knight, who also successfully completed the drug court program, Pagrabs goes into as many local schools as possible, talking to students, hoping to effect positive change for even one at-risk teen.
Pagrabs, a Westlake High School graduate, and Knight, a Bay High School graduate, both regret that these are two of the schools that seem uninterested in letting them speak there.
They are “some of the schools that are having major heroin issues, but they’re the prestigious neighborhoods. They’re the ones that want to keep up their image,” Pagrabs said.
“And that’s great that you want to keep up an image, but your kids are dying. They’re ruining their lives at 18.”
Both Westlake High School and Bay High School were contacted, both maintaining that not having worked with the Heroin Awareness Team has nothing to do with avoiding the issue. Both schools regularly provide addiction awareness assemblies to students and parents.
On the same church steps, Knight sat and told his story, which did end with heroin use.
Ambitious and energetic when discussing the three-quarter houses he owns with his dad, when discussing his past drug use, his whole body tenses up, his eyes sink in a bit, a disease still lurking, coming to the surface.
“It makes me sick. It takes over!” Knight exclaimed, explaining the difference. “Talking about drugs, that’s where my mind wants to go.”
In the end, Knight lost his Avon Lake-based landscaping business after he began using his income exclusively to support a $200-a-day heroin habit and other odds and ends that went with the lifestyle, eventually selling his equipment in order to use, until he was left with nothing, at which point he began stealing and selling whatever he could.
“I am not unique,” he said, looking out onto Detroit Avenue as the traffic moved past, students out of school for the summer laughing with groups of friends.
Just over a year clean, Knight knew the most valuable thing he could do was turn his family’s existing rental properties into sober-living or three-quarter homes.
Mentioning the Adams Board, which funds several treatment facilities, Knight echoed Pagrabs, saying, “The issue is, when you start taking government money, you get involved with politics, and you have (to submit to) oversight, which ruins everything.”
“The most successful treatment is nonregulated – the Julie Adams House, The Absolute House, The Lantern, The (Ed) Keating Center. They are all run on donations and rent,” he said. That allows them to treat addicts as they see fit, accepting cases that might otherwise be sent to homeless shelters or left to suffer through impossible waiting periods.
The bottom line, he added, is that “there’s not enough beds and there’s not enough transitional housing.”
At one of his houses, off of West 130th Street, he explains that his residents are at a later stage in their recovery than many of the residents at Julie Adams; that there is a screening process and a requirement to pay $400 in rent every month, which covers the cost of utilities as well.
Like Pagrabs, other addiction service professionals and recovering addicts, Knight says he sees addicts coming in large numbers from the Westshore and the Lorain County area, which has few resources like those provided in Cleveland.
Pagrabs’ partner, Traci Barnes, who originally opened Julie Adams, is from Lorain County and, noticing this lack of options, wanted to do something to help. But she soon began experiencing issues related to zoning regulations, the fire department coming to check on occupancy and that the house was up to code, resulting in fees, though she had just three residents at the time.
It became more expensive to stay than move – not that Cleveland is completely free of these issues.
Pagrabs said she’s found useful some of the legislation regulating prescriptions and who is prescribed what, but she said, on the state’s end, the most helpful thing they could do is realize that the nonprofit sober-living facilities in this area work.
“We bring people, literally, off the street,” Pagrabs said. Illustrating how unique that is, she continued, “I had women who flew in from Colorado, from Florida, from Missouri.”
Knight, in the process of ripping out freshly laid carpet from his basement after a flood soaked everything, walks out the side door and to the front porch, mentioning his desire to turn one of his properties into a women-only house.
Outside, one of his tenants sits in the sun, enjoying the mild Saturday afternoon. Briefly thinking back to his own drug use, he’s happy he and his roommates “don’t have to live like that anymore.”
It is impossible to know how far-reaching addiction is, but it can be gauged by overdose statistics, as well as the numbers of criminal and family cases on local dockets.
“If the heroin epidemic continues … we are not going to keep up the services to meet the needs of the number of individuals that are going to be addicted,” said Judge Debra L. Boros, who presides over Lorain County’s Domestic Relations Court.
“We’re doing our very best for those who are coming in to us, (but) there’s a large population that we don’t even see. What we do doesn’t even touch them. Drug courts are doing everything we can, but we are not the solution.”