Sober in the City

Story and photos by Andrea Kayda
Originally published on Oct. 26, 2011.

Doctor and staff
Dr. Barbara Kistenmacher, center, a clinical psychologist and executive director of Hazelden New York’s Tribeca Twelve programs, meets with two staff members, Ashley Anderson and Rinaldo Morelli.

If you were designing a treatment program for young-adult substance abusers, would you place it amid the purveyors of their biggest vices?

The Hazelden Foundation, a nonprofit alcohol and drug addiction treatment center based in Center City, Minn., is doing just that — opening the Tribeca Twelve Collegiate Recovery Residence on West Broadway, in a neighborhood with one of New York’s most active party scenes.

“Sure, it can work, why not?” said Carlos Perez, an employee at 378 Electronics, around the corner from Tribeca Twelve. “They’ll have to be strong but that’s what it’s all about.”

In trendy Tribeca, the sober living dorm — its name echoing the Alcoholics Anonymous “Twelve Step Program” — hopes to help reintegrate young adults, ages 18 to 29, into society while at the same time, encouraging them to continue their education clean, sober and one step at a time.

Tribeca Twelve is surrounded by temptation. In its immediate vicinity are the Pepolino Restaurant, offering a full bar; the Pelea Mexicana Restaurant, with a daily happy hour special from 5 to 7 p.m. serving wine, tequila, beer and margaritas; and Nancy’s Whiskey Pub on the corner at 1 Lispenard St.

Rather than being wary or apprehensive about the location, Hazelden didn’t think of it as, “‘Oh, what a terrible place to put a recovery house,’ says Dr. Barbara Kistenmacher, a clinical psychologist and executive director of Hazelden New York. “They thought about it as, ‘This city needs a recovery house.’”

She adds, “We will be the very first recovery house for the college-age and graduate school-age population in New York City.”

While some neighborhoods have objected to the placement in their communities of halfway houses for recovering addicts, shelters for the abused and for the homeless, the Tribeca community is “very much supportive and receptive to the facility and its goals,” says Michael Levine, director of planning and land use of Community Board 1.

Yet not every neighbor considers it wise. “I think it’s stupid and totally unrealistic. It’s way too tempting,” says Jonathan Elkayan, who works in Tribeca.

Tribeca Twelve outside view
The Tribeca Twelve treatment is in the heart of Tribeca, on West Broadway, surrounded by the temptations of urban life.

Hazelden, which describes itself as one of the largest private nonprofit treatment centers in the world, has eight locations in Minnesota, Illinois, Oregon, Florida and now New York. The others are in more remote and sequestered settings; Tribeca Twelve is a departure.

The design of Tribeca Twelve is meant to be highly individualized and tailored to each student, based on his or her background, history and specific need, Kistenmacher says. The operation will be staffed 24/7 and will offer on-site 12-step meetings, recovery coaches and personalized recovery plans. These approaches embrace physical health, mental health and spiritual well-being, while helping clients establish academic goals. Rather than a curfew, the house will employ a quiet time of 11 p.m. in which residents who are in the building must keep the noise level to a minimum. Security cameras are at every entrance, and electronic key cards are required for access into and out of the building.

Impromptu drug tests will be administered; the ramifications of relapse can vary from an increase in drug-test monitoring and revisions to recovery plans to discharge from the program and referral to a higher level of care, according to Hazelden’s Web site.

The minimum required stay is three months and costs $5,000 to $5,500 a month — none of which is covered by health insurance. Other fees are charged for professional treatment and continuing care services, and these, however, may be covered by policies. Hazelden, like other treatment programs, promises to work with residents and their families to determine the availability of insurance to pay for professional services.

The cost is surely high in the minds of most low-income college students, but similar residential programs elsewhere in the country can cost from $7,500 to $12,000a month.

The look-and-feel inside the West Broadway building is luxury meets dormitory. The 2,200-square-foot apartments consist of two bedrooms — one with two twin beds and the other with two sets of bunk beds, accommodating four — two bathrooms, a kitchen, dining room, living room, laundry room and study. Offices and group rooms are on the lower floors.

Tribeca Twelve apartment
The two-bedroom apartments, designed to hold six students, look like a combination of college dorm and a very nice apartment.

Kistenmacher compares Tribeca Twelve most closely to Augsburg College’s Step Up Program in Augsburg, Minn., a sober-living residence within the college. Tribeca Twelve will differ, however, because it will include students studying at colleges and universities from all over the city and its outer boroughs. In addition, Kistenmacher says Tribeca Twelve’s close partnership with the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry’s treatment programs is distinctive.

Kevin J. Kindlin, a clinical psychologist and a certified substance abuse counselor, is in charge of professional and community development at the Second Nature Wilderness Therapy Program, which has locations for various age groups in Georgia, Oregon and Utah. At Second Nature, the patient is removed from her everyday life, stressors and distractions, in the hope that she will focus on recovery. While Kindlin trusts in wilderness treatment wholeheartedly, he too believes that it’s “imperative for a young adult to step into a place like Tribeca Twelve after primary care.”

Many treatment centers are placed remotely, he says, not so much a result of research dictating isolation but because of various state laws. “By far, Utah has the most supportive licensures and treatment center laws, which is why many facilities are located there, whereas some of the more populous states are more restrictive,” he says.

CooperRiis, another treatment program, offers a choice of locations in North Carolina — one a traditional site on farmland in Mill Spring, N.C., and a Tribeca Twelve-like site in downtown Asheville, N.C., a city of about 73,000. The Asheville campus, known as 85Z, places patients in an urban setting, a short distance away from many attractive nuisances such as restaurants and bars, as well as a college campus.

“If you don’t learn how to navigate the challenges of the environment you will return to after treatment, then how are you going to successfully return there?” says Todd Weatherly, managing director at the 85Z campus, putting patients an urban setting. “We need to get them support on how to still be exposed to certain triggers but to make different choices.”

Tribeca Twelve held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 5 but cannot open its doors until an official certificate of occupancy is obtained.

Only time will tell how the program and its students fare, but Kistenmacher says her definition of a success is when a patient becomes “someone who is not just clean and sober but really develops some insight about the connection between certain aspects of their personalities, of their day-to-day mood, their affect and how all of that is connected to the behavioral choices they’re making including using drugs and alcohol.”

The Hazelden Foundation, in a news release, says it has invested $42 million to expand services to help young people who struggle with addiction find and maintain recovery, beginning with Tribeca Twelve.