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Sober home concerns continue in Brainerd

Sober homes owner Sheila Haverkamp said she does not understand many of the concerns.

Sober home on Tyrol Drive
Tyrol Drive in Brainerd has two sober homes, driving neighbors to bring concerns to the City Council multiple times in the past year.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — The Brainerd City Council will likely not take any action regarding a dispute over sober homes on Tyrol Drive.

The council’s meeting Monday, Jan. 18, was not the first or second time residents of the Tyrol Hills neighborhood brought concerns to city officials, nor the first time officials heard another side of the story from sober homes owner Sheila Haverkamp.

“I do not feel safe anymore. I’m a recent widow, and I used to walk my dog around the circle. Can’t do that anymore,” Tyrol Drive resident Helen Puckropp told the council during the open forum portion of the meeting Jan. 18.

Haverkamp owns two sober homes on the 26-house cul-de-sac of Tyrol Drive. When concerns arose last year, the City Council directed the Planning Commission to put together proposed regulations for sober homes. But because those recovering from chemical dependency are considered disabled under the Federal Fair Housing Act, municipalities are required to make reasonable accommodations for sober homes, limiting the control local governments have over the facilities. The Planning Commission came back in October with reasonable accommodation forms, which do not put any regulatory burden on sober home owners but formalize the process by which owners request accommodation from city code and help staff determine if a sober home is genuinely a sober home and not an effort of someone simply trying to work around city code.

While council members approved the forms, that move did not appease the concerned residents, who maintain the sober homes are a safety issue in what used to be a quiet, single-family home neighborhood.

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“You should be ashamed of yourselves for letting this come into a small neighborhood. Couldn’t you have found a big neighborhood?” Puckropp asked the council, saying sober home residents need somewhere they can play sports and do other recreational activities.

“These people need help. Just giving them a damn sober house is not what they need,” she said.”

Resident Steve Suer, who said he himself is a recovering alcoholic, echoed some of Puckropp’s statements, saying the safe and secure feeling is gone for many residents. But the issue, he said, is not so much with the sober home residents but the owner of the facilities.

He said he has seen empty beer cans in the yard of one of the homes and cars going by at high speeds.

“We’ve brought it forward two or three times now, but nothing changes,” he said. “And to me, my personal opinion — and that’s what it is — there’s a lack of supervision.”

Residents from 16 of the 24 other houses on Tyrol Drive signed a petition last year, requesting no more sober homes on the street. While Haverkamp has said she has heard the residents loud and clear and is not looking to purchase any more homes on the street, Suer maintains the council should look at a policy similar to that of the city of St. Paul, which lays out guidelines on how close together sober homes can be to one another and how many occupants can live in each one.

It’s fear of the unknown.
Mike Duval, Tyrol Drive resident

Since August, there have been 14 police calls to the sober homes, a fact Suer’s wife, Mary Suer, touched on at the council meeting. The couple recently installed a security system on their property because of all the police presence.

“All the flashing lights, ambulances — that’s not good,” Mary Suer said. “One of the calls resulted in a death of a resident, so as I stood and watched flashing lights, I see them roll out somebody. That’s not good. Another call resulted in a resident being taken away in an ambulance. If any of you council members observed many police cars with flashing lights many times — one of the times there were seven — in your neighborhood, don’t you think you’d be extremely concerned as well?”

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The death she mentioned references an incident from December, when a 31-year-old man was found dead. The incident is still under investigation.

Mary Suer said she spoke with Haverkamp before the first sober home went in, with the understanding that she was on board with the project to begin with but would let Haverkamp know if there were issues. Now, Suer said, she is speaking up. Something needs to be done, she said, as she and her neighbors cannot keep coming to meetings with no result.

“Our concern tonight does not mean that we’re bad neighbors or bad people,” she said. “It just means that we’re concerned about our own family, the welfare of our family, the welfare of our friends and of everybody in the neighborhood.”

Dale Anselment said he believes there is a serious drug problem going on among the sober house residents in the neighborhood, as he has seen many people walking through the trees down to the river for short periods of time.

“I sit right on top of the hill and see it all,” Anselment said. “If there’s nobody watching these guys in the sober houses, they come and go as they please. How does anybody know what they’re bringing back in there?”

After the residents’ comments, Haverkamp spoke, saying it was hard listening to some of the comments and she disagrees with the criticism over how the homes are managed.

“We’re in regular meetings with professionals on how best do we try to have an impact positively in our community to make change,” she said.

In response to the number of police calls, Haverkamp said many of the calls are welfare checks — not emergency 911 calls — as she and her team are taught to call the police if they feel someone needs to be checked on or if they believe there is any substance use in the house.

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“So yeah, we did have 14 calls, but it’s our team members coming to work with us to address an issue that we have a man in the house who is not healthy right now, and we need to get him help,” she said.

As far as the safety concerns, Haverkamp said she wasn’t sure what those were based on, as she has never witnessed any sort of physical altercation involving any of the sober home residents, and there have been no reports of thefts. While some of the residents, do come to the sober homes from jail or prison, Haverkamp said violent criminals do not. And not all of the residents have criminal records, she added. Some might just not have another safe or supportive place to go.

“I personally don’t understand the safety concerns because I sit and have coffee with these men and go shopping and go to stores and to movies and bowling and everything else. They’re normal people, like many of us in this room,” she said.

Haverkamp said Mary Suer has never called her personally with any issues, and noted that Anselman has had some of the men from the sober houses help clear tree branches from the yard. Some have helped shovel driveways as well. She meets regularly with city staff, she said, and is meeting every regulation set forth by the city.

“We have tried to be good neighbors,” she said. “We are starting to feel like we are being discriminated against, that we are being judged and there’s a significant prejudicism against us and alcoholics and addicts and mental health because they go hand in hand. Many of our men have mental health issues. And it doesn’t feel good anymore.”

Mike Duval, Tyrol Drive resident and chair of the city’s Planning Commission, followed Haverkamp, saying he has sat through several meetings without saying anything but now felt he needed to.

The issue should be looked at from a data perspective, he said, and not an emotional one. He said he does not understand where the fear from his neighbors is coming from, as the neighborhood has not seen an increase in assaults, thefts or other crimes.

“It’s fear of the unknown in certain ways, or what could, but if you look at the data it’s really not been playing out that way,” Duval said, noting it must be difficult for those recovering from addiction to be successful in an environment where they feel like a social pariah.

“The lights from the police and the lights from the ambulance — someone did die, and we should have a little compassion about that and maybe try and understand the other people living in the house and maybe the grief that they knew this person, they lived with this person,” Duval added.

As someone who lives next door to one of the sober homes, Duval said he has had positive interactions with the men and has noticed the help they have given to others in the neighborhood in terms of yard work.

Duval said the council might be able to help de-escalate the situation by taking an official stance on sober homes.

After the public forum, Council President Kelly Bevans told everyone that the council has voted on the issue in the past. When sober homes came up as a discussion topic in 2017, the council voted to allow them as a use and regulate them under the city’s rental code ordinance.“We have a decision that was made years ago, so I’m not sure if we have to do anything,” Bevans said at the end of the meeting.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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