On March 8, Wes Davis walked up to the lectern in the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors chambers. Almost as soon as he spoke—this big guy with long hair and a goatee, dressed all in denim—his voice cracked and was soaked in tears.
Baring his emotions in front of a roomful of mostly strangers, Davis told county supervisors how he’d been in and out of county drug and alcohol services programs for about 10 years. With no success.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- HELP US : Speaking to SLO County supervisors on March 8, Wes Davis (right) and Sharil Rutbowski pleaded that North County Connection provides the only service of its kind in the county and is in threat of closure.
“It wasn’t until I found ongoing support that my recovery lasted, and that’s what this community base gives us, is a place where can get ongoing recovery,” he said.
Davis was one of five speakers who went to the board meeting that day, essentially begging for money to keep one of the last local centers for recovering addicts from going under, and in doing so, leaving the people who depend on it with nowhere else to go.
“The center provides us a way to get involved back in our community and give back,” Davis went on. “You know, for so long … .”
His voice trailed briefly, and then he lost it, clearly straining to keep from sobbing.
“For so long, we took,” he said. “And today I don’t want to see this center lost because of funding problems. We find that a lot of the people that go to work for drug and alcohol have been through the center. They go back to school and stuff and they get jobs—meaningful jobs in our community—because we are there.”
He sat down. A few more speakers made the same pleas, and that was it.
On to the next item.
Under the gun
The clock is ticking down for North County Connection. The largest community-based recovery center in SLO County, it could soon be forced to close its doors after more than two decades of providing free, anonymous services to everyone from recovering substance abusers to gambling addicts—and ultimately anyone whose life has been touched by addiction.
To say North County Connection operates on a shoestring budget is a disservice to the term. Last year, the nonprofit’s net income was minus $6,308.90.
Typically it subsists on a cobbled-together assemblage of grants, donations, and rental fees from groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and others that use the small facility. In 2010, North County Connection had a total income of $53,544.32. And despite having more than 31,000 people come through its doors last year, there’s only one full-time employee—when there’s enough money to pay her.
Sue Warren is director of North County Connection. In a good year, she gets paid maybe a few thousand dollars. In a bad year, she’s just another volunteer and subsists on unemployment benefits. Either way, paid or unpaid, she’s there, a necessity for an organization that’s open 24/7/365. From year to year, Warren waffles between a poorly paid staffer to an unpaid volunteer on unemployment.
Despite minimal expenses and high demand, North County Connection may be forced to move, if not close completely.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- UNEMPLOYED? : North County Connection Director Sue Warren is the only fulltime employee, and she’s only paid when they can afford it.
One of two remaining community recovery centers in SLO County, North County Connection might actually be considered the success story. What began as a small outfit sheltered by the county with a steady stream of funding, the center broke away from the county about a decade ago and established itself as a self-sustaining nonprofit. The South County center was a third option before it was forced to close, and Cambria Connection—which Warren also began and operates—remains open but serves a small population and isn’t always staffed.
“The bigger issue here is that there are so few services in this county,” Warren said.
For 10 years, North County Connection has enjoyed virtual anonymity, tucked away in a rural-residential Atascadero neighborhood and paying a relatively low rent to stay there. However, the property owners must sell soon. Though the owners have delayed such a sale, center volunteers said, it will soon be time to either cough up enough for a down payment or look for a new location.
But for North County Connection, a new location means sticking its head up and suddenly shifting from unknown quiet recovery center to a potential ground zero for NIMBY hatred.
Yet a down payment means finding at least $150,000 the center doesn’t have—and within months. A beginning assistant county administrative officer makes that much in a year.
A Dodge Viper the county Sheriff’s Department acquired during a drug raid, outfitted to be used for area schools’ DARE programs, was upgraded to the tune of $6,283 with an estimated $5,500 annual maintenance bill. Center volunteers feel they would more than qualify to receive money local cops seize in drug raids.
“We have a thousand different people using the building … and we can’t even get carpet,” said volunteer George “Bud” Rowland.
What went wrong
It would be almost impossible to identify North County Connection from the outside. What used to be a home—and once a church—now looks more like an out-of-the-way motel that somehow landed in a residential neighborhood.
On a recent weekday afternoon—St. Patrick’s Day, actually—about 10 cars shared the gravel parking lot. A “children at play” sign hung nailed to one of the palm trees near a dried-up fountain. A black cat skulked through the tall grass behind the main building.
Inside, a group of people gathered for one of the regular Narcotics Anonymous meetings. The center houses two to six meetings for similar groups every day.
After helping some of the volunteers, doling out errands to a few others, and dodging the afternoon cleaning crew, Warren shuffled to the kids’ room in the back. She pushed toys and a large plastic oven out of the way of a door in the rear of the room.
“We have a hidden, secret room back here,” she chuckled, opening the door to another mostly empty room with just a few folding chairs and small table.
Sitting with another of the center’s volunteers, who asked only to be called Eric, Warren went through North County Connection’s history. It’s a bit of a dying breed in SLO County, where completely free, anonymous help is essentially nonexistent outside of this small, innocuous building.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- HOPE LOST? : North County Connection Director Sue Warren says that when clients walk out the door, she wants them to have hope that things will get better.
“They don’t really offer long-term treatment,” Eric said of programs provided through county Drug and Alcohol Services, aimed largely at people who have been ordered by courts to obtain treatment and have to pay hefty fees to do so.
“We’re a drop-in center,” Warren said. “The things [clients] come and tell us are very, very different than the things they would tell a government agency.”
In fact, Warren used to technically be a county employee. And in many ways, North County Connection was a county program. It began more than 20 years ago, when North County Connection rented a building from the county to provide services, most recognizably offering a physical space for recovery groups to hold meetings.
The organization had a contract with the county, which guaranteed it would have a location to use and Warren as a fulltime paid employee. Warren was one of four employees for such centers, she said.
Soon, though, the organization outgrew itself. And over the years, the relationship with the county began to erode. Due to a number of factors, North County Connection was effectively cut out after county political shifts in 2004 when their main supporters lost power, Warren and other organization officials said.
Throughout the state, counties contract with other organizations to handle everything from residential drug treatment to post-treatment recovery. Warren noted counties like San Diego and San Jose provide good models, with steady funding and contracts in place to ensure ample services for the community.
According to Star Graber, who manages the Drug and Alcohol Services division of the county’s Behavioral Health Department, North County Connection was always supposed to break off, establish its own location, and become a nonprofit to acquire its own funding. Though other centers struggled, she said, North County Connection has been “successful.”
“It’s a difficult process, I think,” she said of the planned split with the county. “And I don’t think that it’s untypical that nonprofits, when they’re in their infancy, it’s very difficult. And I don’t think that’s uncommon.”
However, according to center volunteers like Warren and Bud, the break-up wasn’t mutual, and North County Connection has been pleading for county help for years, to no avail. They’ve managed to snag a bit of steady funding through the state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families fund and other less dependable grants.
“So we did that and we did yard sales and we mowed lawns and we did whatever we could to stay open,” Bud said.
If North County Connection does indeed close, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. Such services have been disappearing throughout the county, most recently with the demise of San Luis Obispo-based Project Amend, a residential drug treatment center—unique in the area—that closed last October.
“We lived basically hand to mouth,” said Michael Axelrod, the former executive director.
Project Amend was a state-funded center largely directed at helping parolees get sober. It began operations in 1999, got its nonprofit status a few years later, and was fully licensed to provide residential treatment to residents by 2008, making it the only such center in the county.
Now it’s closed.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- BUD : George “Bud” Rowland helps run North County Connection. If the center closes, he said, it “would be a horrible mess.”
“It’s like everybody’s in agreement we need services,” said Axelrod, now a part-time DUI counselor for the county, a position he said he’s grateful to have. “And then whenever we were asking for money … everyone would tell me, ‘Yeah, that’s a really good idea.’”
Indeed, about a half-dozen similar organizations in SLO County have closed since 2004.
If you asked Axelrod or Warren what the story is with drug services in the county—even statewide—it’s that resources are misdirected. Rather than pumping more money into homeless shelters and throwing addicts in jail, they say for a fraction of the cost governments could head off the problem through early prevention, treatment, and recovery.
“We have the right to have treatment and to choose what our treatment is,” Warren said. “We should not have to go to jail to get our treatment.”
Which is perhaps what’s most at stake for the clients who rely on North County Connection.
Clients there split between walk-ins, a few people currently in court-ordered programs, and others who want to continue treatment after they’ve “graduated” from a government drug program. Others are just looking for a place to hang out where they can get off the streets and away from junkie friends, if even for a day.
“God knows I work for the county now—they have great programs, but it’s all based on outpatient,” Axelrod said.
Though Axelrod and county officials maintain that anyone seeking treatment can call the county at any time for help, the practical reality is that such help can be less immediate, if it’s available at all.
“So many of our folks have called county drug and alcohol first and they never call back,” Warren said. “If you finally worked up the courage to call somebody and say, ‘I desperately need help. Where do I go? What do I do?’ … .”
So what if North County Connection closes? That’s 31,000 annual visits from groups ranging from AA to NA to Overeaters Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous, along with many others. Can the county—itself stressed due to budget cuts—handle the influx of people who are dependent on and used to free services?
“I’m not sure that there would be the capacity for the increase,” Graber said. “Depending on what they needed.”
When compared to political juggernauts like public transportation and safety—which may not receive as much funding as they like, but at least have access to a slice of the financial pie—organizations that help recovering addicts, like North County Connection, feel like they’ve been getting nothing but lip service.
The county has provided some assistance by leeching the center onto some of its grant opportunities, but that hasn’t been enough to provide any security—and certainly won’t be enough to save the center if indeed the landowners put the property up for sale.
North County Connection has met with Supervisor Jim Patterson and received some assurances, but volunteers seemed unenthusiastic following those meetings.
“Nonprofits with limited funding sources, I have observed, tend to stay open through heart and determination,” Patterson said in an e-mail response. “I see the community benefits, in the case of [North County Connection], and am extremely appreciative and supportive.”
In a few months, the center will likely have to pony up about $150,000 in order to stay put. If it manages to purchase the property, the buy wouldn’t only mean more security, but the ability to finally establish a line of credit, which could allow volunteers to pursue more grants to fix up the building and perhaps outfit it for overnight, residential treatment.
If not—if the center closes—Bud gave this prediction: “It would be a horrible mess. It would go back to the dark ages—let the speed dealers run everything.”
Contact News Editor Colin Rigley at email@example.com.