The Board of Supervisors chambers filled with applause Tuesday following a 5-0 vote to approve a contract with Oxford House Inc, to sign an agreement with Oxford House Sequoia, for $26,000 to provide clean and sober residential services for one year.
The issue that began July 11 when District 1 Supervisor Roger Gitlin pulled the signing of an agreement from the consent agenda, saying he had questions.
Gitlin was later accused by Supervisor Lori Cowan and some of the residents of coercing his way into the house to inspect it.
Board Chair Chris Howard said since there has been discussion in the public over the issues, he wanted to hear “what the Oxford House is all about.”
The hour-long topic began with a presentation by Oxford House Outreach Worker Gene McVae, who spoke of his own personal struggles with addiction and loss of a loved one, and how the house provided a supportive place for his recovery. He said University studies showed Oxford House’s success rate at about 70 percent for those who remain over 18 months.
McVae said he does not make money from the houses. While it was questioned later if the contract was between McVae and the county, it was found that McVae only served as a signatory for Oxford House. He said all the money that goes into the house stays there and that some houses make regular donations to Oxford Inc,. which are compiled in a fund He said those donations are then used to go into areas where Oxford House does not have a contract and open houses.
Department of Health and Human Services Director Heather Snow said she was surprised to have to explain the contract, since the county had had one with Oxford House for some time, which is similar to other provider agreements in place. She said clients are referred by DHHS and “every dollar we pay is tied to an individual.”
“It doesn’t go to support Oxford House, it goes to support the individual women,” she said. “It’s part of their treatment plan with us.” She said the money is used solely for residential costs and many residents become self sufficient and do not require further subsidies.
Assistant Community Development Director Randy Hooper explained the residence, regardless of the number of people residing there, qualifies under state and federal housing laws as transitional housing. He said the goal of the program is to “keep people from being homeless.” He added that such a house is not required to meet the same planning requirements as a licensed care facility.
“You’re basically viewing the unit as a family unit, which we have to,” he said, referring to case law. “Families don’t necessarily have to be biological units. Essentially, if it functions like a family. You can’t put a cap on the number.”
County Counsel Elizabeth Cable said neighbors were not noticed of the house beforehand, since a planning commission review is not required. She said that as a family unit, it requires no more public notice than a traditional family or roommates purchasing or renting a home.
Cowan, who had previously recused herself from voting on the contract as a precaution because she sold the house to the new owners, said she had spoken to the state Fair Political Practices Commission and was told she has no conflict of interest.
Cowan said while the issue has generated a lot of negative attention for the women in the house, she also was able to meet them and take a closer look at the program. She offered the residents encouragement and said she is proud of them for their efforts.
Cowan also said Gitlin owed the women an apology.
Gitlin said he does not doubt that the Oxford House does good work but questioned the need to use public funds to support it when it is said to be a self-sufficient program.
“I’m not here to quibble about me doing my job and asking neighbors how they felt about this issue,” he said. “I don’t apologize for that and I won’t.”
He said the issue came to him just before a Tuesday meeting and that he later met with McVae to discuss it.
“After you and I met, Mr. McVae, I saw this in a different light,” Gitlin said. “I saw what you did, you were very open and very candid. I think a lot of this could have been avoided had this conversation taken place before we had this … unfortunate situation.”
As to whether he was rude or “flashed a badge,” to get in the house, Gitlin said that did not happen and he was invited in the house, asked some questions, spoke to McVae on the phone and left. He said he then went around the neighborhood to ask questions of neighbors.
“I’m very proud of what I did and if nothing else, we now have clarity on an issue that won’t come up again, hopefully, in the future,” Gitlin said.
“I think there’s maybe some misinterpretation of what a board member’s job is,” said Supervisor Gary Hemmingsen. “We’re not the Gestapo or Nazis. We don’t go knocking on people’s doors and force our way in to satisfy our own needs.”
Hemmingsen said he was disappointed the issue has been blown out of proportion online “because a supervisor did not do his job.”
“Wow, you’d think the sky was falling,” said Supervisor Bob Berkowitz, questioning the amount of attention given to the issue. “I’m pleased that this issue is finally getting resolved today. I’m tired of hearing about it.”
Saying he overhears offensive conversations of the women in the house, neighbor Nicky Williams said Gitlin is the only supervisor doing his job.
“I’m disgusted with this whole chain of events,” he said. “It’s not your backyard that’s being invaded.”
Speaking as a county resident, Sunny Valero said the community has been completely inappropriate in its treatment of the residents.
“With all due respect Mr. Gitlin and community, you owe these ladies an apology,” Valero said. “By showing your badge, or business card and using your title as the Board of Supervisors to gain entry into their home, you took advantage of your position to question them. That created an uncertainty and uneasiness to a group of ladies who are already working on self confidence, learning how to love themselves, and working hard to defend themselves.” Valero said since the women do not want trouble, Gitlin took advantage of their fear in order to gain access to the house. She said the local accusations and name-calling are disappointing to her.
“How completely disgraceful and disrespectful we have become,” Valero said, encouraging people to familiarize themselves with addiction and recovery before being quick to judge.
Donna Westfall questioned why and how state funds are used at Oxford House, saying it is in violation of its own philosophy of self-sustaining operation.
As with her op-ed, Linda Sutter questioned the house rules regarding men staying over up to three nights a week.
“Where are the children when sexual encounters are occurring? How are the bathrooms shared between the rooms? Who monitors what type of men are allowed into the Oxford House? Are they former drug and alcohol abusers? Are they parolees? Do they behave inappropriately around children? Are they undiscovered child molesters?” she asked.
Sutter also questioned the use of the funds, saying it has not been publicly disclosed what services would be provided in return.
Wesley Nunn questioned what he called flaws in the contract and suggested the board take a closer look before approving it.
Sharon Mindy said she was upset to hear a supervisor had gone to the house and asked that an apology be made.
Donna Hopkins said the residents did not deserve to have their lives exposed in this way and that Gitlin’s due diligence could have been conducted in a more respectful manner.
Jake Smith questioned the impacts of having many people living in one house, such as traffic, noise, and their effects on property values.
30-year resident Patricia Black said she had been asked by members of her church to express support for the house. She questioned why members of the public would want a public hearing for a proven recovery house when “no one has a public hearing when they open a meth manufacturing house.” She said the money spent on the house is far less than the county would spend to put people in jail.
“I believe we, as a community, should support these women in their recovery,” she said. “and I urge you to approve this funding today.
After some discussion regarding regulatory issues, the board approved the contract, with Gitlin stating, “after considerable thought, I am voting yes.”
Out of view of the public cameras, supporters and Oxford House residents shared hugs and encouragement after the vote was called.
Howard took a moment, after the unanimous vote, to apologize on behalf of the board. Addressing the Oxford House Sequoia residents who were in the room, he said the board will be looking into complaints.
“Stories that you’ve conveyed to me since that incident occurred, both with the reports that you have filed with the Sheriff’s Department and the report you have now filed with our board, I’m sure the board will look and seek to take action in the future, but we won’t address it here today.”
Howard commended Oxford House and its residents for taking responsibility for addiction recovery.
“Nobody deserves to have their life put out in the public, and I know you have gotten a lot of comments from people who would not have otherwise known you were there,” Howard said to the residents of the house, “and we’re very sorry about that as a board. I wish we could have changed how the outcome of this was delivered.”