Economy another obstacle to rebuilding lives

'There are well-educated men willing to get out there and dig ditches'
Aug. 04, 2013 @ 08:25 AM

Jon Hill, 51, takes life one day at a time, like most residents of the Caldwell House. He wakes up, thanks God for having one more day on this earth, puts his feet on the ground and goes about life.

Greg O’Geary, 39, wakes up every day and gets down to his job at Full Moon Café in Lenoir, where he does a little bit of everything: cooking, serving and busing tables. He is thankful for the job that he has had for about a month and a half.

Hill and O’Geary are residents of The Caldwell House, a nonprofit halfway house that provides a clean, safe environment for men recovering from alcoholism and addiction. The house provides structure and helps the men re-enter society, helping them get their lives back on track.

But the Caldwell House has been steadily losing money. A sagging economy means private donations are down 20-25 percent, and some of the house’s residents have been unable to find jobs and hence, unable to afford the house’s $120 per week rent -- rent collections are down about 30 percent, said Stan Whittington, president of the house's board of directors.

Jobs are essential for residents’ recovery and for upkeep of the house, and the shortage of jobs in Caldwell County means the Caldwell House is having to make do with less to provide the help its residents need.

Hill was recently released from a two-year sentence at Caldwell Correctional Center in Hudson and spends his days keeping up his garden, doing odd jobs for people in the community and volunteering with the Helping Hands clinic in Lenoir.

Hill has been unable to find a full-time job, despite being a certified mover with a United and Atlas van lines and having experience welding.

“I would probably be out in the streets, possibly homeless, on drugs or back in jail” without the Caldwell House, Hill said.

O’Geary came to Caldwell House from rehab for opiate addiction after losing his job as a food and candy buyer for Variety Wholesalers, which he held for more than a decade.

The house has given Hill and O’Geary a new perspective, and a new chance, but full-time employment is a crucial step in achieving the ultimate goals for all of the house's residents.

All residents at the Caldwell House are men who have completed at least four weeks of in-patient substance abuse treatment. Though most stay between eight and 12 months, the minimum stay is four months. O’Geary has been there 10 months and Hill three.

The men are required to look for work not just so they can afford to pay rent and other bills but so they can start to work back toward normal routines and get back in the flow of society, Whittington said.

“Coming into recovery out of treatment, … it’s hard for the majority of people to understand how devastating that is, it’s literally starting all over,” Whittington said. “There are well-educated men willing to get out there and dig ditches.”

Today, 18 residents live at the house, six of whom are unemployed, with the majority working at fast food restaurants. Years ago, local furniture factories were the major employers for house residents, said Bob Laws, director of Caldwell House.

“There was a time when we’d have 30 men here, and 15 would be down at Bernhardt, and 15 at Kincaid,” Laws said.

But those jobs are gone, and the economy is changing. Today, only one house resident is employed in the furniture business, at Bernhardt Furniture.

“It’s so hard to get a job anywhere here if you’re not a truck driver or an upholsterer,” Laws said, adding that the residents’ records make them hard to employ.

Employers work with the house because if someone is staying at the house, it’s certain that that person is clean and sober, will be at work on time and has reliable transportation. But if there aren’t jobs, there aren’t jobs.

“We need jobs, man,” Laws said. “God, we need jobs.”

Difficulties finding residents jobs started about three years ago, said Laws, who has worked at the Caldwell House for the past 20 years.

The largest burden is on the residents themselves, Laws said, because they sit around at the house worrying about how to pay child support, court costs, fines and general living expenses, wondering how they are going to remedy their family situations and improve their lives without a steady income.

Hill is thousands of dollars behind on child support, though his children are grown, one working as an air traffic controller on contract with the U.S. military in Kuwait, and one recently graduated from the University of South Carolina at Spartanburg. Without a steady source of income, he said, it seems like his debt goes up daily.

Whittington said some recent vital repairs to keep the house from "rotting away" included new windows, insulation, HVAC units, a roof and siding, and old, leaky plumbing was replaced. Funds for the repairs were secured through a number of grants, most of them matching grants, and to match the grant money the house had to draw from savings.

Operational costs for the house are paid mostly by donation from charitable organizations such as the John Christian Bernhardt Foundation and the Broyhill Family Foundation.

Whittington and Laws said they have faith in the house’s big-donor contributions, even though the economy is faltering and funds are short.

“I am an optimistic realist,” Laws said. “I believe it’s going to come.”