Sober living home advances toward opening

One nail and screw at a time, a local nonprofit is inching its way toward opening a sober living home in Soldotna now that its members have secured a building.

Jennifer Waller, director of Freedom House, estimates the transitional living facility will be open in a matter of weeks as long as there are no hangups in the renovation of the home on Shady Lane.

A former drug addict who got clean after three stints in rehab — once in Arizona and twice in Soldotna’s Serenity House — Waller said she felt called by God after her last stay at Serenity House to open her own safehouse for women seeking to stay sober. She had this experience last February, and started working on making Freedom House a reality last June.

Waller said she looked at 12-15 buildings around Soldotna before finding one in a zoning district that matches what she wants to do with Freedom House. The building on Shady Lane was purchased and held by Peninsula Community Health Services for the last several years but never developed, Waller said. When PCHS tried to give the building back to the previous owner, Waller happened to still be searching for a building of her own.

“We met with the owner in October (2016),” she said. “At first, I’ve got to be honest with you, I was like, ‘We need to run from that place.’ It needed so much work. In my mind I just wanted to get something open for the girls to start coming in.”

But the building ended up being a perfect fit. It is now in the name of the nonprofit Waller started for the project, which will continue making payments to the former owner until it is paid off.

“If it wasn’t for the owner of this building, we wouldn’t have it. She sold it to us with zero down payment,” Waller said. “She sees the vision.”

The house opened its doors for renovation six weeks ago. The building can have up to nine beds for the women that will enroll in the house program as well as a resident manager who will live on site.

Women who enroll at Freedom House can live there for up to nine months, signing up for three months at a time, Waller said. They will have 30 days to get a job and begin paying a housing fee of $450 per month. Women will start out in what Waller has called the Mercy Room for a two-week trial period before being inducted into the rest of the house.

In addition to the kitchen, bathrooms and other facilities that come along with a group living situation, Waller is also remodeling a communal room where various classes will be held. It will have a separate entrance so that graduated members of the program or other interested individuals can attend the classes, too.

“All of our classes — budgeting, parenting — are going to be led by volunteers,” Waller said.

She already has a list of people she said have contacted her offering to teach.

Waller visited five other sober living homes in the state to gather information on programs and rules before formatting a program that would work in Soldotna. She said the $450 housing fee is on the lower end compared to other similar programs. While the program will most likely attract women coming out of the Wildwood Correctional Complex or the rehab program at Serenity House, Waller said it is open to anyone who needs a safe place to stay sober while getting back on their feet.

Waller plans to renovate the upstairs portion of Freedom House and rent it out as commercial office space to help add to the group’s income and pay off the building. She is hopeful this will help supplement Freedom House as well as provide some needed office space in Soldotna.

“We’ve had a lot of good feedback already, and a few people that are interested,” she said.

The cost of opening Freedom House — the building purchase combined with the renovation — will be about $750,000, Waller said. It will cost about $459,000 to get the building up to city code and get the doors open.

“We’re at $103,000 of that already donated in cash and in kind,” Waller said.

An electrician and a plumber, for example, have donated their time and labor to the project.

In six official work days, Waller said she counted more than 550 volunteer work hours logged so far. She is still interviewing for an assistant director position for the house and is working on filling the resident manager position.

Several area women have already reached out to Waller asking if they can be admitted to Freedom House, though it is at least eight weeks away from opening, she said.

“They’re beating on the door,” she said. “They’re needing a place to stay.”

Waller recently traveled to a church in Homer to speak about the project after the church reached out and asked how to go about creating a similar safe house, she said. Waller said a project like Freedom House in Homer could benefit the women she works with at the Wildwood Correctional Complex, where she performs prison ministry, who return to the Homer area when they are released.

“The community is so excited because it’s such a need, and it’s almost like … we just needed someone to just pull the trigger,” she said.

Another local nonprofit, Nuk’it’un, opened a transitional sober living home for men in summer 2016. Located in the Kalifornsky Beach Road area, the house is open to men in recovery who can get help accessing resources while living in a structured environment with a house manager.

At Freedom House, much of the work left to be done will be to make sure the building will meet current city standards. This will involve turning part of the yard into parking spaces and widening all the doors to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

“The biggest thing is this building hasn’t been up to code since 1995,” Waller said.

Soldotna city officials have been on board with the project, she said. Waller has met with City Manager Mark Dixson, and has presented her project to the Soldotna City Council and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

“They’ve been very supportive and helpful,” she said of city staff.

All the people working on Freedom House are volunteers. The next open work day at the building will be from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Friday, during which Waller said sheet rock hangers and framers will be needed.

For more information about Freedom House, visit freedomhouse907.com or find the organization on Facebook.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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