Sober house

(First published in the October 10, 2019 issue of City Pages)

The low-rent Annabelle Apartments was threatened with demolition two years ago. Today, it’s a sober living facility.


Todd Van Ryn and Heath Tappe outside of Bridge Street Mission, which was once Annabelle Apartments, and originally a dormitory for Newman Catholic Schools teachers.

In 2017, the 30 or so residents of a low-rent apartment building on Bridge Street in Wausau were worried they wouldn’t have a place to live. Kwik Trip had submitted plans to the city to buy the building, called the Annabelle Apartments, and turn the whole lot into a Kwik Trip store.

The residents living there at the time had good reason to be concerned. Rent at the Annabelle Apartments was very low — between $280 and $330 per month, according to information provided to the city at a March 2017 meeting. Finding another housing at that price would be a major challenge.

The city received a 150-signature petition calling for the plan to be stopped. Several council members took to the podium during a public comment period, including Dennis Smith and the late Karen Kellbach, to oppose the project. Kellbach said she came home one day to 50 voice mails from people opposing the project, which was in her district. Not everyone’s concerns focused on the residents; many were worried about noise concerns, lighting, etc. But that happens any time a gas station is proposed near a residential area, and it rarely affects the result.

Kwik Trip tried their best; they even proposed a plan that would have provided first month’s rent and security deposit to the residents to find new homes.

But in the end, Kwik Trip withdrew its proposal and focused on other locations (such as the newly opened location on 17th Avenue). The residents were safe.

But then what? Today, the Annabelle Apartments no longer exist. Instead, the former dormitory for teachers at Newman Catholic Schools is now a sober living facility operated by Bridge Street Mission, whose goal is to provide a sober environment for those on low incomes. And it’s a service that local health care experts say is desperately needed.

Sobering up the facility

Despite the changes in use, the building, now called the Bridge Street Mission, still feels odd. The institutional nature of the facility, and the juxtaposition of stale cigarette smoke smell with crosses built into the brickwork and stained glasswork is hard not to notice.

Being religious isn’t a condition of staying at the sober living facility, says Heath Tappe, founder of the Bridge Street Mission. Residents can live there if they agree to the rules, which have a religious bent to them, and most importantly, stay sober. What is mandatory is a multi-page application form, more than a dozen pages long, says the facility’s interim Executive Director, Todd Van Ryn.

If the facility looks dorm like, that’s because it essentially was at one time. The place housed teachers of Newman Catholic Schools, located right near the current Newman Catholic High School. Linoleum floors with heavy wooden doors line the hallways. The building is constructed of the orange brick one might expect of a school or office building. Though it’s hard to tell from the outside, there are actually three floors in the Bridge Street Mission building.

For 20 years, the building was owned by a local man named Joe Buska. Rent averaged around $300, one of the least expensive available in the city without any restrictions. Annabelle Apartments wasn’t affordable housing in any official capacity; it was just affordable.

Bridge Street Mission closed on the building only six months after the Kwik Trip standoff. Buska told Tappe initially that it wasn’t for sale, but Tappe persisted.

Not much changed following the sale. Until July of this year, Bridge Street Mission ran the apartment building as it operated when it was Annabelle Apartments, Tappe says. Initially they planned to start the sober living program right away, but realized a lot of residents wouldn’t want to participate. The organizers didn’t want to suddenly spring the changes on current residents, so they offered a grace period.

But July 1 of this year, the sober living program began. Under the new rules, residents agree to stay clean (as in clear of drugs) and sober; to stay clean in hygiene; honor their peers; remain an active member of the Bridge Street Mission; and respect that they’re living in a faith based facility. Residents aren’t allowed to have any guests in their room; socialization occurs in common areas and is encouraged, to prevent the kind of isolation that can lead to relapses.

Any resident found to have been drinking or doing drugs is given 30 minutes to pack up their things and go. Suspensions range from 30 days, to 90 days, to one year, after which they need a recommendation from a staff member to gain re-entry.

The apartment building housed 32 residents when Bridge Street Mission took over, Tappe says. As a sober living center, it’s now at about 26, but applicants are waiting in the wings. The facility has a turnover of about 4-5 residents per month, Tappe says. The rent is roughly in that $300 a month range that it was under Annabelle Apartments.

The new rules have reduced police calls to the facility, and helped weed out the few “bad apples” who Tappe says would ruin the place for others. “When you have so many people under one roof, you can imagine,” Tappe says. “There is limited kitchen, bathroom spaces here.”

Right now the building is coed, but plans are to transform it into segregated facilities, with separate wings for women and men.

Van Ryn says they work with law enforcement and probation officers. If something happens at the facility they can let POs know, and vice versa, he says. “We do random drug and alcohol tests,” Van Ryn says. “We have a zero tolerance policy.”

To enter the program, Tappe says, a person must be 21 days sober. That’s mostly on the honor system, but new applicants are made aware there are tests, so it’s in their best interest to have some time in sobriety. They chose that number of days specifically because of North Central Health Care’s Lakeside Recovery treatment, which operates a 21-day program helping addicts overcome their addictions and re-enter society. The Bridge Street Mission could then be transitional housing for some graduates, though it’s open to anyone who has been sober for 21 days and can adhere to the rules, he says.

Bridge Street Mission doesn’t do AODA counseling. Its staff just focus on the living aspect of recovery and work with community partners for the other issues. For example, if someone were to come in but not be sober, they would send them to NCHC’s program. The mission also works with other agencies in the Wausau area for referrals.

Sober living programs needed

In a study originally published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, researchers found that residents stopped or curtailed their substance abuse within six months of living at a sober living house, and maintained those outcomes through one year and 18-month check ins. Residents in those facilities saw major improvements in employment and the reduction of psychiatric symptoms and arrests.

NCHC hasn’t had much involvement in the Bridge Street Mission and its set up, says NCHC Human Services Operations Executive Laura Scudiere. But she’s glad to know there’s another sober living option in town. “Sober living environments are desperately needed,” Scudiere says. “There is a gap in our community.”

NCHC has one sober living facility, with five beds, called The Hope House. It employs the Oxford model, which is a less restrictive model for sober living houses, without limits for length of stay, with networks for job support, and support for abstinence of alcohol or drugs.

But NCHC is planning to move to a more restrictive model more in line with what Bridge Street Mission is doing, Scudiere says. And there are plans to start building new transitional housing units. “There is a lot of demand for those beds,” Scudiere says.

More transitional housing would be a key component in helping those in recovery, says Lakeside Recovery Manager Daniel Shine. After residents leave the 21-day medically monitored addiction treatment program, it’s important to be in a stable environment and not surrounded by people in their past associated with using drugs or alcohol. “Sober living homes provide a nurturing atmosphere for individuals in recovery and help with that recovery long term,” Shine says.

It also helps to be surrounded by other individuals working on recovery, Shine says. And it helps prevent the isolation that can lead to individuals going back to their addictions.

NCHC is already working on renovating a former assisted living facility in Langlade County into a sober living facility (NCHC services Marathon, Lincoln and Langlade counties). The plan is to eventually build a men’s and women’s building in Marathon County next, Scudiere says.

The model will be based on Apricity in Neenah, a sober living facility that also operates as a packaging and assembly business. The idea, Scudiere says, is that the program allows not only for sober living, but also a sober work environment. Scudiere says she would like to see something like that here. “This is one of the missing pieces in making that work, is having more sober living options,” Scudiere says. “It works together for people in recovery. A recovery community, if you will.”

Building community

Tappe is complimentary of the former Annabelle Apartment’s owner, Buska. As an owner of rental properties himself, he knows the challenges of collecting rent in the range that Annabelle, and now Bridge Street Mission, charges. Buska provided affordable housing for a population that needed it. Tappe says they kept the same rent collection system, getting deposit slips from their tenants to help ensure rent is paid on time. They can see right away who didn’t pay, he says. “He had a good system,” Tappe says.

But Bridge Street Mission is meant to be the next evolution of the building’s purpose. Tappe says he and others at the mission have already attended too many memorial services for those who died as a result of addiction. “That’s the hardest part,” Tappe says. Addiction is a chronic condition in Wausau and someone needs to do something about it, Tappe says.

Tappe does see that bigger partnership with the community. He says the Bridge Street Mission is a puzzle pieces that fits into a bigger picture that involves Yauo Yang and The Joseph Project,  Catholic Charities, CAP Services, the Salvation Army, and the United Way’s Housing and Homelessness Coalition.

The Cross Church founder, Yauo Yang, who also runs The Joseph Project which helps people with troubled pasts gain the skills necessary to seek employment, says Bridge Street Mission is important in the overall picture. “I think that the Bridge Street Mission is providing a key and important service for people in our community who have housing needs,” Yang says. “It’s affordable and that’s what some of them need.”

Bridge Street Mission’s program and building haven’t reached their final forms yet. The organization has a building downtown they might eventually turn into a center for vocational training. But Tappe says when he saw the news about Kwik Trip and the Annabelle Apartments, he felt divine inspiration to use the building for good. “It was like God was calling me to buy the building and use it for a rescue mission.”

Note: Updated to reflect Kwik Trip’s correct location of 17th Avenue.