On the eve of budget talks aimed at whittling down an $8 million shortfall, more than 40 people crammed City Hall Library to plead for funding to keep a 33-year-old city halfway house open.
Dudley House, a 15-bed facility on Putnam Avenue, serves men from Union and Middlesex counties who suffer drug or alcohol dependence. But financial constraints and licensure issues could shut it down. City Administrator Marc Dashield said Monday the city is submitting a layoff plan to the state that includes all five employees of the program. Meanwhile, the city will seek funding to keep the program alive, he said, but must initiate the 120-day notice "to be prudent."
The program has operated without a license for many years, but new regulations call for the building to be handicapped accessible under terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other provisions. Dashield said the modifications could cost $250,000.
In moving testimony, more than a dozen people spoke about how the program had transformed their lives.
"Look around you - you're looking at miracles," one Dudley House resident told the council.
"My life is completely changed now," another person said.
Speakers told of their struggles with addiction and how they came to be responsible parents and productive members of society through Dudley House.
One past member who now lives nearby and is in training to become a substance abuse counselor said, "I feel safer knowing that it's there. It's given me some solace."
Others spoke of the difference Dudley House made between choosing crime to support their habits and gaining a larger world view.
"It's something great. It changed my life around," one man said.
Having been caught up in drugs and alcohol abuse and now knowing the difference, speakers expressed concern for young people now at risk.
Resident Robert Wilson agreed, saying "it's cheaper to educate than to jail" youth in the city.
Although fiscal problems are great for the current budget year, resident Dottie Gutenkauf said, "There are some things that are so very much worth saving that if you have to scrimp on something else, it's worth it."
Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said that after the city found funding was coming to an end, "We became extremely proactive."
City officials have since met with the program's director and Union County officials, she said, to examine the problems.
At the end of the meeting, Assemblyman Jerry Green took another tack, saying he met with state Attorney General Anne Milgram to see what the state could come up with to help the program. Even though it is currently under Addiction Services in the state Department of Human Services, Green said that might change. He also said he is calling for persons with police records to have them expunged so ex-convicts can get jobs.
"If you paid your debt, I want you to have a clean record," Green said.
Green said he first approached Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center about helping out, but he said hospitals are facing their own problems.
"This issue is bigger than just Dudley House," he said.
Meanwhile, people with carpentry skills who benefited from Dudley House may try to build the ADA ramps, speakers said.
Earlier Monday, Plaintalker spoke with a Middlesex County official in addiction services who said relocating men in treatment would not be easy, if it came to that. The process would require putting out a bid to other facilities and then sending people to the successful bidding agency.
Meanwhile, clients could lose in their battles to keep addiction at bay. Speakers talked of battling daily for up to 30 years to keep on the straight and narrow. Even more telling, many said virtually every family has some members who are alcoholics or drug abusers.
Plaintalker will follow this story as it continues.
P.S. The images are from T-shirts worn at the meeting.