The rise and fall of a New London sober living operation
New London — When he started a sober living operation on Prest Street last summer, Clarence “Chuck” Montgomery could not have imagined the year ahead of him.
In April, then-resident Zachary Ramsdell died in the kitchen of 47 Prest St., a heroin overdose the cause.
In May, business partner Daryl McGraw was charged with disorderly conduct and left his role with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
One tenant is going through the eviction process, a procedure Montgomery wasn’t aware he needed to follow until recently. And the future of the homes at 42 and 47 Prest St. is up in the air.
“I was just trying to do something that really helps these guys get from point A to B,” Montgomery said of the homes, which aimed to help recently incarcerated men readjust to society. “I’m just a minister who used to be in the streets. Somebody looked out for me and I tried to offer that same thing to these guys.”
“Was it a perfect world?” he continued. “Well, I’m finding out that it wasn’t.”
In New London, an estimated 35 sober houses exist. City officials have proposed an ordinance that would allow for inspection of the homes, but for now, many operate under the radar. At least seven people have died in New London sober homes since 2014.
Christina Bliven, who has children with McGraw, owns the home at 42 Prest St. She said she gave use of it as an “in-kind donation” when she learned what Montgomery and McGraw were trying to do.
Wanting to create a two-tier program, Montgomery said he began renting the house at 47 Prest St. from owner Jakub Micengendler when it opened up last summer.
In a nutshell, Montgomery hoped men would come from prison or drug rehabilitation programs to 47 Prest St., where they would attend meetings, find jobs and stay sober. The men who showed promise could graduate to 42 Prest St., where they would have a bit more freedom.
He called the operation the Friendship House.
Montgomery said he and McGraw hammered out a contract before opening the homes for business. Among other things, the contract says the homes have zero tolerance for drug or alcohol use and that residents can be asked to leave for any reason.
The contract also informs signees that their belongings will be donated to charity if they fail to remove them within 48 hours of being asked to leave.
Speaking by phone earlier this month, Montgomery said the pair didn’t consult a lawyer when crafting the contract.
As is true of most sober home operators, they also didn’t reach out to local or state officials. New London zoning regulations don’t address sober living situations. The fire department only inspects rooming houses, or homes with seven or more unrelated occupants. And the state isn’t involved because the homes don’t provide addiction treatment.
“There is no blueprint,” Montgomery said, noting that he was in line to get both homes certified with the nonprofit Community Speaks Out. “But even (certification), does that mean all this other stuff is not going to happen? It’s happening everywhere. The world is still trying to figure this out.”
Not as it seemed
Thanks to referrals from Stonington Institute, a total of 10 men quickly filled both houses.
But soon Montgomery had an issue on his hands: With no 24-hour supervision, it was tough to ensure residents were going to meetings, abiding by curfew and staying clean.
Without consistent rent payments — many residents don’t land jobs until a few weeks in — it wasn’t feasible to employ someone full time.
Determined, Montgomery said he spent as much time at the houses as he could.
Sometimes he would leave his job at the Waterford Country School to drive a resident to an appointment. Other times he would send residents to a friend’s restaurant for a free meal.
“There’s not one person that’s come through that house who I haven’t personally helped,” he said.
Montgomery and several residents agreed that things went downhill when Montgomery got diverticulitis in November.
Three of the residents have since left the houses. A fourth is going through the eviction process. Those who spoke for this report did so on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution as they described inconsistent and disorganized living situations at 42 and 47 Prest.
Once biweekly, meetings dwindled to Mondays, often featuring long stories from Montgomery about how he overcame his own troubles.
Montgomery sometimes scribbled rent receipts on printer paper rather than carbon copy receipt paper.
The operators administered urine tests sporadically, if at all.
Some residents stayed, even after they repeatedly abused drugs or alcohol. Home administrators quickly kicked others out.
“It’s not only dangerous for that person but for everyone else,” one resident said of being exposed to drug and alcohol use.
“Nothing against (Montgomery or McGraw),” another resident said, “but they went off track. They promised the world and did almost nothing.”
Conflict of interest?
City resident Adam Foley, who is active in the recovery community, said the homes were in disarray before November.
He came to the Friendship House in August, but left one night when he learned it didn’t accept Basic Needs — a DMHAS program that helps pay for sober living — and offered little supervision on a street known for drug proliferation.
When he returned the next day to get his belongings, they were gone.
Montgomery admitted to taking Foley’s things for ransom — he wanted to be compensated for the few weeks Foley had stayed, he said.
When Foley involved police, Montgomery eventually returned his stuff to the station.
“We found out that, yeah, that has to be done a different way,” Montgomery said. “When we find out, we do it differently.”
In an Oct. 5 email, Foley reported the incident to DMHAS. Foley, who didn’t yet have his belongings back, said he had gone to the police station six times over the situation.
It was around then that DMHAS told McGraw, then-director of Recovery Community Affairs, not to be involved in the operation of a home because it could present a conflict of interest.
Yet a letter The Day obtained shows McGraw still presented himself as CEO of Soft Landing Inc., a business associated with the Friendship House, as recently as Dec. 20.
Earlier this month, Montgomery took the fall for McGraw’s involvement, saying he asked McGraw to come back around when he got sick. Montgomery, however, believed Soft Landing to be a nonprofit — it’s registered as a business in Connecticut — and said he wasn’t aware of the Dec. 20 letter.
McGraw stopped working for DMHAS on May 11, officials said. The Office of State Ethics is looking into whether McGraw violated policies.
McGraw could not be reached to comment about Soft Landing, or his involvement with the homes.
Emotions running high
After Ramsdell died April 10 in the kitchen of 47 Prest St., McGraw, Montgomery and the residents discussed the situation — a conversation one of the residents recorded and shared with The Day.
They ended up blaming one another.
Montgomery and McGraw alleged the men knew Ramsdell and others were using but didn’t tell.
“Our whole plan was to give back,” Montgomery said in the meeting after Ramsdell’s death. “Our whole plan was to help people.”
He plunged into a lengthy and expletive-laden tale of his youth, of not being accepted by extended family, of finally feeling like he was doing something worthy.
“Y’all (expletive) up my plan,” he said, sobbing.
But residents The Day interviewed said they often told Montgomery and McGraw when they saw drug use.
In the case of Ramsdell, they said everyone learned he had gotten high at the same time: he announced it at the Monday meeting the day before he died. That day, April 9, became a point of contention at the Friendship House.
Montgomery and McGraw said they believed Ramsdell had used marijuana. Residents of the home were sure it was something harder, such as heroin.
Residents and Montgomery also said they heard Ramsdell say he was hearing voices and would kill himself if he could.
Montgomery said he spent time with Ramsdell after the meeting, asking about the drug use and suicidal thoughts. Residents questioned why Montgomery didn’t try for an emergency committal.
“If he was destitute, I would have taken him to the hospital,” Montgomery told The Day. “But by the end of it, we were laughing and joking. He gave me a high-five.”
Ramsdell had agreed to go to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in the morning.
“Never in a billion years would I have thought he was going to go up the street and get some drugs,” Montgomery said.
In a recorded conversation with McGraw, one resident said he believed McGraw knew Ramsdell had used something harder than marijuana. That conversation ended with McGraw asking the resident a question: “How many bags do you need to pack your (expletive)?”
In the coming days, Montgomery and Bliven — she owns one of the homes — approached the same resident, wondering why he hadn’t left. The resident asked why he was being kicked out. Montgomery and Bliven said they didn’t need a reason.
“It’s in your contract,” Montgomery said in a recording of one of the conversations. “If I decide that you can’t be here, what would make you think that you could stay here?”
In another recording, Bliven tells the resident he needs to vacate by the end of the day.
“As quick as possible doesn’t work for us,” she says. “We need you to just respect the fact that this isn’t working and just leave.”
In truth, sober home operators are beholden to the same rules as any landlord.
“Any time you bring anyone into your home, whether a technical tenant who has signed a lease or even a family member whom you’ve granted occupancy, in order to get them out, it’s always eviction,” said Yona Gregory, an attorney who represents landlords.
“There’s no other way to get someone out of a house once they consider it their residence,” she said.
Gregory said it doesn’t matter that the Friendship House contract said residents could be kicked out for any reason. She also noted that only a homeowner can evict someone.
“You can write whatever you want,” she said. “But if it’s illegal, then that part of the agreement ... that’s not valid.”
Gregory encouraged those who are getting into the sober home business to contact her with questions.
“The bottom line is: There’s a proper way to do it,” she said. “The procedure might not be so tenant-friendly if all landlords operated within the procedure.”
After the 42 Prest St. resident involved police in early May, Bliven began the eviction process, citing nonpayment of rent and a dirty urine screen. Until police told her, she said, she didn’t know she needed to do that.
A misdemeanor arrest
On May 7, just shy of 5 p.m., police again came to 42 Prest St. McGraw had entered the room of a resident and debated whether the tenant had paid rent through May.
Captured on cellphone video, McGraw is seen moving toward the resident and slapping the phone out of his hands.
In an incident report, police said they informed McGraw that residents do not have to pay rent during the eviction process.
Officers charged McGraw with disorderly conduct and assigned him a $500 bond, which he posted. Arraigned Monday, he is next due in New London Superior Court on Thursday.
Lisa Cote Johns, cofounder of the nonprofit Community Speaks Out, confirmed that Montgomery began the voluntary certification process by coming to a training session earlier this year. She said her next step would be to visit the Prest Street homes and explain how Montgomery could bring them into compliance.
It’s now unclear whether that will happen.
Bliven has revoked her “in-kind donation” and asked Montgomery to stop using 42 Prest St.
New residents have filled 47 Prest St. but, since Ramsdell’s death, Montgomery has considered closing it, too.
He said he plans to discuss his options with a lawyer.
“I understand most people are just trying to make money off these guys, but that’s not me,” he said. “Maybe I got in over my head trying to help.”