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A new direction

Published Oct. 12, 2005

Fear mixed with a few rumors and a bit of controversy are threatening to rip apart a Pinellas Park neighborhood.

The controversy centers on whether four houses in Fairlawn Park should be leased _ by a private owner _ to Sisters in Recovery, a non-profit program for women who are battling drug and alcohol addictions.

Twenty women from the program now call the houses home.

The women's presence in this 33-year-old community of two- and three-bedroom family homes has given some longtime residents nightmares of declining property values, increased crime and the possibility of a new trend in their back yards.

"It feels like there is a barracuda in the neighborhood," said Carolyn Kellogg, who has lived in Fairlawn Park since the community was created and lives two doors away from one of the houses. "I know the homes here aren't very affluent and I realize it's better for the women to be working on their lives, but I'd rather not have Fairlawn Park turned into a drug rehabilitation area."

But to tune out the lure of drugs and alcohol, many of the women say they have to find an environment where alcohol abuse is not rampant and drug dealers do not anchor every corner.

Fairlawn Park is that place, according to Andy Siegel, a Largo man who has spent about $300,000 since January buying the homes.

Plans are under way for a fifth home in Fairlawn Park.

"The message that is being given to them is that "even though you're trying to get off of crack and trying to have drug-free babies, you still have to go back where you came from.' That's wrong," Siegel said.

City officials say for now they can only watch while residents decide whether to remain on opposite sides of this issue or work through their fears and become neighbors.

"There are no zoning codes violations as far as we know," said City Manager Ron Forbes. "All they are doing is residing in those houses. That's what they were designed for."

Fear and understanding

A year ago Katherine Dixon might have been able to bear the weight of someone's eyes following her every move. She could have even understood why her neighbors would prefer not to have her around.

"My mind was controlled by drugs," said Ms. Dixon, 38, as she cradled her 5-month-old son, Joseph. "I could find the dealers with my eyes closed. . . . That's how bad it was on me. I was self-destructing."

Ms. Dixon and drugs found each other 20 years ago on the streets of Largo. For the past nine months, a mantra of "one day at a time" and a Pinellas Park address have helped Ms. Dixon to jump-start her life.

"I want to get it (life) right this time and be a responsible adult," said Ms. Dixon, who spent 28 days in Future Steps, a chemical dependency program for pregnant women at Metropolitan General Hospital. Women who are referred to Sisters in Recovery homes first complete treatment with Future Steps, also owned by Siegel.

"Going back to Largo would be a struggle," she said. "I'd be faced with the constant dealing in the street, people passing through my yard trying to get to the drugs. I don't have none of that here."

She and Joseph moved into their new home in March. They share the three-bedroom house with four other women.

Each applicant is screened and interviewed by counselors and directors. "These women don't just walk in off the street and say, "I want to live in a recovery home,' " said Robin Lacher, a Sisters in Recovery founder. "The women who move in these houses have demonstrated the greatest desire to get their lives back together."

Those who are approved for the program are placed on a strict curfew. They must attend one 12-step meeting a day and counseling sessions twice a week, and work or be enrolled in a treatment program or school. Women who can afford it pay $100 each month for rent.

Siegel's reasons for lending Sisters in Recovery use of the houses are simple: "They (residents) need to understand that a 28-day program isn't enough. I'm commited to trying to help these women get started with their lives again."

Concerns and fairness

David Killian doesn't want to be accused of not understanding. After all, he did sell Siegel one of the houses now leased to Sisters in Recovery even though he knew the house would be used "by some type of hospital program," he said. And unlike other longtime residents, he has talked with some of his new neighbors.

But still the fears persist, Killian said.

"The girls I've met seem like good people but they have their own problems," Killian said. "They're not going to take care of the property the same way a single-family resident would."

Siegel and city officials say no complaints have been lodged against the women. Yet some residents say it's only a matter of time. "The fact that they're in a drug program means we may have trouble," said Ms. Kellogg, who recently took her concerns before the City Council.

To resent the comments of Kellogg and others would be easy, but unfair, said Marge P., one of the women living in the homes who asked that her last name not be used.

What she resents is this: "Just because we're recovering addicts doesn't mean we don't know how to be neighbors," said Marge P., a 29-year-old former drug addict from St. Petersburg. She said she has been clean for six months.

Nonetheless, Marge P. and Ms. Dixon have considered finding another place to call home. But they say their mission will not allow them to bow out of this battle.

"We're trying to break the chain of drugs and alcohol so that our kids don't grow up to abuse and commit crimes," said Marge P. with her 13-week-old son Daniel asleep on her shoulder. "Sooner or later, we're going to have to stop all the whispering and find a way to live together."