ATLANTIC CITY — The residents of the all-women sober living home on Tallahassee Avenue have little doubt about what would happen if a local ordinance is enforced and Serenity House is shut down.

“If there wasn’t Serenity House, I would be back on the streets, I would be back homeless, if I even made it that long. Or I’d just be dead,” said Haylee LaTour, a 22-year-old resident.

An Atlantic City ordinance passed in 2018 limits the proximity at which sober living homes can operate from one another to 660 feet, putting the residents of Serenity House at risk of being without a place to live.

“It baffles me, and it’s just so sad that everyone’s going on about this heroin epidemic and this drug epidemic and (saying), ‘What can we do?’ Well, here’s a group of people that are giving Atlantic City a solution. And they’re still fighting us,” said Angela Porreca, 29, who works for Serenity after completing her recovery stay. “If these residents are displaced, that’s dozens and dozens and dozens of people that are going to end up on the street just a couple of blocks down the road.”

The home on Tallahassee is operated by the Hansen Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit that runs sober living homes throughout South Jersey. The house was purchased in 2019 for $395,000, and residents moved into the home June 1.

Jennifer Hansen, co-founder of the nonprofit, and the group’s attorney, Keith Davis, said the Atlantic City ordinance — the only such law in New Jersey — violates the federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Davis said his client does not want to take legal action and would prefer to come to an amicable solution with the city.

Some homeowners in the Chelsea neighborhood, with the support of their ward councilman, Jesse Kurtz, are pushing to have the ordinance enforced and limit the amount of sober living homes that are clustered in the neighborhood.

In the meantime, Hansen has received an order to vacate the home on Tallahassee. The city has also put a stop work order on several small maintenance issues in the home, including the air-conditioning and some electrical and plumbing work, said Terri Burns, director of operations for the Hansen Foundation.

Hanging in the balance are the residents of Serenity House, who all agree that the supervised, structured support model used by the Hansen Foundation has been the difference in maintaining sobriety and working toward long-term recovery.

The maximum stay for a Serenity resident is 18 months. All residents are routinely drug-tested and must be employed after a set period of time.

Melissa Loupos, 29, assistant director for Hansen and an alumna of Serenity House, said the residents benefit from assistance and support with basic life skills and self-care.

“When you’re new in recovery and you have lived so long with a substance in your body, even (simple things like) taking a shower or cooking food, everything you did under the influence, you have to relearn how to do anything,” she said.

But the biggest benefit the recovery home provides is a support system, the residents said.

“It’s what we need. It’s not an end-all, be-all here. No one is going to live here for the rest of their lives. But it really is pointing us in the right direction,” said Reinna Rebetje, 24. “It’s a great stepping stone before we make that next move in our lives.”

Loupos, who has been sober for 6½ years and worked for Serenity House for five, said if the prospect of losing her safe place at Serenity was in jeopardy while she was a resident, it would have had devastating effects.

“There’s not a doubt in my mind that it would monumentally shake my entire life. The recovery foundation that I built would be completely shattered,” she said. “I don’t believe that I would be alive today if that happened six years ago. I’m not confused about that. There’s no middle-of-the-road solution in recovery today. It’s change or die.”

Burns said Serenity House residents “just want to be good neighbors” and welcomed a discussion with anyone who wants to know more about how sober living homes operate in a community.

“We are human beings. Yes, we are sick people and we’ve made mistakes. We’re not perfect. But, at the end of the day, if we recover, we have a lot to offer and give to other people,” Loupos said. “I found that foundation in a recovery house and people need that and deserve the right to live in a recovery house.”

Contact: 609-272-7222 ddanzis@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressDanzis

Staff Writer

I cover Atlantic City government and the casino industry since joining The Press in early 2018. I formerly worked as a politics & government reporter for NJ Herald and received the First Amendment: Art Weissman Memorial NJPA Award two years in a row.

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