A fresh start

Recovering alcoholic John West has been sober for two years; now he has a job and is involved with community and family

Stevens Square resident John West moved into Lydia Apartments when it opened two years ago, his belongings in just two suitcases. By the time he got there, he was ready to give up. The recovering alcoholic had lost his job and his home and was estranged from his family.

Now, 60-year-old West is off welfare, has a job, is active in the community and spends time with his family.

In fact, he’s proud of his tidy corner apartment – the biggest in the 40-unit building, he boasts. It has all the basic amenities and is close to the bus line and museums, theaters and other sites.

Coming to the transitional housing after treatment at a Beacon Program halfway house was a turning point for West. In fact, had it not been for Lydia, he doesn’t know where he’d be today.

“I openly tell people I live at Lydia, that I’m sober and I’m a recovering alcoholic. Lydia saved my life,” said West.

Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation., 1 E. 19th St., operates Lydia Apartments, 1920 LaSalle Ave. It opened Nov. 5, 2003. Today, it is home to 40 tenants, split evenly between men and women and ranging from their late 20s to early 60s.

Before West got there, he was stripped down to the basics. Drinking got in the way of everything: Most of his days he stationed himself on the couch where he watched too much TV, drinking and petting his beloved dog Molly, without getting up unless he had to.

But then he lost his job as the caretaker of a house, the fourth job in a row from which he’d been fired. Later, a desperate West pawned his TV, stereo, CDs, books and other possessions. Suddenly homeless, he was forced to give Molly to the Humane Society.

By then he’d been married and divorced twice. He lost touch with his daughters Andrea and Danielle, who are now 37 and 35 years old, respectively. With little communication with them for over 15 years, he’d missed key moments. “When they went to college, they’d call and I’d be drunk. They got tired of having a drunk dad,” said West.

Daughter Andrea West, now the program director of Tasks Unlimited at Oakwood Residence, 3012 W. 44th St., which offers long-term supportive housing for women with mental illness and their children; she is married and has two children. Previously, she didn’t let her dad spend time with her kids, “I told my dad awhile back that I couldn’t see him except on holidays because he was drinking,” she said.

But now he’s different, “He’s kinder, more reliable, willing to express himself more and he notices how other people are feeling. It matters to him. He just didn’t get it before. He was in his own world,” said Andrea.

West said he’s fortunate to be at Lydia, “Most alcoholics in the last stages either become homeless, die or go to a correctional facility. In the last two years, I’ve seen people go all those directions. There’s a limit to what friends can do.”

Contentious beginning

But Lydia has kept many people off those particular paths, said West.

“Lydia has helped so many people since I’ve been there. There are people who’ve spent time at Lydia, have full-time jobs and got married. It’s important to have a place like Lydia where people can go and get well,” said West.

Doran Hocker, 54, who lives at Lydia has also made changes for the better. He has gotten his driver’s license, hugged his daughter (from whom he was estranged for 25 years), acquired a bed and cooked a Thanksgiving dinner – all goals he had written out for himself.

Former Lydia resident Charla Hultmann is one of those who benefited enough from Lydia to move on. She lives in her own house now. “There are more good days than bad. I don’t have to self-medicate anymore. Life is basically pretty good. Just before I got in here was right before I was going to give up,” she said. “If people don’t believe in miracles, they should meet a few of us here.”

West said most of the tenants aren’t aware of the contention that surrounded Lydia’s opening. Although he has heard about its original unpopularity, he hasn’t felt discriminated against because he lives there.

Protesters once picketed outside of the vacant former nursing home. Some neighbors feared the impact of so much supportive housing in the neighborhood. They wanted supportive housing to be more evenly spread around the city.

Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO) and the Whittier Alliance rejected the proposal for the building, and a private coalition called Citizens for a Balanced Community brought a lawsuit against the Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation.

Some worried about their property values going down. Karen Ives, who has lived in Stevens Square more than 20 years, was among those who protested Lydia. She said the issue was never Lydia itself, but the concentration of supportive housing.

“It was the fact we felt like a dumping ground. None of us doubted the Foundation [or] sponsors or [said] that it wasn’t a need. Do I think something better should’ve been there? Absolutely,” she said, but added, “No one’s saying ‘tear it down.’ It’s become part of the neighborhood. We’re not going to ostracize people who live there or the Foundation. But I’m still concerned about lack of development, crime, image, safety – all reasons we protested.”

Whittier Alliance’s Executive Director Marian Biehn said that Whittier residents were “exhausted and disappointed” by the outcome of the Lydia situation. The concern hasn’t gone away, she said.

Now that Lydia’s doors have been open for two years, it’s difficult to say whether or not the fears were justified. However, more market-rate developments have emerged, post-Lydia. Places like the Greenleaf Lofts, 2000 Nicollet Ave. S., and the Artist Quarter Lofts, 2 E. 26th St. sprang up, while the Semple Mansion, 100-104 W. Franklin Ave. sold last year.

SSCO Executive Director Julie Filapek said, “We feel like there’s a good working relationship between us and management [at Lydia]. Staff doesn’t feel differently about working with those residents than others.”

Filapek added, “Lydia hasn’t been a topic of conversation for a long time. We have an active working relationship with owners and residents who’re volunteers.”

Inside Lydia

An inventory of West’s apartment describes his life until now. It’s sparingly decorated, with used furniture. A lamp near the entrance still bears the original tag that greeted him as a Lydia newcomer – a housewarming gift from staff.

Meaningful newspaper clippings, photos and cards are taped to the walls. Stuffed animals from his childhood sit on top of the couch. Mounted above the couch are drawings of him and his daughters as children.

A coffee cup on the kitchen table pictures Molly. In-progress short stories and his unfinished novel, which he hopes to get back to someday, are heaped inside paper bags.

There’s no TV since that was part of his addiction. From the kitchen window, West gets a full view of the Downtown skyline. Below his window is a community garden in which he has had a hand in cultivating.

During some hours of the day you can also spy a yellow school bus in the parking lot. West, who doesn’t own a car and usually rides his bike everywhere, drives a school bus for First Student, a company that transports students to and from some Minneapolis schools.

He started driving it at the beginning of the school year. “I just love driving the bus. The kids are great. And I enjoy driving. After a couple years of sobriety, having parents and schools trust my ability to drive a bus, that’s a huge boost to my morale. People trust me again. It’s not automatic. I had to earn it,” he said.

He maneuvers the bus through three routes: He delivers kids to Lake Harriet Upper and Lower campuses (4912 Vincent Ave. S. and 4030 Chowen Ave. S.), a charter school called New Visions and Southwest High School, 3414 W. 47th St. His route after school ends also brings him to Roosevelt High School, 4029 28th Ave. S.

It shows he’s proven himself. “You have to have self-confidence while driving the bus, otherwise you’re not going anywhere because it’s so big,” he said.

While he waits for the kids to get out of school at Roosevelt, he runs to the nearby library where he fills his duffel bag with books to read to his grandsons, Jared and Justin.

Calling libraries “underutilized,” West goes everyday. You can have only 50 titles on request at a time. Right now, he has 40. He reads two or three books a week, mostly about people amid change, struggle, relationships, family, confronting yourself and changing for the better.

He just finished James Fray’s “A Million Little Pieces,” about an alcoholic, Jodi Piccoult’s “Vanishing Acts,” and Connie May Fowler’s “The Problem of Murmur Lee.”

West also checked out CDs, including Dar Williams’ “My Better Self” and Joan Baez’s re-released, “Any Day Now.”

Part of his recovery is to keep busy. He founded two support groups at Lydia including Sober Soldiers and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). He serves on a building committee, is active with Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO), created a library inside Lydia and walks the neighborhood as part of SSCO’s watchful Block Patrol. He was also an election judge.

He stays in shape by participating in a Health Partners’ two-year study, which requires him to keep track of how many steps he takes in a day. He signed up after filling out a questionnaire (he loves questionnaires).

As part of the deal, he wears a pedometer wherever he goes. West, who’s thin and soft-spoken, was once overweight. His goal is to take 14,000 steps daily. One week this summer his total reached 130,000 steps. Most mornings, he and several others from Lydia walk to Loring Park and back – about 2,000 steps.

Recording every step he takes is symbolic of his strides as a recovering alcoholic. It’s also a big change from his former life, when practically the only thing he paid attention to was when the liquor store was going to close.

West still has goals he’d like to reach: “When I move out of here and get a new place next year, I’ll get a Springer Spaniel and name it Katie. I can picture my apartment, and I can picture my dog in it.”