On the surface the facts appear ironically damning: five drug overdose deaths in 17 months and a sixth suspected O.D. death at a tax-exempt facility for recovering drug addicts called “Our Safe Place.”
It doesn’t help that the operators of Our Safe Place, or OSP, have described it as “a transitional residential living facility” — even though they’ve been operating it as such without the required permit for more than a dozen years — for men who have completed drug and/or alcohol treatment “under the care of trained professionals and a caring, supportive staff.”
But the owners of the three-story apartment building at 740 N. 29th St. point to the hundreds of men they say have successfully used OSP as a stepping stone to permanent sobriety. Many had criminal records and were homeless, mentally ill and unemployed, and they would otherwise be sleeping under bridges, wasting away in prison or dying on the streets from their addictions.
“If this place was to close there would be 50 guys homeless, out on the street,” said Andrew Liss, program director at OSP.
“We accept people no one else will accept.”
On Thursday, Liss will appear before the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals to formally request permission to operate OSP as a transitional housing facility after a recent order from the Department of Neighborhood Services to cease operation.
A transitional housing facility does not provide a level of care or treatment that requires licensing, but it does require approval of the board and a corresponding permit.
What OSP requires is that residents remain clean and sober, abide by a curfew, keep their living quarters clean, and treat each other with respect, Liss said.
“We do not provide treatment,” said Bonnie Liss, executive director of OSP and Andrew’s mother. “We are a housing facility.”
But not all residents of the facility have abided by the house rules.
Reports from the Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office detail the deaths of six men ages 28 to 52 at OSP since January 2017 and the fatal drug overdose of a 36-year-old man in 2013.
Heroin was a factor in six of the deaths, morphine in another, and all the victims had histories of heroin addiction.
All were referred to OSP by the Milwaukee County Drug Court, certified treatment programs or privately, its operators said.
Their rents were paid by the county’s Community Access to Recovery Services or through private means, such as disability, other public benefits or employment, they said.
But the succinct message on the OSP website describing how it provides “stable housing for people in recovery of drugs and alcohol” along with its “Home, Help, Hope” logo might have given a false sense of reassurance to the families of those who died there.
“They call themselves a transitional facility, but his friends thought it was kind of a joke of a place,” said Lisa Stricklin, whose son Trevor Michael Stricklin, 28, was found dead from a heroin overdose in his room at OSP Jan. 2, 2017, with track marks on his arms and syringes in the trash.
She acknowledged her son’s addiction and former homelessness but condemned what she called a lack of oversight at OSP.
“I met Andy when I dropped (her son) off; otherwise I never noticed any staff,” she said.
“There’s no consequences there for people using drugs.”
Andrew Liss admitted he and his mother are the only staff at OSP and that the building’s entrance is not staffed 24 hours a day.
He added that the entrance is monitored by video recording, that residents must sign in and out and that they are subject to drug screening and a search of their rooms if found to be circumventing curfew or in-and-out procedures.
He also said other residents have overdosed at OSP but were successfully administered Narcan, which is openly accessible in the lobby if needed.
“I’ve found those bodies. It’s no fun,” Andrew Liss said.
“When someone calls and asks me to check on (a resident), I don’t know what I’ll find behind that door.”
Kevin Dee May, 50, suffered his seventh and fatal overdose at OSP on July 6, 2017, about two months after being referred there by a drug abuse rehabilitation facility, according to a medical examiner’s report and his son, Andrew May.
Kevin May, who was working and paying his own rent, had failed a urine drug screening for heroin two weeks before and admitted he was using heroin at the time.
Drug paraphernalia was found in his backpack when he was found slumped over in a chair by his roommate.
“When we were cleaning his room, we found heroin,” Andrew May said.
“There’s no trained staff there, no supervision. I walked in there with a bag and nobody stopped me.
“The only thing (Andrew Liss) knew how to do was give them Narcan.”
When asked about the reference to “trained professionals” in the summary on OSP’s 2016 nonprofit tax return, Bonnie Liss said, “We expect people in the building to be receiving recovery services from trained staff.
“I suppose anyone could take that statement and read it any way they like.
“It doesn’t mean they receive treatment at this facility.”
Ronald Grant, 48, who said he’s been sober three years after leaving OSP about two years ago, believes the rash of fatal opioid overdoses there is a direct result of the opioid epidemic and the spike in such deaths nationwide.
“The reason we probably got five overdoses here is the population is all addicts,” said Grant, who recently earned an associate degree in human services with an emphasis on drug and alcohol abuse counseling from Milwaukee Area Technical College.
“They have deaths at the hospital because they got the sickest patients,” said Grant, who graduated with honors.
Ronald Grant, who recently graduated from Milwaukee
Ronald Grant, who recently graduated from Milwaukee Area Technical College with honors, credits Our Safe Place for his sobriety. (Photo: Ronald Grant)
Grant said he had been using heroin since he was 18 and that he owes his sobriety to Andrew and Bonnie Liss, who, for a time, let him stay at OSP rent-free.
“These are good people,” Grant said.
“They’re accepting people nobody else will accept, people with severe mental illnesses and drug addictions.
“There’s no way they can prevent somebody from using drugs. They can only do what they can do.
“At least they’re trying to help people.”
The Milwaukee County Behavior Health Division — which contracts with OSP for “bridge housing” — and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 2812 W. Wisconsin Ave., are supporting Andrew and Bonnie Liss in their efforts to obtain the occupancy permit.