Lombard couple make sober living real for heroin-free roommates

Brad Gerke and Jessica Alvarez are further into recovery from heroin than some will ever be.

They're not tempted to use the drug every day. They have jobs. They're engaged to be married Oct. 1. Their lives are at a stable juncture, so now it's time to give back.

Gerke and Alvarez, both 31, have turned the Lombard home they rent into a small-scale sober house, hosting over the past four years 24 other recovering heroin addicts - 20 of whom have stayed away from the powerful opioid, Gerke says.

They call their dwelling a “seven-eighths house,” usually hosting roommates who have been sober for more than a year.

“It's right before you venture off on your own,” Alvarez said.

Roommates are easy to find. Through a network of 12-step recovery programs, Gerke and Alvarez meet dozens of people in various stages of recovery - some with criminal pasts, some with shaky employment history and nearly all who could benefit from the camaraderie of housemates who've been down the heroin road and emerged to tell the tale.

“Temptation is nonexistent today,” said Dan LaRose, 30, one of the two tenants now staying with Gerke and Alvarez.

“I just don't want loneliness.”

In a state where some sober houses run by social service agencies are closing because of a lack of state funding, such self-funded communal setups fill a gap between rehab and independence.

“It was great to have another place to go to because I'd have been done for if there wasn't,” said Mike Jacobsen, 25, the other tenant, who moved in early this year when his time at an Addison treatment center's recovery home ran out.

“The money was a big thing. I would not have been able to afford my own place.”

The sober house is a place for recovering users to bind together for added strength - be it financial, spiritual or social.

But the couple say their house also is a beacon, offering another side of the heroin story - the side where the one-time addict doesn't die but lives “a second life.”

“We know scores of men and women who are peaceful and at ease,” Alvarez said. “There is hope that people do recover.”

  Brad Gerke, pictured, and Jessica Alvarez of Lombard have turned their house into a sober living environment for people recovering from heroin addiction. Daniel White/

No white knuckles

The scent of coffee wafts from the kitchen. There's a list assigning chores on the fridge. (Alvarez has a rule that everyone must clean.) The furniture is mismatched and the decor varied. Among it is a cross with one word: “Journey.”

The front door of the ranch house opens to a room that seems far too expansive for the small structure, a space often filled with 12-step sponsors, all helping each other stay clean.

Participation in a 12-step program is the main rule at the sober house, where all tenants must go through an interview, sign a contract and pay $120 a week in rent.

There is no curfew. Tenants can sleep somewhere else twice a week and have an overnight guest once a week. They're past the regulations at some sober living facilities that prohibit common products like mouthwash (because it contains alcohol) and aerosols (because they can produce a high). They're past the typical portrayals of recovering addicts outrunning heroin by a step at a time.

“It's not always white-knuckling it, where we're struggling or talking about struggling fighting cravings,” Alvarez said. “It's not a struggle anymore. We're at a point where we can enjoy life and just laugh at ourselves and be us.”

It wasn't always that way for the couple and their tenants. Alvarez, who works as an office assistant in Downers Grove, spent more than two years in sober houses run by Serenity House in nearby Addison.

  Brad Gerke takes calls from parents trying to find help for children who are addicted to heroin as he volunteers with A Man in Recovery Foundation. Daniel White/

Gerke, who works for Banyan Treatment Center, based in Florida but with a location in Naperville, bounced from couch to couch.

He paused for a while at a sober house in Glendale Heights similar to the one he now runs, but he would live anywhere he could, with mixed success.

“I tried getting sober in my car once,” Gerke said. “That didn't work.”

Heroin addicts say they often burn bridges and overstay their welcome while they're using, so going back to live with family isn't always an option. That's part of why Gerke and Alvarez don't limit the time their tenants can stay. Most stick around for six months to two years at the house, which can host three of them at a time.

“We don't believe in end dates,” Gerke said.

During recovery, former addicts may forge sober friendships and work experience miles from where they once lived.

  Dan LaRose, left, and Mike Jacobsen are the current tenants in a Lombard sober house run by Brad Gerke and Jessica Alvarez. The couple say the house is a final step in communal sober living for former heroin users nearly ready to live on their own. Daniel White/

LaRose, for one, is from Elmwood Park but now works in Bensenville managing shipping for a warehouse that holds imported goods while they clear customs.

Jacobsen is from Round Lake Heights but now sponsors eight or nine men in a DuPage County 12-step program and works operating a plastic slitter machine at a company in Elk Grove Village.

“I built such a connection with the people out here,” he said. Without a sober living option once his time in the Serenity House program ended, “I would have lost all of that.”

'Support unit'

The type of sober house Gerke and Alvarez run isn't state-regulated, nor does it require a state license. So the state Department of Human Services has no official count of how many are operating.

“They're not providing recovery treatment and they don't require a professional staff,” said Marianne Manko, department spokeswoman. “They're simply there as a support unit for people with addictions to integrate themselves into a living environment that would be conducive to them remaining sober.”

Facilities that do provide professional treatment, often called halfway houses or recovery homes, must be licensed through the Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse. Licensed facilities offer additional support, including therapy from credentialed counselors who help addicts address the triggers and behaviors behind their substance abuse.

Coming straight from a 28-day residential rehab program, many recovering addicts need that level of assistance, said Frank Harris, director of clinical services for Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. In Elgin, the charity hosted 18 men at a time for up to a year, helping them “ease back into society” from a halfway house until the facility closed early this year because of the state budget impasse.

“A lot of claimed sober living facilities are just a place for you to live in a safe, sober environment,” Harris said. “We did offer that plus the clinical services.”

Without the help of professional clinicians, sober house operators should take precautions to maintain a structured environment or risk relapse for themselves or their tenants, said Dianna Feeney, executive director of Serenity House, where Alvarez and Jacobsen began their recovery journeys.

“The best environment for sober living would be that everyone in the home is actively working on recovery and highly motivated,” Feeney said. “If somebody, perhaps, is not in that same frame of mind, they can bring other people down very, very fast.”

  Jessica Alvarez says the house proves there is hope for a life after addiction. Daniel White/

'On life's terms'

When somebody goes down, it's the worst, Gerke says. Four residents have gone back to using heroin since the couple's sober house opened.

“You always see a relapse,” Alvarez said. “It's very evident. We've been around the game long enough to know.”

The tenants have understood, packed up and moved out. Each vacancy has been filled with a new tenant, usually a man, although the house has hosted three women over the years.

The pace of life is real at this Lombard sober house, which looks no different from the others around it.

Some late-night talks about life go so deep, everyone wonders where the time went. They're bummed about the Blackhawks. “South Park” will be on the flat-screen in the fall. Texting conversations cover such crucial topics as who has to leave for work earliest the next morning and whose car is blocking the driveway.

Early one Friday evening, Jacobsen and LaRose are on their phones, making plans for the night. A pot of coffee is brewing, and the roommates are discussing what it means to be them - and to be sober.

“Sober living is a crucial part of recovery,” Alvarez said. “You learn to live on life's own terms.”

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