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Mark Hayward's City Matters: Center's mission is to get people clean and sober

New Hampshire Union Leader

February 20. 2013 10:34PM
Brian Wheeler sits in an upstairs room of Farnum Center. (MARK HAYWARD/UNION LEADER)

If you wanted to name the intersection of Union and Hanover streets, Salvation Corner would fit.

On the northwest side of the intersection stands the First Congregational Church, where 60 minutes of song, prayer and preaching saves souls. On the southwest corner is the Farnum Center, where 30 days of sobriety saves lives.

For nearly 32 years, the four-story brick building has housed thousands of people as they try to kick a chemical habit.

Its doors are scheduled to close April 1, when the Farnum Center moves to a larger building and grounds, the site of the former Queen City Motor Inn.

But as long as the century-old downtown building remains standing, it will be a landmark for those who have straightened out their lives, or a cave for those who couldn't.

Walk into Farnum and you instantly feel closed in. The reception area offers about 70 square feet and a half-dozen chairs. Hallways are narrow. The floors tilt slightly.

"Some (residents) are homeless. You don't come in here because you have a better place to go," said Brian Wheeler, a Manchester carpenter who has gone through Farnum Center three times, the most recent in 2009.

"If you want to come back here," he said, "it didn't do its job."

Men bed on one floor, women on the other. Two residents share each bedroom. Shared bathrooms are scattered throughout the floors.

"It's worn, it's tired, it's tough," said Cheryl Wilkie, senior vice president of substance-abuse services for Easter Seals, which operates the 30-bed facility.

Some previous residents - physicians, policemen, lawyers - pony up $6,400 for a month's chance to reclaim their lives. But most residents wait six to eight weeks for their turn at a state-subsidized bed.

They come after a spouse has given them one last chance to save a marriage. Or they come from prison, often facing a lengthy sentence if they don't go straight.

The downtown location means that resident can look out their windows and see prostitutes, drug addicts and drunks walking the streets.

"You can see what addiction has to offer," Wheeler said. But that proximity also makes it easy for someone's buddy to toss a fix over the courtyard wall.

"People come here after 20 years of using; they have a master's degree in using," Wheeler said. "Some want to stay clean. Others can BS you; they know what people need to hear."

The 30 days of treatment at Farnum Center are intense. There are meetings: resident meetings; classes; meetings with alumni; group meetings for batterers, parents, angry people, the mentally ill.

Finally, there are rules. In the past, staff forbade residents from touching hallway walls, Wheeler said. Residents can't cross "invisible doors" into rooms where they shouldn't be.

If you become too friendly with someone, they break you up, Wheeler said. And romantic liaisons are a no-no. Violations of simple rules can lead to expulsion.

"If you can't do that simple thing, how are you going to stay clean when you get out of here?" Wheeler said.

Ironically, the new location is well-known among users. When contractors started removing ceiling tiles at the Queen City Motor Inn, they discovered stowed-away hypodermic needles, Wilkie said.

The new, $5.6 million Farnum Center will have an atrium for meetings and 3½ acres of grounds to take a stroll. There will be a pool, wide-screen TV room and gym.

The move allows Farnum Center to incorporate exercise, acupuncture and massage into its programs, Wilkie said. It will be handicap accessible.

And it will also double in size. Plans call for 40 therapeutic beds and 20 medical detox beds, making the Farnum Center the only medical detox facility in the state that is not associated with a hospital, Wilkie said.

"It's going to be a different experience, but it's still going to be rehab," Wheeler said. "It's going to be up to the staff to make it someplace you don't want to come back to."

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