RUMSON: OXFORD HOUSE REACHES OUT

61 so ward rumson 101413“Not the best mix” of residents formed the initial population at the Oxford House when it opened in Rumson in August, a facility official told neighbors Tuesday night. One of the residents died of a drug overdose. (Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

HOT-TOPIC_02The addiction-recovery residence that popped up unannounced in a quiet Rumson neighborhood this summer “did not get off to a good start,” an official with the organization that sponsors the facility told residents Tuesday night.

“We haven’t been good neighbors,” said George Kent, a regional manager with Oxford House, “and I take full responsibility for that.”

Standing at a lectern in the nave of St. George’s by the River Episcopal Church just a block from the Oxford House on South Ward Avenue, Kent fielded sometimes hostile questions from about 40 residents of the West Park neighborhood, hoping to establish a dialogue in the aftermath of a drug overdose death at the house.

The house functions as a clearinghouse for recovering drug and alcohol addicts, but that use was unknown to neighbors before a 25-year-old resident died of a drug overdose on October 13. Its presence became a flashpoint, prompting angry neighbors to pack a borough council meeting and demand official action.

Tuesday night, residents peppered Kent with questions about the signature on the lease for the house, relapse rates among residents, overnight-guest policies and more. One neighbor referred repeatedly to the home’s residents as “junkies,” while another badgered Kent with pointed questions, at one point demanding that he use the name of the deceased resident instead of referring to him as the victim.

“Passions are running a little high,” said neighborhood resident Jim Sylvester, who moderated the 90-minute discussion.

The death of the Holmdel man “definitely rocked the house,” Kent said, and the first group to occupy it “was not the best mix of gentlemen,” he said.

But current residents “are on their best behavior,” he said.

Kent said Oxford House, a Maryland-based addiction-treatment facility with hundreds of homes across the country, including about 20 in Monmouth County, had assigned a paid staffer to live in the Rumson facility, which has nine beds and is currently home to six recovering alcohol and drug addicts.

Having outreach coordinator Mike LaVecchia in the house “is part of the solution,” he said.

Several neighbors pressed Kent on whether Oxford House would agree to having candidates for residence in the house submit to criminal background checks, with the results available only to police Chief Scott Paterson. Citing the organization’s own literature, they said some 70 percent of new residents have done jail time.

LaVecchia said that includes men who have spent as little as a night in jail for drunk-driving arrests.

“In this town, you can’t coach basketball” without undergoing a criminal records check, said Sylvester, an attorney. “Why is it not reasonable to conduct a criminal background check” of prospective residents?

“We don’t do agency-style background checks,” Kent said. Oxford instead instead relies on pre-admission interviews and post-admission observation to guard against harboring drug dealers and other criminals. But he pledged to take the suggestion to his superiors as early as Wednesday.

Afterward, several residents thanked Kent for appearing. But acrimony lingered, too. One woman accused Kent of having lied a the outset of the Q&A when he said he didn’t know who had signed the lease: he later said he did know, but was prevented by privacy policies from disclosing the name. He apologized to her for lying.

The way Oxford moved in, without talking to neighbors or town officials, was “sneaky,” another woman said during the event. “This is what has upset the neighbors.”