On a hot and sticky summer day, the owner of a recovery home in Duquesne opened its doors to host an open house and block party to all the children in the neighborhood.
Colorful streamers and flags were stretched across the street and connected to the yellow, brick house. Booths with carnival games, hot dogs and lemonade were stationed on both sides of the street. Music by Drake and Post Malone blasted as kids danced on the hot pavement.
The owner of the house, Keisha Bryant, stood on the front porch, megaphone in hand to raffle school supplies. She sported a purple shirt that in white letters read: Penny’s House.
Penny’s House is a three-quarter way recovery home that Bryant opened with her savings in 2017.
Now serving women, she originally opened it as a place where men with substance abuse problems can get back on their feet after they’ve left treatment or incarceration.
The men living there last summer during this open house were required to help by operating the booths lining the street. Bryant hoped the event would build community and give the residents in recovery a chance to serve as positive role models.
Recovery homes in general have drawn criticism for being harmful to residents if badly run.
Bryant, who hopes to expand into a licensed facility with on-site treatment, views Penny’s House as a stabilizing force for people trying to improve their lives and become part of a community.
“You can see people’s progress and their development from when they come in and the struggle of the challenges that life possess,” Bryant said. “Recovery is not easy.”
When Keisha Bryant was a child, her grandmother would save a jar of pennies for each of the grandchildren and give it to them when they’d visit her home in Baltimore every summer. Each child would count a set of pennies and roll them into paper.
For Bryant, memories of the small copper coins followed her into adulthood and inspired her to design a sink lined with pennies, now installed in the master bathroom of Penny’s House.
Bryant, 40, bought the 1,800-square-foot house in 2015. It was in shambles. She invested a large chunk of her savings from when she worked as a hostess at the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel.
Much of the remodeling was done by Bryant herself with helpers she hired on Craigslist. The doors to Penny’s House officially opened in December 2017.
Bryant’s interest in helping people in recovery is tied to her own struggle with addiction.
She said she started smoking cigarettes at age 10 when she lived in North Carolina. As she got older, her drug of choice became marijuana. Then, opioids. But, above all, she was drawn to alcohol.
In 2013, she was charged with drug possession with intent to deliver. She was accepted by the Allegheny County drug court program as an alternative to an 18-month sentence.
She violated probation by using drugs again. She was then sentenced to eight months in jail and six months in the female offenders program, which offers counseling, substance abuse case management and other services to female offenders.
Her sense of self-worth plummeted.
After being released from the Allegheny County Jail, Bryant realized she owed a debt to society.
She decided to pay it by creating Penny’s House.
“We should be the change we want to see,” Bryant said.
“So often you hear people complain about what’s wrong with the world and not really doing anything to change it.”
Recovery homes in Pennsylvania
Recovery homes, also known as three-quarter houses, are intended to give stable housing to people recovering from addiction. But they’ve also been criticized at times for prioritizing profit over the well-being and safety of residents.
“They sort of run the gamut from being really well-managed and tightly managed to much more freely managed,” said Jennifer Smith, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs [DDAP].
The state uses two categories to distinguish between housing for people in recovery: halfway houses and recovery houses. A halfway house is licensed, regulated, monitored and inspected through DDAP.
Halfway homes are not only a place to live. They also offer treatment programs.
Recovery homes, on the other hand, don’t offer treatment, Smith said. They’re just places to live.
In 2017, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that unregulated recovery homes in the city were facing backlash because of the living conditions inside and the lack of structure. The loose framework can cause someone suffering from addiction to regress in their journey in sobriety.
DDAP is working on a new licensing program for recovery homes that is scheduled to be implemented in December 2019. Recovery homes will be required to get a license if they want to receive referrals from state-funded agencies or to receive federal or state funding to provide recovery home services.
Bryant is planning to apply for licensing. She recently hired a staff member to help get her records in order for the upcoming program.
Bryant, who currently has four residents at the house, said she wanted to create more of a “home” rather than a facility at Penny’s House.
Rent is $425 for a shared two-person bedroom. She can break even with four residents, she said, and feels like she could manage the home with up to seven residents.
Bryant said she teaches structure to her residents by requiring the individuals to be employed or to be active in volunteer work. Residents are also required to do chores around the house on their days off and keep their rooms clean. Bryant keeps a white board in the dining room with each resident’s schedule and assigns chores accordingly. She tries to help build the foundation of recovery by encouraging regular attendance to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, which she herself still participates in.
“Recovery is a personal responsibility,” Bryant said. “However, I do try to hold them accountable.”
Bryant said Penny’s House has a zero tolerance policy for drug or alcohol use in the house. If an occupant is caught using once, they are immediately asked to leave to preserve a drug-free environment for others in recovery. That policy is common in recovery homes, though it’s also controversial in the drug treatment field because it penalizes individuals who relapse by taking away their housing stability.
All other rules follow a three-strikes policy, with a verbal warning first and then a written warning. If rules are violated a third time, the individual will be asked to leave.
Recently, Bryant made a switch to running Penny’s House as a women-only home. She said she noticed a lack of housing for women in recovery.
But the five-bedroom house was originally opened as a place for men.
Bryant said she wanted to help men find positive roles in the community. She noted the disproportionate rate of incarceration of black males. According to sentencing data, black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated in the United States, compared to white men.
Bryant said she believes these statistics have “challenged” her majority black community and resulted in a lack of father figures.
“I think it is important for fathers to step up and, you know, be a role model for their children, and with recovery, they’re able to do so.” Bryant said. “There are so many single mothers out there that are doing the job themselves because the men are locked up in jail.”
Addiction impacts people of all races, Bryant noted, and she points to her supportive friendship with Mark Glashauser as contributing to one of the biggest success stories of Penny’s House.
Glashauser, a white man in recovery, has recently connected with both of his children. His teenage daughter lives in Wisconsin, and his adult son is in Central Pennsylvania.
Glashauser was removed from his daughter’s life after being sentenced to 10 years in a federal penitentiary for carjacking in New Orleans. She was an infant then. Glashauser described the separation from his daughter, now a teenager, as the “worst thing” to have happened to him because of his drug addiction.
Glashauser said he was his daughter’s primary caregiver before being sentenced. He said the mother of the child was incarcerated shortly after her birth. She died from an overdose, he said, and his daughter was placed in the foster care system.
He said his daughter’s adoptive family initially kept them separated because of his criminal background. But then the family agreed to allow them to send text messages back and forth.
Glashauser has worked as a lawn maintenance worker at schools in the area. And through that work, he’s developed a passion for gardening. He even planted and maintained a garden with Bryant’s help in the summer months of 2018. It had towering 6-foot sunflowers, red tomatoes and even corn stalks. With Glashauser gone, Bryant is planning to tend the garden herself this summer.
Though Bryant’s long-term goal is to expand into a halfway home setting with a fully equipped staff and medical personnel, she doesn’t want to lose the household dynamic.
“I just believe that a house is not a home until you are comfortable being near and comfortable with the individuals that you have around you,” Bryant said.
Kat Procyk is a former PublicSource visuals fellow. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story was fact-checked by Harinee Suthakar.