Opioid Crisis: The House Where Addicts Die » Urban Milwaukee
Isiah Holmes
Opioid Crisis

The House Where Addicts Die

Five overdose deaths in eight months at a West Side transitional living center.

By - Apr 18th, 2018 11:06 am
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Our Safe Place. Photo from Facebook.

Our Safe Place. Photo from Facebook.

On January 10th, 2018 Milwaukee counted one of its first heroin overdoses of the year. But 27-year-old David Bray IV didn’t die on the street or even in his own home. He died inside a transitional living facility, or halfway house, called Our Safe Place. Bray’s death was the fifth that’s occurred inside a little-known facility which, Urban Milwaukee has found, is operating illegally without city permits.

Our investigation began with Milwaukee County Medical Examiner documents obtained for our story examining the opioid crisis impact on county zip codes published last month. As we sifted the list of 344 Milwaukee County drug-related deaths, one address appeared four times: 740 N. 29th St. Although this is listed online as the address for Our Safe Place, a half-way house for people on rehabilitation, from the outside the building looks like an ordinary apartment complex.

Bray, the last known person to overdose there, first arrived to Our Safe Place on December 7th 2017. On January 10th 2018, 33 days later, he was found unresponsive by his roommate. A Milwaukee police investigative report obtained by Urban Milwaukee describes the unit as “dirty, unkempt, and slightly cluttered.” The report states the small unit “contained a kitchen, living room made into a bedroom, bathroom, and single bedroom.” Officers recovered paraphernalia from the bedroom “behind the bed near the wall” and “in a box along with a plastic water bottle cap,” the report noted.

Bray was mourned on social media by numerous friends and family, who  remembered him as a caring person. Attempts to contact members of Bray’s family were unsuccessful.

Bray’s death was preceded by four other overdose deaths at Our Safe Place, all in 2017: the fatalities include Trevor Stricklin, aged 28, who died on January 1; Matthew Hall, 52, on June 17; Kevin May, 50,  on July 6; and Tobias Kostowicz, 28, on August 21. The deaths mostly involved heroin, though fentanyl, cocaine and morphine were also detected in autopsies of the dead.

Information about Our Safe Place is very sketchy. It had a website at one point but the link to it is broken. It has a Facebook and Google profile, which provide little information. Founded in 2005, the facility charges $350 a month for program fees and doesn’t provide actual treatment. Our Safe Place states that residents have a curfew, and must stay off drugs while there, and are welcome to stay as long as they desire. One positive reviewer on the Google profile claimed to be a resident for 10 years at Our Safe Place.

Urban Milwaukee contacted District 4 Alderman Robert Bauman, in whose district the facility is located and he had never heard of it. Bauman knew the apartment complex where it is located, but did not know it housed a transitional living center. He was also unaware of the five overdose deaths that occurred there. In response to Urban Milwaukee’s query, he sent Board Of Zoning Appeals inspectors to the home, who confirmed a “transitional living facility” was indeed operating there without permits.

“Since they hold no such permits,” the alderman tells Urban Milwaukee, “they are effectively operating illegally.” Bauman says his office checked back the prior 20 years and found Our Safe Place was never licensed. As a result, the city has now given Our Safe Place 30 days from March 27, 2018 to obtain proper licenses or shut down.

Remarkably, the facility reportedly still maintains an active waiting list of 90 people who want to live there. So, how exactly did Bray and others find their way to an illegally operating living facility?

Rafael Mercado, the activist who created the Milwaukee Heroin Diaries Facebook page, says such facilities are usually found through word-of-mouth. Similar transitional living facilities can be found in other Milwaukee neighborhoods. Although some have good intentions, Marcado says that “unless their monitored, they’re kind of free to do whatever they want.” The average monthly cost to live in these places is around $350-$400, but what residents get in return is questionable. Many, like Our Safe Place, provide a place to live, but not treatment. As a result, “they just seem like a safe place to do drugs,” Mercado says.

After losing four cousins in nine months to overdoses, Mercado wanted to bring awareness to Milwaukee’s epidemic. The organization’s goal is to support Milwaukee’s addicted population, while confronting the city with the stark realities of the opioid crisis. Since beginning Milwaukee Heroin Diaries, Mercado has wanted to shine a spotlight on facilities like Our Safe Place.

“I think they’re a big hustle,” he tells Urban Milwaukee. He notes that city oversight over transitional living facilities has lagged far behind their rapid expansion. A building or house can be bought and then converted to accommodate as many people as possible to maximize profits.

And the result: “People are overdosing, they’re still using drugs, they’re still committing crimes,” Mercado says. Facilities focusing more on profit and less on treatment, he charges, “are taking advantage of a situation, of a hardship for all these addicts.” If left unchecked, he fears these will become popular cash cows in neighborhoods where the opioid crisis is at its worst.

Urban Milwaukee made repeated attempts to contact representatives of Our Safe Place, but the calls were not returned.

Concerns about the facility were also expressed in online reviews of the Our Safe Place Facebook Page. “If you’re going ‘cause of a court order you’ll get by,” a reviewer named Kilk Mannington wrote. “If your going for straight help good luck their mind is on the money…” When Our Safe Place gave itself a 5 star review, Mannington blasted the post, saying “The place is infested with bed bugs and the staff… with no integrity,” while calling it “a death trap” and citing three overdose deaths.

When contacted by Urban Milwaukee, Mannington said he stayed at Our Safe Place after being transferred from another facility, Matt Talbot Treatment Center. Mannington says he believes the deaths at Our Safe Place “could have been prevented.” He says anti-overdose drugs like Narcan were available but weren’t used when needed, and that basic things like paying attention to a resident’s mood or searching their belongings didn’t happen at Our Safe Place.

The three overdoses “were very intellectual men with a good sense about them”, Mannington recalls. They were “very good men, there was no good or even justifiable reason for their deaths.” Some of the dead, he claims, “rotted in their rooms for three days minimum with no one checking on them.”

Mannington feels those in charge of Our Safe Place “are not well trained or fully educated to oversee a building of this magnitude… It’s not professionally run, there’s no doctor present whatsoever.” Mannington also says the workers at Our Safe Place weren’t drug tested alongside residents when medicines came up missing. This, along with a lack of cameras in key areas of the building, made him question the level of security at the facility.

Mannington says Our Safe Place receives funding from Milwaukee County and that addicts are sometimes referred to the facility by county’s Drug Court. Urban Milwaukee was able to confirm that Our Safe Place has gotten county funding. A February 2019 report on contract awards by the Milwaukee County Comptroller show that Our Safe Place had a contract for $250,382 in funding in 2016. This is despite the fact the facility has lacked a city permit and hasn’t been licensed going back 20 years.

Facilities with drug addicts, Mercado notes, can quickly evolve into distribution points for drugs. Other states, particularly Florida, have struggled with similar rehab-focused facilities with questionable records. Providing systematic oversight of these facilities, Mercado stresses, is a major step in the right direction. Without it, patterns like what happened at Our Safe Place will persist throughout Milwaukee.

Update 1:40 p.m. April 18: Andy Liss, program manager for Our Safe Place, called to complain about the story. “We never claimed to provide services to people,” he says. “We claim to be a residential housing provider for men in recovery from drugs and alcohol. We provide no treatment here. These men are quite literally homeless. We’re trying to help the opioid epidemic.” However, in its mission statement on its annual federal tax form, Our Safe Place notes “it is a place where residents demonstrate a readiness and willingness to return to work our school, under the care of trained professionals and supportive staff.”

Bonnie Liss, the mother of Andy, is the facility’s executive director. As for why the program has no website, he says “we operate on a razor-thin budget.” As for why the facility isn’t licensed with the city, Liss says Our Safe Place merely rents out apartments. “We do not provide services.” But when asked how five people died of drug overdoses in eight months, he noted that Our Safe Place does do random drug tests, but these users were apparently not detected.

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More about the Opioid Crisis

Categories: Health, Opioid Crisis

20 thoughts on “Opioid Crisis: The House Where Addicts Die”

  1. Edgar Mendez says:

    WOW. Excellent investigative journalism.

  2. Mark Ard says:

    Maybe you guys should write a story about why there isn’t more being done to address the lack of housing and funding for appropriate and adequate housing and treatment for people suffering? It seems to me that the real problem isn’t safe place but rather the lack of effort on part of the city and the state to do anything substantive to address the crisis. Safe Place is actually trying to help and anyone who works in this capacity knows this is an incredibly difficult portion of the population to serve and no one is perfect at it. Safe Place should be applauded for their effort and the government should be expanding funding for places like them. Maybe then they’ll be able to afford a nice website and not seem so sketchy.

  3. Erik Stark says:

    Hello my name is Erik Stark. I just wanna say that This is absolute propaganda you Apparantly have a vendetta against our safe place or you simply don’t have the reality of addiction in your mind. Our safe place is NOT a treatment center nor have they ever CLAIMED to be. They provide a PLACE TO LIVE for addicts trying to recover. And guess what addicts do? They relapse. That’s not on our safe place. I was there for 6 months last year and i know from experience. I knew most of the guys that overdosed and died. It was their choice. The owners try as hard as they can to drop people and help people struggling. Again, i know from experience. My funding ran out after 3 months and the owners let me stay there RENT FREE for 3 and then even let me move into their apartments on highland when i had NOTHING. Please actually do research and know what you’re talking about if you’re going to put this drivel on your website and convince uneducated people that there is something wrong going on. I know from experience there isn’t. And tbh im a little pissed off at Raphael, whom i know, for saying nonsense like this. As for operating without a license….i was sent there from Milwaukee Drug Treatment Court, a program i GRADUATED LIVING AT OUR SAFE PLACE. I think if what you’re saying is reality why would the same government that you claim knows nothing about it have SENT me there??? Because it isn’t a treatment center!!! People transfer there after residential treatment when their other option would be the Milwaukee rescue mission. They get funded by the STATE for up to 3 months and then they have to find a place to go or get a job and pay rent. Have you done ANY research on the average cost of living in a place like that? Because i have. 4D makes their residents pay 650. And they don’t even have a kitchen. They have a community microwave. And if you relapse your butt is thrown right out on the street. What I’m trying to say is that you may wanna look into facts and not opinions…you might wanna investigate the people talking badly about our safe place because i am a success story as well as many others that had the help of Andy and Bonnie. I would not have almost a year clean of ALL mind and mood altering substances had it not been for them.

  4. Matt Pribek says:

    I want to start off by saying that this article is complete rubbish. As someone has been in double-digit treatment facilities and sober living facilities, I can vouch for the validity of Our Safe Place. They have never at any point indicated that they offered any type of treatment to me personally, other than allowing me a place to reside, while I continue working on and improving my life in all areas. I now have over 15 months clean and sober from heroin and crack cocaine, as well as all other mind altering drugs and that, in part is because of Our Safe Place. If it wasn’t for this facility, I would have been homeless after graduating residential treatment and doomed to repeating the same behaviors and lifestyle that had brought me to the point of surrendering. I can honestly say, that without Our Safe Place, I would most likely have died from an overdose on the streets. And that’s what your article forgets to mention about this opioid crisis : that it is affecting all demographics in all areas of the country, regardless of status, wealth, race, gender, sexuality, etc. And unfortunately, the fact of the matter is, that to an addict, it doesn’t matter where they are. If their mind is made up that they want to use, they will. Regardless of whether they are in inpatient treatment, a sober living facility, a personal apartment, a public space, etc. I can honestly say, I’ve seen people overdose and die in every type of setting. Even in Milwaukee County Jail. There is unfortunately never going to be a place that can guarantee 100% of addicts will make it and recover for the rest of their lives. Some people just aren’t ready, and unfortunately something tragic happens before they find the readiness and willingness to change. But I can say, from personal experience, that Our Safe Place has been the anchor in my recovery, and given me the venue to get my feet firmly planted back on planet earth and to grow as a personnel and productive member of society. I have Our Safe Place to thank for that. And it’s a shame, that one person who most likely had a vendetta, whether it be from being kicked out or punished for using, or whatever, can go out and tarnish a place that is trying to do something positive in this increasingly cynical, gloomy world. Also, Andy and Bonnie have always been nothing but pleasant, respectful, helpful, and professional to me. They have gone out of their ways to improve the quality of my life. I am extremely grateful for them and everything they do for me, and everyone else that resides here, or has successfully moved on from here. They are great, positive, loving people and don’t deserve the negative propaganda that you have spewed in their direction.

  5. Troll says:

    I like to thank Isiah Holmes and Eric Stark for giving me insight into a subject I know little about or have chosen to ignore in the past. A special thanks to are first responders who have to administer Narcon to bring the dead back to life.

  6. Brewer says:

    Shame on Milwaukee County Comptroller for handing over $250,000 without prior investigation or licensing. But is sounds like a place for addicts to get off the street if they can remain clean. My guess is that successful recovery also depends on the fellowship and support from other residents. Four overdoses in a year is sad but not surprising. Not matter what the rules, if you’ve ever lived with an active addict you know they can be cunning liars. The fact that “paraphernalia from the bedroom “behind the bed near the wall” tells me the drugs were not being used out in the open. Two guys living is a small apartment that is dirty, unkempt, and slightly cluttered should be no surprise either. Go to a few A.A. meetings and you will probably find a drunk or two. The city and county should keep an eye on these places, maybe even provide a few. But for now, this is may be as good as it gets in Wisconsin.

  7. Terry says:

    Everyone needs to just dump those deadly, addictive, poison opioids at a safe municipality collection site, then pour out all that rot-gut liquor and just burn one, and take a long walk in the Great Northwoods.

    One Love Wisconsin!

    #TheExitDrug
    #TheHealingHerb
    #Exodus30:23

  8. Bill says:

    Reality is that people relapse and die. Another is that treatment does not equal recovery. I would bet that everybody there has been to inpatient at least once, but more than likely several times. We are talking about adults who have rights. The city can claim what it wants. Proving that it is anything other than sober apartments will be difficult. Probably will result in a HUD complain that the city will likely loose. That said, there is no reason for poor conditions and bed bugs.

  9. Trevor says:

    4 people died at a building with 60 people in recovery? Isiah Holmes maybe you should write a story about a place in Milwaukee where 95% herion addicts are somehow staying safe and clean? Or better yet why don’t you spend some time working with people in recovery? One of the people mentioned in your article used to work for me and let me tell you all this guy did was lie, cheat and steal. Very far from “intellectual men” with “good sense” This article is laughable. You attack a place in Milwaukee making positive change? Shame on you and Urban Milwaukee. Seriously why don’t you move 50-60 people in recovery into your house and see what your success rate is keeping them alive? What’s next an article about the cleanliness of the bathrooms or quality of the food at homeless shelters? I would love an open conversation with Isiah.

  10. Erik Stark says:

    Hell yes Trevor!!!!

  11. Cat Fuego says:

    I work as a public defender and represent many people whose crimes are fueled by addiction. I am writing this, however, as a person who feels strongly about this subject. Our Safe Place provides housing to people who would not otherwise be able to get housing. Many of the people in the early stages of recovery, just coming out of inpatient treatment, and having used for years, have little or no work history, credit, money, or rental history. Our Safe Place provides stable housing which is one of the most important factors in successful recovery. How many people died in college dorms? In residential treatment centers? People who want to use will use, but at that housing facility there is a strong backbone of people who have many years of sobriety under their belts and work to help others maintain their sobriety. I also think it is rather disrespectful to print the names of the people who overdosed at the housing facility. Those people have families and friends and now are being used as “proof” in some “look what I have revealed article.” The people who run Our Safe Place are genuinely trying to help people in recovery and care about all of their residents.

  12. Stacie says:

    This article is sad and somewhat embarrassing. Here we have someone HELPING people who are wanting to get and stay clean, providing them with a home, and giving them the confidence that they can one day have their own place. I know a few people who have died from drugs and having only 4 people die in a full year is amazing. 60 people can stay there at a time, but how many people leave and move out to their own place after a successful recovery? How many people got kicked out because they weren’t clean? It’s sad that 4 passed, yes, but this place sounds like a Godsend and Milwaukee should work on having more places like Our Safe Place. A place that shows recovering addicts that they can do it and help them build the confidence. A place where recovering drug addicts can create a community of support to help one another. I get that reporters have a job to do and they are always attempting to get that shock factor, but this article is a load of crap. I give props to the owners- it can not be an easy day to day.

  13. Justin Daly says:

    Ignorance: lack of knowledge of information
    I am a former resident of the facility that was under Urban Milwaukee’s magnifying glass. Perhaps the lens was just too blurry. So maybe I can tell a story to help illustrate what Our Safe Place meant to me.
    A young boy and his father took a walk on the beach alongside the shoreline one day. The boy couldn’t have been any older than 7 or 8 years old. They were having a wonderful time as the waves were crashing just a short distance away from them on to the sandy beaches. As they walked further down the shore line, the little boy noticed hundreds of starfish being washed onto the shore. it was shortly after he seen this that he realized the starfish would die out of their natural environment. The boyfriend took off running. He raced over to the starfish and began throwing them back in the water one by one. He couldn’t seem to move fast enough. His eyes began to well up with tears, and he asked for his father’s help. His father replied, “what are you doing?” “There are too many of them, its inconsequential, it doesn’t mater!”
    The boy looked at his father in dismay and said, “it matters to the one’s I throw back in!

    I find it interesting that you focused so much on the permits. Instead on what exactly the building permits some of us to do. I too was afforded support, the type of support funding doesn’t provide.I was deeply offended by the lack of understanding or mistrust you seemed to portray regarding Drug Courts involvement also.
    I really don’t want to go into great detail about my experience at Safe Place. Why you ask? Solely based on the fact that your article read as one written by a misinformed author. I will leave it to the comments above me. The ones that my brothers Matt Pribek and Erik Stark left for you. I too share their sentiments.
    I guess in the end you were right about one thing though. The title was slightly accurate. I died a little bit every day in that place when I first moved in there. The amount of collateral damage I had caused in my life, from my days of active addiction we’re definitely tough to get through. A part of me was dead inside for the better part of a half a year in the beginning. It was the support that I found there ( that you do not need a permit for either ) and continue to cherish to this day, that has helped me learn to live again.
    Who would have thought…..?!? That a building like Safe Place and myself would accomplish the common goal; The goal: one day becoming able to live a life driven by self will. A self will fueled by positivity and working everyday to arrest the disease of addiction. But hey, let’s just focus on what is wrong with Safe Place right?!?
    My name is Justin……and I am every kind of addict. With that I pass!

  14. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Legalize recreational drugs like Pot and we will fill up the hospitals, drug overdoses and wreck kids lives.

  15. Michael Ulwelling says:

    Hello my fellow Milwaukee County residents, recovering addicts, current additcs looking for help, and those of you that haven’t hit rock bottom yet or just not ready to change. My name is Michael Ulwelling and I myself am a proud recovering herion addict, going on one year clean this week Thursday! I would like to issue a public challenge to the Urban Milwaukee Daily and the author of this article to do a follow-up interview someone like myself that’s recently lived at Our Safe Place. I just can’t believe the poor fact checking, false statements, misleading information, and cunning word play used to diminish the reputation of Our Safe Place. You stated that of 344 opioid related deaths Our Safe Place showed up 4 times, not 340 times, but 4 times. Why are you not even mentioning the other 340 overdose deaths that occurred? As an addict our chances of overdose, which by the way is OUR own choice, is extremely high. It doesn’t matter where you live, if an addict wants to use, believe me they will find a way. In prison you have gaurds, cameras, drug sniffing dogs, and extremely high security but somehow the addicts still get drugs. All I’m saying is you can’t put the blame on where a person lives. A year ago I was determined to stay clean and after 60 days of residential treatment I transitioned to Our Safe Place July 2017. I was going to be homeless and I’m so thankful for Andy helping me stay off the streets where I probably wouldn’t have made it very long. This wasn’t a treatment center and they have never claimed to be. The staff at Our Safe Place actually care and was like a family to me and many other residents. People like Andy, Bonnie, and Cotton do absolutely anything they can to help you get back into the community. Once a week they hand out pizzas, brats, pork chops, chicken, and all kinds of stuff to eat so your not hungry. The staff absolutely pays attention to how your behavior is and they watch for signs of using so saying that they don’t is not true at all. They have meetings held in the community room, they do have a curfew, and they even do room checks after or during any visiting. There is narcan that anymone can access easily as well as two apartments on each floor that are designated to go to for help if needed. They actually have cameras everywhere inside and out, another inaccurate fact. It’s just crazy for me to read this article and see such fabrication and lies about Our Safe Place. I’m living proof that this is a great place to go if your willing to put in the work and change your life. These are great people and you are slandering their reputation for absolutely no reason at all. Maybe next time you should think about doing both sides of the story, like a real journalist would. Losing Our Safe Place would lead to so many lives lost that might have been saved by going there, this article is wrong on so many levels. I just hope our community will speak up and challenge Milwaukee Urban and keep Our Safe Place right where it is, where it’s saving lives.

  16. Milwaukee Resident says:

    These so called transitional living facilities are nothing but a $$$ making business for unqualified want to be “mental and drug rehab centers”. The State of Wisconsin refuses to fund proper licensed facilities where these people can get quality medical and housing care. The State of Wisconsin has thrown the most vulnerable population to the wolves where they are self medicating themselves to street drugs. Here we have a apartment building converted into and unlicensed room and boarding house. Large amounts of $$$ is filling the pockets of untrained landlords practicing psychology and medical services. They should lose all government funding. Period the end!!

  17. Matt Pribek says:

    Dear “Milwaukee Resident”, I am whom chooses to rant and accuse, yet use a pseudonym, rather than publishing a name to back your accusations up: whether it’s from reading this misinformed article, or your own preconceived notions, your attitude and opinion couldn’t be more wrong. Nowhere and at no point, had Our Safe Place ever stated or claimed to offer any psychological or medical services at all. The closest thing to any medical service they offer, is simply having Narcan in available locations. Comments like yours only hurt the community and honesty make people like yourself just appear ignorant and out of touch with the reality of these circumstances. Next time, don’t jump to conclusions and think for yourself instead of being a sheep.

  18. Lance sebion says:

    I’m lance sebion and to be honest what u wrote about are safe place is a big joke and you honestly got someone who was probably kicked out for his wrong doings and could not take responsibility for his own actions why I say this because this place saved my life and I did 13 years in prison to my own crimnanal thinking witch is a dease of addiction and ive been out of prison now going on 9 years and I was we had over doses in prison because people ain’t ready to change thier lives I was put on percs when I got out and became very addictive and I overdosed on heroin because of my becoming homeless I went to Dewey and Ucc treatment to not become homeless periode or my criminal thinking was comeing back to go were I know I would be safe sad to say prison inside me didn’t want to give up at all and I had 4 special people on myside because to me going to the missions is a trigger so I was blessed by god by some real caring people like Andy and his mom and dad I call my dad they of god and now I’ve been here 5 months in May I have a 11 hour dollar job because of these people not giveing up on people like me as far as overdoses it happens all over because some people ain’t ready to change and to say this about this u wrong it happens in the county jail prison and the security real tight and the one person u talked about Kevin may was a good man and I was with him at serenity inns he made a wrong choice that day so for u to say what u did about people who care and of god u way wrong because to be honest it’s a family here I never had so get your store right since god bring me this way I’ve got people who care and blessings u would never know so with this get it right this is the hearts of god and maybe you talk all bad then why don’t u open up your own place live it before u write just anything so god is good

  19. Lance sebion says:

    I’m lance sebion I’m speaking up on the way u wrote this post is about our safe place were u honestly got your information form someone who probably got kicked and couldn’t take his own accountability for his own actions well to be honest our safe place is no treatment place I was in prison for 13 years of my life and now been out 9years I’m a criminal thinkiner were it’s the dease of addiction I was going to end up homeless because I got addicted to percs and herion so with the way I am I would rather go back to prison or die to go to some mission were that’s a trigger it’s funny how u say people overdosing and dieing well people make choices on stop using or not and while in prison people died the same way once going to Dewey and Ucc I did not want to be homeless seeing people truly care I came here to our safe place were Bonnie and Andy and dad Larry have hearts of god they are very caring people I’ve been here 5 months and ive now have so money doors opening up and now work a 11 hour job because of these people here your try to bash people die all over I see you won’t say anything bad about the doc sad these people care about us and are very respectful caring and they are like family so get it right

  20. Bruce Johnson says:

    Editor Bruce Murphy and co-founders Jeramey Jannene and Dave Reid should be more careful to have their high-school authors practice real journalism or they will lose another subscriber. This author should have done a better job of getting both sides of the story unless he just wanted to reveal his naïveté or bias. There is enough one-sided journalism in our world already and we don’t need another otherwise credible online source to join the ranks of fake news.

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