SANDY SPRINGS, GA — Marah S. was in jail during the summer when she learned she was pregnant and would most likely deliver her baby behind bars. The young woman from Forest Park would later be sentenced to a drug rehabilitation program through the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment for State Prisoners.
However, Marah said she was "too pregnant" to be accepted in to the state-run program, so she had to gamble on two organizations where she could get clean: New Choices Rehab Center or Mary Hall Freedom House.
Mary Hall Freedom House was the first to accept her into its program and in August, Marah came to the program "in handcuffs" and eight-and-a-half months pregnant to begin her path towards sobriety.
While coming into new surroundings and being out in the free world was "very uncomfortable," the staff and fellow clients at Mary Hall Freedom House have welcomed Marah with open arms.
"I came with nothing for my child," she said. "I didn’t come with anything except the clothes on my back. Since I’ve been here, …it’s been an amazing program."
Marah’s story is one of many of the varied life experiences that have brought dozens of women through the doors of Mary Hall Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that provides women with the life skills and coping mechanism needed to overcome drug addiction, homelessness and abusive situations.
The organization has been locked in a well-publicized battle with the city of Sandy Springs over its operations. The city alleges Mary Hall Freedom House is operating its facilities in an area not designated for its use. Mary Hall Freedom House has registered with the state Department of Community Services, which sanctions halfway houses for probation and paroled convicted felons. Sandy Springs adds the nonprofit is also licensed as a residential drug rehab facility by the Georgia Department of Community Health. Neither of these uses are authorized under the city’s zoning ordinance, the city contends.
In turn, Mary Hall Freedom House has filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging the city is discriminating against the organization. Lucy Hall, the founder and CEO of the program, said the comprehensive behavioral health program for women and children has been operating in Sandy Springs for 22 years. It has a downtown Atlanta location that provides emergency housing and uses 33 condos at the Preserve at Dunwoody to provide permanent housing for its clients in Sandy Springs.
It also has office space at 8995 Roswell Road where women can attend classes to help them manage sobriety, meet with a case manager, confer with the housing director and obtain any mental health related services. Hall told Patch that there are about 100 women and 40 children being served at the Sandy Springs location.
Sandy Springs argues that the organization’s use of the 33 condo units are not in compliance with its zoning laws, and has issued dozens of citations to the company. Hall said the city continues to harass the organization through the court system, yet refuses to learn more about its operations.
"You refuse to talk, you refuse to come and all you keep doing is coming up with more citations," she said. One particular comment Mary Hall Freedom House cites in its lawsuit is a statement made by a city staff member in August to a board member of the organization. That person is accused of telling the board member that "you wouldn’t want your daughter living around these people."
Those people the city is referring to, Hall said, are women, many of whom are homeless veterans, who are trying to get their lives back on track. The organization didn’t want to take its case to federal court, but said it felt like it didn’t have any other choice, the CEO said.
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Mayor Rusty Paul said the case simply stems from a "zoning and land use violation." He notes Mary Hall Freedom House’s board made a real estate decision without determining if the land it owns is zoned for its use, which is standard practice for anyone seeking to buy property.
"Rather than deal with the underlying problem, the management team seems intent on trying to distract from that failure through allegations having no merit or basis," he said. "The city has given MHFH its humanitarian award and financial grants, which is evidence that the real problem isn’t what they are doing, but, in this instance, where they are doing it — in space not zoned for the purposes they are being used for. All we have ever asked MHFH is to operate lawfully."
Patch had a chance to tour two of the condo units with Tara Johnson-Jackson, the housing director for Mary Hall Freedom House. The women living in the units are responsible for sharing in the cooking and cleaning of the units. They are also required to keep the living spaces clean and presentable, and cannot have any drugs or alcohol in the units. They are also required to sign in when they return and sign out when they are leaving. They must include the time when they depart, where they are going and an estimated time indicating when they will return. There are also random drug tests on the women.
As for the property as a whole, the women are not allowed to congregate outside the units, can only smoke in designated areas and must abide by set curfew times. Johnson-Jackson said the organization maintains regular communication with the homeowner’s association to let them know that "we come in peace."
At Mary Hall Freedom House’s offices, the women take part in group sessions throughout the day when they are not working. One woman who has been with the organization for two-and-a-half years said the atmosphere is "welcoming and inviting." She also said she’s able to learn about the different paths many women have taken in order to get treatment.
Another woman said she thought she "had it together" but she spiraled out of control. She told Patch she will commit to six months of treatment at Mary Hall Freedom House.
"It’s about recovery," another woman added. "It’s not just about being sober."
Hall said the organization has been up and running for 22 years, much longer than Sandy Springs has been incorporated. The group only became a target of the city when a resident made a "huff" about the women’s presence in the condo units. Hall said Mary Hall Freedom House met with the Preserve of Dunwoody homeowners association to explain how it operates and what to expect from its clients. Its response?
"They said, ‘you people are all right’," Hall told Patch. Having an open dialogue with property owners in the communities where clients reside has been Mary Hall Freedom House’s modus operandi over the last two decades.
"We’ve always been a good customer," she added. "We’ve never brought problems to the community."
Hall said her goal for the organization is to provide every woman who needs another chance the opportunity to take advantage of that offering. Whether their problems stem from domestic violence, child molestation or just being homeless due to post-traumatic stress disorder, Mary Hall Freedom House is key in providing a safe place for women to start over.
Many years ago, Hall said the board had an opportunity to buy a place on Boulevard in Atlanta. They went to the clients to get their feedback on this idea, which was shot down by the women.
"A lot of them said, ‘that’s where we came from’," Hall said. "’Why would you want to put us (back) where we came from? If you’re teaching me a new way of life, teach me some where I aspire to a new way of life’. And that’s why we’ve been successful for 22 years."
For Marah S., Mary Hall Freedom House has been a life-saver. She’s able to take her infant girl to her classes and has not had to worry about balancing the costs of daycare with other necessities. Marah said that if the city doesn’t believe the women in the program have a right to live in the city, then "where do we belong?"
"We’re people, too,’ she said. "We deserve a fresh start, whether it be by ourselves, with our children, or whatever the case may be. We’re entitled to have that right as well. Would you rather have us out there on drugs? Or, would you rather have us living in these homes and doing a productive, daily schedule?"
Marah said the most important thing she’s been able to reap from the program is not only sobriety, but recovery from past actions that led to her drug use. The classes she takes are not just about recovering and abstaining from substance abuse, but they address behavioral aspects that led to clients making unwise choices.
Having this type of program readily available in Sandy Springs allows the organization to reach women from a variety of backgrounds who suffer from a slew of traumas, Marah said.
"This program gives you ever tool you need to become a successful human being," she said. ‘Without this place, I don’t know where I would be."
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