Recovering addicts run Puyallup homes where they police each other, change together

“Someone’s slipping,” Jake Sargent said at the clean and sober home in Puyallup where he lives.

No one had relapsed into drugs or alcohol, he clarified, but rather into a roommate transgression most any household has encountered.

Dirty dishes left in the sink.

Sargent is one of up to 12 recovering addicts who together rent two adjacent homes, near South Meridian and 23rd Avenue Southeast, with the thought they can help each other keep drugs and alcohol at bay.

From what the tenants and the city can tell since the first tenant arrived five months ago, it seems to be going mostly OK.

“We haven’t had any complaints at this point,” Assistant Puyallup City Manager Steve Kirkelie said. “Not recently.”

Neighbor Nanette Delargy credited the group with “trying to get back on the positive” with their lives

“That’s a plus,” she said.

The setup, called Dreams Never Die Recovery, was the brainchild of Rodney Bonnifield, a 44-year-old who said he has been clean from his methamphetamine addiction for nine months.

He met landlord Troy Wilson last year when they were serving time in the Pierce County Jail.

They talked about a possible arrangement where Bonnifield would rent a house from Wilson and his sister, and use it as a sober living space for himself and other recovering addicts.

“I liked the idea,” Wilson said.

Neighbors, when Bonnifield moved in in January, weren’t so sure.

They said the tenants played loud music late at night. And sometimes they are out in the yard late at night, which makes Delargy uneasy.

On the other hand, she said, their yard is looking much better than it did at the start of the year.

“They’ve done a very good job of cleaning up the property,” said Delargy, who added that she didn’t mind the loud music, because she likes their ’80s rock.

Deanna Blakeley said she didn’t know the houses near her home were being rented by recovering addicts, and that she wished someone had told her when they moved into the neighborhood.

“I’ve never had a problem with them,” Blakeley said. Except for the loud music, she qualified.

Still, she said, “That’s the first person I’m going to if my house gets robbed.”

A couple months after moving into the first house, Bonnifield expanded the operation, renting an adjacent house from Wilson and his sister.

The landlord is fine with his new tenants, as long as the houses are kept in order.

“Rodney makes sure of that,” Wilson said. “The people who are trying to help themselves out, that’s what I want. It’s supposed to be a good place. If it turns into something else, I’m out.”

Puyallup police spokesman Scott Engle said the state Department of Corrections asked officers to help check on the house several months ago. Two people were removed then: one for a warrant and one for a probation violation.

Officers and a city code compliance official have been back regularly since then, and the tenants have been cooperative, open and accessible during the visits, Engle said.

The residents seem to hold each other accountable, he said.

“They really believe they have power in numbers there,” Engle said. “They are all committed to everyone’s success.”

He knew of one complaint about the houses, which he said was more of a heads-up to police, making sure they knew who was living there.

Assistant City Manager Kirkelie said: “Obviously, when you have two homes that have former inmates living together, that always raises our concerns. I think that’s just a natural reaction.

Still, he added, “We applaud anybody who can change their ways and become good members of the community and be good neighbors.”

Bonnifield said a way to differentiate people serious about staying sober from those just looking for a place to crash has been to see whether they’re up for going to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

A house rule is to attend meetings three times a week.

Tenants also take periodic drug tests, cannot be sex offenders and must help with chores, including doing the dishes.

And everyone needs to find a job or be actively involved in something such as mental health treatment.

Couples are accepted, but roommates can’t start dating each other after they move in.

Bonnifield said he’s tried to be a good neighbor.

He keeps tenants from loitering in front of the houses, because he thinks it looks bad. And he’s been nagging them to smoke only in the back corner of the property, where there’s a fire pit.

That’s where they have house meetings twice a day, to talk roommate logistics, how people are doing and to help enforce the rules.

If someone is suspected of using, they’re confronted about it.

Those who admit it and immediately stop generally can stay.

Those who deny using are given a home drug test. If they test positive, they must leave for three days to sober up and have a clean drug test before Bonnifield considers letting them return.

It’s not easy kicking someone out.

“There’s screaming and mental health flare-ups,” Bonnifield said. “It’s a soap opera sometimes.”

So far, roughly a couple dozen people have lived in the houses. There’s been a high turn-over, from evictions and from those who move on by choice. The group legally can have up to six in each house at a time.

One house, for the more permanent residents, is full. The other is a “trial” house for newcomers and generally has four or five tenants.

Combined rent for the two houses is $4,500 a month. That’s not easy to make, and they’re behind.

Residents are asked to pay what they can, which puts the pressure on Bonnifield.

“My landlord doesn’t look to them for the rent,” he said. “... Eventually we’ll get to where I work out a budget.”

That could get significantly more difficult this summer, when Bonnifield might find himself back in jail.

He is accused of stealing credit cards from a car in Fife in December 2014, using one to make purchases and then trading the card for drugs, according to court records.

He was charged in September, and the case is ongoing.

Bonnifield hopes to get into mental health court, which would allow him to go through a treatment program with court oversight, likely in lieu of time behind bars.

If he goes to prison, Sargent, Dreams Never Die’s 33-year-old second-in-command, doesn’t know how he’ll keep the houses going.

He and Bonnifield have a good-cop, bad-cop routine worked out.

“He sends me to be the bad guy,” said Sargent, who met Bonnifield in a mental health work release program years ago.

When Sargent got out of jail recently, he came to stay in Bonnifield’s clean and sober setup, about a month after Bonnifield moved in.

“I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have any money,” Sargent said. “... I wouldn’t have made it by myself.”

Between then and now he’s gone through four jobs, and it’s the fifth one, at a remodeling company, in which he says he’s been succeeding.

He said he’s been clean for five months. Sargent started using meth and heroin when he was 15, he said, and has been to prison three times.

“Together we’re stronger,” he said, about how the living setup has helped him.

Another tenant, Valentine Keith Doran, said he’s been in about a dozen clean and sober places, and that Bonnifield’s is one of the better ones.

“This is a place for you to come and make changes,” said Doran, 52.

He saw an ad for the houses online and called Bonnifield from a hospital in Portland in March.

Bonnifield talked with Doran’s doctors for about a week on the phone, telling them about the living situation, before the hospital released Doran. Then he took a train to Pierce County, where he gets regular dialysis.

Diabetes led him to kidney and pancreas transplants, but drug use didn’t help him take care of himself, Doran said. He’s waiting for another transplant and has been clean for three months.

While things have mostly seemed stable at the houses, there was one contentious incident recently.

Wilson, the landlord, accidentally killed all of the home’s goldfish when he put cleaner into their outdoor pond, hoping to clear it of algae.

“They were just babies,” Sargent said.

“He Kevorkianed it,” Bonnifield joined in.

But there might be more fish in the future. The group got a tank recently and hopes to get it working soon.

A safe haven, with clean water.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell