In August 2022, Johnny Sax was homeless in Sturgeon Bay, living in his van. One night, he called 911 with what he thought might be his last few breaths. Emergency responders found him in a diabetic coma, with his arms around a bottle of wine, he said. 

After being released from the hospital, Sax spent six weeks getting sober “in a van down by the harbor,” he quipped. He added that it was the hardest thing he had ever done in a lifetime of hardship.

Born to an unwed Irish Catholic teen mom in 1964, Sax was adopted when he was six months old. His adopted family abused him physically and mentally throughout his childhood. 

“I was the whipping post for everyone’s problems,” Sax said. 

He got drunk for the first time when he was five years old, at a family party. Though Sax is now in recovery for alcoholism and drug addiction, he said prior to this he has not had a sober day in 50 years.

He credits the staff at Door County Medical Center, local veterans services officers, the county Department of Health and Human Services, and local churches and recovery organizations with getting him the help he needed. Door County is a caring community, Sax said, and it has all the resources it needs to combat substance use disorder locally, except for one. 

“I only needed a place to recover,” he said. 

A sober living facility has been on the county’s radar for a couple of years. Sax meets with Joe Krebsbach, the HHS department director, for coffee once a week or so to talk about the project, Sax said. He spoke at a County Board of Supervisors meeting in April to encourage supervisors to make a sober living facility happen sooner rather than later. 

“Things like this are slower than molasses in November,” Sax said. 

Plans for a multi-use facility that would provide sober living quarters are in committee planning discussions at the County Board level. A meeting will be scheduled in the next few weeks to address supervisors’ questions about plans presented at a budget retreat in September, according to a report by HHS deputy director Beth Chisholm at an Oct. 9 Health and Human Services Board meeting.

In the meantime, HHS is looking to house two or three current drug treatment court participants, Chisholm said, and should an existing house become available they are compiling policy and guidelines for its use. 

But the gears of government do grind slowly, Supervisor Vinni Chomeau said, and she would like to see a plan for building something be put forward as soon as possible. 

In 2010, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism funded the only comprehensive study on sober living and recovery rates. Results showed that 11 percent of interviewees said they were completely abstinent from drugs and alcohol over the six months prior to the study date. During their stay in the sober home, that rate improved to 68 percent after the six- and 12-month marks.

One such place

Angie Levens and Eli Phillips opened NEW Door Sober Living House in Sturgeon Bay in 2021. The couple used assets they already had and their collective experience to own and manage the home. Philips is in recovery for substance use disorder and Levens grew up with the disorder in her family. They have no relationship with the county justice system or HHS, according to Levens.

NEW Door is a non-profit “house membership,” she said, meaning residents pay a membership fee for a bed and meals. The house is not a community-based residential facility, which requires additional licensing, but the couple registered the house with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services as a recovery residence in May 2023. Their house is the only one on that list for Door County.

NEW Door qualifies for a recovery voucher program through the state, Levens said, and house membership fees, donations, and her and Philips’ own pockets keep the house afloat financially. 

NEW Door can accommodate nine residents and there are house rules. Residents must comply with “90 meetings in 90 days,” Levens said, referring to recovery-based programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or similar meetings. Residents also have a curfew, are assigned chores, and are taught basic skills if necessary, she said. Of the estimated 40 people who have come through NEW Door, Levens knows of five for sure that have remained sober upon leaving. 

Philips is a contractor and employs some of the residents. The couple also owns a resale store in the former Peninsula Transfer building in Sturgeon Bay, where residents can work. Employment is not the focus at NEW Door, however, Levens said. Rather, stable recovery and “meeting people where they are at” is their goal, she said.

The house is a small operation and does not have the resources to meet all the needs that are out there, Levens said. Sax was unaware of NEW Door when he started his road to recovery, he said. He said he ideally would like to see at least two or three sober living options in Door County.

“I want to be of help, in any capacity,” Sax said. He said he wants people to know how hard recovery is, and how a little understanding and compassion and a safe place to live can make all the difference.