When Chris Pompey attained sobriety after 20 years of using heroin, he was happy to blaze a new path forward and never look back. After working as a manager for Foot Locker, he opened his own shoe store, Big Steps, in downtown Kalamazoo and liked his life as an entrepreneur. But when the financial crisis of 2008 hit, his wife, Chandra, suggested he try something new and start by going back to school.
“I didn’t graduate from high school. I dropped out because I was selling drugs. So, for me to go back to school, how would I do it? I was afraid,” the 52-year-old admits. “And she said, ‘I think you can do it. Think about your past.'”
It was then that Pompey’s drug use and struggle to reach sobriety became something he didn’t want to forget. Instead, it became a catalyst for change. “I fell in love with school and I didn’t stop till three degrees later,” he says, noting he has an associate’s degree in occupational studies of drug and alcohol counseling, a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a concentration in substance abuse, and a master’s degree in addiction counseling. Now he leads a nonprofit organization, Reach Sober Living, which he founded to provide safe homes for men in recovery from addiction.
How did you get to where you are today?
We moved in 2007 to Kalamazoo, where I worked for Foot Locker and then opened my own store. I loved retail, but my wife saw something in me that I didn’t see. She said, “You’re easy to talk to. You have a history and you have a story.” But, to be honest, once I got free from the drugs, I wanted to be a new person, so I didn’t talk about my story a whole lot. I was just this guy that loved retail and was interested in people.
Even still, when I finished school, I didn’t pursue the track of working in the substance abuse field because I didn’t get licensed as a clinician. Instead, I worked at nonprofits helping people, like Pine Rest, Synergy Center, and for my church.
What led you into developing recovery houses?
I saw that Kalamazoo had a real gap of adequate housing for people coming out of drug treatment. I began to develop a recovery housing program here and learned that Urban Alliance (a nonprofit that aims to provide opportunities for marginalized individuals) had some houses it owned but wasn’t using. I put a program together, walked in and said, “Hey, I heard you got some houses and you’re not doing anything with them. Would you be willing to give them to me for free?” (He laughs.)
Of course, they thought I was crazy, and I didn’t get the houses. A year or two later, though, I heard Urban Alliance had a position open, and I applied. I started as a support coordinator and then became the director of programming. Then the opportunity came up for me to take on the leadership position of executive director.
Meanwhile, on the side, I established Reach Sober Living and was working to find a house. But every time we found a residential property, we ran into NIMBY (not in my back yard). We’d go in front of the zoning board and be told no because individuals in the community would protest us. I wanted to quit, but then a guy on the zoning board told me to look for property in a commercial zone because it was already permitted for what I wanted to do. I had been driving past a house on Engleman Avenue for two years and never noticed it was for sale as a commercial property, but one day I did and I was like, “No way.”
We redid the house and opened it in 2019. We can sleep five but keep it comfortable with four men who come to us from treatment centers. They can stay here for up to a year, during which they have to work and go to meetings. We have staff in the house 24 hours a day and have a financial literacy program, in-house group sessions and alumni outings. It’s a family.
We’ve had 55 individuals stay here and have a 70 percent rate of success. We own the lot next door, where we are planning to build a fourplex with apartments for those in recovery, and one up the street, where we are planning to build a duplex specifically for families in recovery.
And you built Reach while working other jobs?
I actually started it while working at Threads Church, and when I was ED at Urban Alliance, I figured Reach would still do what it needed to because it was helping people. But then I had a heart attack in October 2022 and, while recovering, realized I was in the wrong place. I needed to be at Reach Sober Living full time, so I stepped down from Urban Alliance on Jan. 31. I always had that entrepreneurship spirit, and in developing Reach Sober Living, it’s a way for me to be an entrepreneur too.
What keeps you up at night?
I think it’s the idea, unfortunately, that I’m in an industry that will never change. There’s no shortage of drugs. I was at a national meeting in Detroit a couple weeks ago where they said that we need a thousand of these homes throughout Michigan.
Where society says, “Addicts don’t want better,” I see the other side of it. I get a new group of guys every 90 days or every six months. I’ll ask the staff on Mondays, “How is our waiting list?” And there’s like 15 or 25 people on it. We’ve got to do something. I have a firm belief that everybody can recover from drugs and alcohol. I just do.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’ve been writing a children’s book about substance abuse awareness called Cairo Says No, which will be out around Christmas from Wise Word publishers. It’s about these kids on the playground that find a bag of what they think is candy and want to eat it.
The book was developed because I was taking my nephews to Sky Zone one day, and my youngest nephew, who was about 7, asked me out of the blue, “Do you smoke weed?” I said, “What?” And then my other nephew said, “No, you know he go to church.” (Pompey laughs.) I turned the radio down, and we started having a conversation. And then I started conversations with other kids and doing research.
This book is about how our kids are looking at this and talking about this, because kids are curious.
— Interview by Marie Lee, edited for length and clarity