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‘The House I Dreamed Of’

Pamela Coffey outside the building on Douglas Avenue that she is renovating into a recovery house for female addicts.
An old union hall could become a new women’s recovery house

Pam Coffey was working at Luxe Boudoir, her daughter Yolanda Harris’ now-defunct boutique in downtown Kalamazoo, when she struck up a conversation with a real estate agent shopping there. This would turn out to be a fateful conversation.

It was a slow day, in 2019, and Coffey was reading the latest issue of Encore, which just happened to feature Coffey herself and her work with Healthy House for Women, a home located in Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood (“Safe Haven for Sobriety,” December 2019).

“I’m not even making this up,” Coffey says. “I was reading the article Encore wrote about us, and I shared it with this woman who came into the store.”

Coffey and her husband, Patrick, started Healthy House in 2015 as a safe place for women to build a foundation for recovery from addiction and trauma. Both are in recovery themselves, and their first resident was referred by someone Coffey knew from a 12-step program. To cover rent and other services for the residents, Coffey secured a fiduciary agent, lined up funding from Southwest Michigan Behavioral Health and started writing grants.

It wasn’t easy at first. Many women couldn’t stay clean. That first resident died of an overdose after leaving the house. But women kept coming from all over the state, and more stayed clean.

And Coffey kept dreaming.

“I envisioned a house a little outside of town, but not too far. Somewhere with woods around it,” Coffey says. “I just felt like my goal was to find somewhere closer to nature, more peaceful.”

“When she told me that, the light bulb went off,” says Caroline Fox Pavone, a sales associate at the commercial real estate firm Signature Associates whom Coffey talked to that day. “I knew I was going to be taking this listing, and it sounded like the right fit.”

“She said, ‘Oh, my God, I think I have the perfect house for you,’” Coffey recalls. “I didn’t have any money. I didn’t even think about needing money. I just said yes.”

Unexpected hurdles

The property is an old farmhouse on Douglas Avenue, north of Kalamazoo, that had been converted into a union hall. With three bathrooms on 1.4 acres of land, it could accommodate nine women and was even on a bus line. The union’s president wanted to sell, and he wanted to sell to Coffey.
The deal closed in October 2020. Then came the hard part.

Coffey knew the place would need some work, but when the contractor went to pull permits, the township wanted much more work than Coffey had planned on.

“They want me to widen the driveway, put in a fire suppression system, put a fire hydrant and a sidewalk in front of the house. I never even heard of having to put a fire hydrant in somewhere,” she says. “These are things we had not anticipated. So that all came to about $100,000 by itself. We haven’t even started any work inside the house.”

Coffey figures she`ll need $250,000 to open the house to residents. She’s raised about $120,000 so far.
“Whatever is asked of me, that’s what I’ll do,” Coffey says. “This is the house I dreamed of. I’m not giving up.”

If anything, her vision has grown.

‘They don’t go back’

Coffey gained some of her ideas through Becca Stevens, who in 1997 started her first recovery house for survivors of prostitution and sex trafficking. That house, in Nashville, Tennessee, had room for five women.

“What I love about starting small,” Stevens says, “is that it’s not overwhelming. You start small and then grow. One house is doable for any community.”

The Episcopalian priest, author and self-described “social justice entrepreneur” leads Thistle Farms, a women’s recovery network with 600 beds in 29 states. The organization also holds training workshops in Nashville to share best practices and offer support. Coffey went to her first training there in March 2021.

Thistle Farms’ program lasts two years, is rent-free and comes with health care, counseling, recovery support and employment through the organization’s product line of candles, essential oils and homeware. That’s a far cry from the typical addiction treatment model that churns through residents in 90 days or, more often, 30.

“Their success rate is 75 percent. They don’t even have women work for four to six months,” Coffey says. “They don’t want them to. Once they get that job, the job becomes the most important thing, and they lose focus on their recovery. And then they lose that job. So that’s the next grant we want to apply for — to be able to give the residents a little stipend they can use to buy cigarettes or whatever and we can get them not to work.”

“These are people who have fallen through massive cracks in the system,” says Stevens. “They need time and space to do this heroic healing work. And when they do it, they come off the streets and they don’t go back.”

That’s what Coffey wants for her residents — and for all women, actually — to be safe, because that’s what happened for her. She got clean and found recovery. She got her daughter back. She found peace.
Now she’s giving back and getting noticed. The Kalamazoo YWCA named her a 2023 Woman of Achievement. Stevens describes her as a “powerhouse in the room.”

But Coffey’s not doing it alone. Healthy House has a board of committed, compassionate women from the area who share her vision of ”All Women, Safe, Sober and Self-sufficient.”

“I used to be ashamed to need help,” Coffey says, “but when I got into recovery, I learned I can’t do it by myself. We’re built to be a community.”

So she’ll keep building.

Learn more about Healthy House for Women, including how to donate, volunteer and support the goal of opening the new house, at healthyhouseforwomen.org.

Jef Otte

A contributor to Encore when he was a graduate student at Western Michigan University several years ago, Jef returns to our pages this month with a story about Healthy House, an organization he became involved with while at WMU and continues to stay connected to from afar. He is a writer and illustrator living in Louisville, Colorado, with his partner and three kids but says Kalamazoo will always have a special place in his heart. He blogs poetry, comix and other ephemera at jef-o.ghost.io.

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