Why Is A Local Government Stopping This Church From Saving Addicts’ Lives?

Originally published on Forbes

Paul Grodell, a former addict turned preacher, wanders the halls of the abandoned school building he hopes to transform into a home for recovering heroin addicts.

The building was safe enough for children, but not safe enough for adults. At least, that’s what the local code enforcement officer said.

But that isn’t what Paul Grodell was told when he and his ministry first purchased the old abandoned school building. They were ready to transform the 62,000-square-foot eyesore into a church and a recovery home for opioid addicts — something the impoverished and heroin-infested city of Elyria, Ohio, desperately needed.

It was supposed to be everything Grodell had dreamed of when he first began reaching out to drug addicts: a place where one could stay, free of charge, for up to a year. Somewhere for recovering addicts to learn life skills and receive job training while getting clean in the process.

Everything was ready to fall in place. The inspections on the building had cleared, after all, and the structure was deemed perfectly safe and up to code.

So what’s the problem?

“They eventually told us the building met state requirements for a school,” Grodell said, “but now that we changed the use of the building to a place of worship, it changed all the fire code violations.”

As recently as 2009, the school had housed more than 1,000 young children. But according to the code enforcement officer, the building was no longer “safe” by state standards, even though nothing about the building had changed. And the explanation for the last-minute new requirements was even more baffling to Grodell.

“They told us their reasoning for requiring all this work is because they taught the children fire drills a couple times a year, so the kids would know how to get out of a burning building,” Grodell said. “But I guess they think grown adults wouldn’t be able to figure it out.”

The cost for updating the building — which must include dozens of new doors, new walls, new fire alarms (even though the current system works just fine) and a whole assortment of confusing bureaucratic mandates — adds up to about $75,000.

That’s $25,000 more than the building itself is worth.

Meanwhile, as Grodell and his ministry scramble to figure out how to pay to bring the building up to code, people in Elyria are dying.

“To say it’s an epidemic is almost an understatement,” Detective Jim Larkin with the county sheriff’s drug task force told the local ABC affiliate. “We’re really inundated with this.”

The figures drive this bleak point home. From 2010 to 2015, there were 296 opioid overdose deaths in Lorain County, where Elyria is located. And the county coroner — who recently declared the war on drugs a “lost war” — said that overdose death rates are expected to double this year, from 56 deaths in 2015 to an estimated 120 deaths if the current pace continues.

It has gotten to the point that even a local reporter like Paul Kiska, who has covered the crime beat for years, now seems to exude a sense of hopelessness. In a recent story, Kiska described a wave of deadly heroin overdoses, in which 14 people in the county succumbed in less than two weeks. And at the end of the story, Kiska added a sad postscript: “While writing this story, three more people overdosed in the city. Two of them died.”

Two lives forever lost — and all they got was a sentence at the bottom of the page.

“This is the environment we’re in,” Grodell said. “This is the struggle we’re facing.”

And that struggle is one Grodell knows personally. For years his own arms were pocked with needle marks, his eyes sunken. He recalls shooting heroin in the bathroom one day and emerging, foggy and steady, to see his newborn son asleep in his crib in the living room. That soft face, one that looked so much like his own, broke his heart. After that, he desperately wanted to make a change.

Getting clean took years, but now Grodell can place a hand on a shaky addict’s shoulder and know exactly what that feeling is like: the fear, the whimpering exhaustion, the willingness to just slip away.

“We tell these people they got to take responsibility for their addiction, and that’s all fine and dandy,” Grodell said, “but we got to have a place where people can go.”

For now, with code enforcement breathing down his neck, Grodell can’t provide that place. He hears on the news all the time how bad the addiction problem is becoming — not just in Ohio, but across the country. It’s enough to make you break down, because it seems nothing is being done about it.

“It has to be the community that heals itself,” Grodell said. “What Washington should do is eliminate a lot of the hoops that we’ve got to jump through.”

Hoops like forcing a small church to tear out perfectly good doors and walls, just so they can meet some inane bureaucratic standard of what’s “up to code.” Hoops that force people to file paperwork before they can give a man going through withdrawal a bed for the night. And hoops that require former addicts such as Grodell to be “licensed” before they can lend a helping hand to another soul in need.

Things must change, Grodell said.

“Right now, people like me are not seen as the experts — people with the degrees are, people with an addiction counseling degree and so forth,” Grodell said. “But if somebody’s never been through it, I honestly don’t care how many books they’ve read. If they’ve never lived it, if they’ve never truly felt what it’s like to be so hollow and broken, they have no idea how to help somebody.”

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