Belle Haven resident beating the odds

Franni Franken talks with Belle Haven residents Werdner Leith, who is recovering from alcoholism, and Leith’s significant other, Robert Perry, on May 3. Franni, the wife of U.S. Senator Al Franken, has had to recover from alcoholism herself.

The townhome that Werdner Leith and her significant-other Robert Perry live in at the Belle Haven townhomes in Princeton is a major step up from when their home was the inside of a van.

Leith, 42, says she and Perry’s descent to living in a van was a result of the alcoholism that she is trying to recover from. She is working on her recovery at Belle Haven, a complex of 16 townhomes owned and operated by the locally-based Rum River Health Services (RRHS). It’s designed to help people who are trying to start and maintain a life free of chemical addictions and be away from detrimental influences.

If a person seeking to stay at Belle Haven is unemployed, the rent is free, says RRHS Executive Director Jeff Larson. Once they get a job, he said, the rent is 30 percent of the occupant’s income. Larson adding that RRHS checks monthly on the occupant’s income. The average stay at Belle Haven, according to Larson, is two to three years. This coming August will mark two years that Leith and Perry will have been at Belle Haven.

“It was due to my alcoholism,” Leith said, that she and Perry lost their home and job. A person’s alcoholism, health professionals will attest, has detrimental effects on family members and other loved ones. Perry said that was true in Leith’s case. He also lost his job that he had as a car salesman in St. Paul. Ironically, the job she lost, was working in social services.

The two are originally from the Twin Cities suburb of Woodbury and met 19 years ago, the couple said last week.

Leith said she has not gone through primary treatment for alcoholism but has attended a number of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, the first ones in St. Paul.


The downward slide

By the couple’s account, they took a big slide economically on their way to Belle Haven. The two agreed they were once “well off,” making “decent money,” and had a 4,500 sq. ft. home in Woodbury. But the couple only had the house for about one year, they said, explaining that they had to leave it in October 2008 after foreclosure.

Their revenue could no longer support the mortgage, Leith saying she lost her job in April 2007 after not consistently showing up for work.

It wasn’t just the couple who was directly affected by their problems, as their 18-year-old daughter was staying with them.

“I was totally in denial,” Leith said about the grip of alcohol on her. “I did try to get help (but) I continued to use. I continued to drink.”

With the loss of the house in Woodbury, the couple moved in with Perry’s mother who was in Cottage Grove at the time. After a six-month stay they moved back to Woodbury because the quarters were too small at his mother’s place, Perry said.

It was also a case of difficulties in trying to blend two households, she said. Their next stop was her parents’ home in Granite Falls, starting in June 2009. That didn’t work out either, she said, and about six months later they moved into a van. They parked in various places including downtown St. Paul, along the Mississippi River, and in a friend’s driveway.

“It was real tight,” he said.

“It was extremely difficult,” she agreed.

She found a new job in early 2009 working as a blackjack dealer in a casino but the money was not enough to save anything after paying for gas, food, and laundry, she said.

Leith then learned about RRHS and Belle Haven’s affordable housing, for women who are homeless and trying to recover from chemical dependency.

Leith says she started seeking housing help in the summer of 2010. “I was tired of living in a van, my kids, my family (also living that way),” she said. “This place (Belle Haven) has helped me maintain my sobriety and to work through all the family issues.” The Belle Haven rules “keep you on your toes,” Perry said, “to ride a straight arrow. If you mess up here, you’ve got to go, so you stay focused on AA and treatment.”

But if a person is trying to start over, Perry said, “it’s one of the greatest places for women (to do that).” Part of the help, he said, is counseling to “keep your mind moving forward instead of backward.”

Leith, looking back on where she was before losing her social services job that involved counseling women, said that becoming an alcoholic and losing everything can “happen to anybody.”

Perry’s situation was different than Leith’s in one regard, Perry saying he has never drunk alcohol or smoked cigarettes.

Leith says she began drinking as a teen and that it “got worse over the years. It (the alcoholism) snuck up on me. I was unable to function without a drink.”

Friends that she had for years “turned their back on me,” she added, though she says she came to see that as a “favor.” It forced her to become more aware of her alcoholism, she explained. There was also a “lot of tough love from my family, my parents,” she added. “He (Robert Perry) has always been a support.”


The new life

Perry and Leith said they are seeking jobs. She is looking at something like working at a crisis center that helps abused women or doing medical receptionist work.

Perry said he is interested in some kind of financial-investment work and would like to help start places like Belle Haven elsewhere. With his connections to investors he could succeed in that, Leith said.

Perry says he likes helping people “move forward,” and said he believes he and Leith would be good at counseling people with chemical dependency.


Getting into Belle Haven

Their connection to getting into Belle Haven was unexpected, it seems.

Leith explained that she had a friend who she hadn’t talked to in four years, who “out of the blue” sent her a text message. Leith said the friend had talked to Leith’s mother about Leith’s situation. Leith said her mother was “angry” about Leith’s situation, and the friend said she couldn’t believe that this had happened. The friend had lived at Belle Haven and told her to apply to get in there, Leith said.

Leith says her goal is to maintain sobriety, “get back on my feet, find work and continue the healing process in my family. This place (Belle Haven) made it possible.”

“We love it,” Perry said, adding that he would like his daughter, 18, to finish high school and for a grandchild to go to school here.

“We feel safe with the children outside (on the Belle Haven property),” Leith added.

A lot of the town’s residents drive past the Belle Haven townhomes and don’t know what it has done for people who have struggled because of chemical dependencies, Perry said.

At least for Leith and him, Perry said, it was a situation of going from “making it, to not making it, and getting back on the train. Happy and joyful, going back to where we started from.”