Road to recovery: CoLiving Network house helps former drug addicts through tough times |

Road to recovery: CoLiving Network house helps former drug addicts through tough times

CoLiving Network Alta Sierra house resident Roy Warren (left), founde Greg Zaller, and case manager Barbara Franklin in front of the Grass Valley sober living environment home.
Submitted to The Union |

When you’re addicted to drugs and on the road to sobriety, your greatest enemy is yourself, says Brendan Smith, a former drug addict.

“I’ve died three times because of heroin, and that didn’t stop me, nothing stops you,” Smith said. “You can get away from the drugs or be put in jail, but I’m still stuck with me, and if I don’t change something within myself, then recovery is impossible.”

Smith, 21, says he has been homeless and living on the streets since he was a teenager. When he was released from jail in June, he applied and joined the CoLiving Network, a series of four homes in Nevada County where people in recovery from drugs or alcohol can stay safe, clean and sober.

Smith said it was a huge blessing to be accepted into the program’s Alta Sierra house in Grass Valley.

“Treatment programs like the CoLiving Network work so well because you get put in this environment of support and you’re exposed to radical ideas in your head that weren’t there before.”
Brendan Smith
a former drug addict

“Treatment programs like the CoLiving Network work so well because you get put in this environment of support and you’re exposed to radical ideas in your head that weren’t there before,” Smith said. “Because my best thinking got me here to begin with, so I need to go to people that have been there before that have conquered this and start cleaning house, getting the stuff out of myself.”

As director and founder of the CoLiving Network, Greg Zaller, a former home-builder turned nonprofit entrepreneur, said the nonprofit program is run through his own educational organization, Creative Learning Adventures.

Zaller, 63, says CoLiving Network was initially started as homes for seniors, but after getting people in drug recovery, he realized that the homes would be best used to help house drug addicts in need of housing and a supportive home.

“We need more houses out there like this so people begin to appreciate that we don’t just have to put people in jail,” Zaller said. “If we come out with a helping hand with these guys, give them a safe place where they can help each other, they can get back into the world as productive contributors.”

Zaller’s Alta Sierra home contains around 10 male residents. As the home’s case manager, Barbara Franklin maintains the home’s zero-tolerance drug policy, while also educating cohabitants about the different programs and opportunities they have to maintain their sobriety.

“My role is to support these men to try and figure out the system and what their needs are and to help them to have the courage to sort it out and to take care of it,” Franklin said. “I believe they need to learn these skills in order to be successful, and we believe that in a house community, you get that opportunity to practice those skills and move forward.”

Franklin helps residents navigate through the judicial system and obtain jobs, while encouraging them to participate in services from drug recovery programs such as Common Goals, CoRR, Nevada County Behavioral Health, as well as local probation and parole programs.

The CoLiving arrangement is by application and costs around $400 monthly in rent for a furnished room and use of a common kitchen, laundry and living room areas.

“One of the first obstacles that you run into, which seems very simple, is getting transportation,” said “Kyle,” a CoLiving resident who asked to remain anonymous.

“That has probably been one of the biggest things that has made this work is that you’ve got somebody that’s willing to take the time and energy to make sure those first steps can happen. This is a safe place, but Barbara makes sure that we’re not isolated.”

Smith said that having personal transportation through the program has allowed him to avoid getting back into a life of drugs.

“Let’s say I have to walk somewhere, six people will offer me … drugs of some kind,” Smith said. “Your reputation will follow you, when you get out of jail, the people you were hanging out with before are doing the same old thing.”

What sets CoLiving’s Alta Sierra home aside from other similar programs, Franklin says, is the level of understanding everyone has for each other’s struggle, which allows residents to confide in each other as though they were a family.

“There’s so many obstacles and I don’t think the general public understands, they’re just like ‘Oh, you’re coming out of jail, just move forward with your life,’ and it’s not quite that easy,” Franklin said. “It’s this circle, everywhere they look it’s ‘No, they’re not eligible to get their own housing’; they don’t qualify for so many things because of their history. And then they wonder why so few people make it.”

According to a 2011 drug and alcohol data report by the Coalition for a Drug Free Nevada County, the region had the highest average in the state for those needing but not receiving treatment for alcohol and illicit drug use.

The report was also underscored by evidence suggesting that substance abuse is a prevalent and persistent concern for local community members.

Another CoLiving resident who asked to remain anonymous said that fees and fines he was forced to pay after being released from prison totaled around $4,000, and have already affected his attempts at staying sober.

“Then they turn my debt over to collections and before you know it you’ve got collections; and you can’t get your license, and you’re in jail while you’re supposed to be paying it,” he said. “And when you get out it’s already turned over to collections and you’re just overwhelmed. It’s enough to make a guy go out and start drinking or using. When you got nothing to lose it’s like hell, you just want to try and escape it.”

“Randy” is known as the Alta Sierra house caretaker and has been sober for close to two years. He says that for him, the road to recovery has been a spiritual journey.

“You can’t keep people clean and sober by telling them what to do,” he said. “I came out here to be a friend and help, not necessarily to tell people what to do. Because we’re all drug addicts and alcoholics, and the last thing you want to do is tell us what to do, because that isn’t going to fly. But it ain’t like I’m cured, heck no, I feel like drinking and using every week. I’ll come home and feel like getting loaded. But no one here is trying to act better than anybody else, everybody helps everyone, if not, it wouldn’t be working.”

Roy Warren, 65, has been addicted to drugs for more than 30 years. After joining CoLiving’s Alta Sierra home, though, he says he has been sober for 10 months.

“I’m more at ease with these people and more relaxed,” Warren said. “It’s very hard to kick the habit on any drug, really. I was trying to get my life together for a long time and I was not getting it done. Once I came out here, I’ve been able to get a lot more stuff accomplished, because of Barbara and Greg.”

For Franklin, helping her residents is more than just keeping them on the road to recovery, but also about breaking stigmas.

“I think sometimes people are misguided when they hear they’re criminals, or they’ve been arrested or they’ve been in prison,” Franklin said. “It doesn’t speak to who these men are and their character; it shows none of that. And when you get to know all people on an individual basis, you get surprised. I’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time and I think they’re all good men and have good character and want to do right, and it’s pretty amazing to watch.”

For more information, or to donate time, money or transportation to help the CoLiving Network, email Zaller at

To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email or call 530-477-4236.

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