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Hogar CREA Residential Drug-Treatment Center Closes In Orlando

By Walter Pacheco | Sentinel Staff Writer

May 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

A drug-treatment centerthat operated without a license for about nine months in downtown Orlando has closed after neighbors complained they did not want recovering drug addicts in their neighborhood.

The men of Hogar CREA International have moved their belongings out of the 1926 bungalow on the corner of Hillcrest Street and Highland Avenue and into the CREA center off Lancaster Road south of downtown.

David Olsen, director of the closed Orlando facility, said the neighbors didn't understand their mission.

"What it comes down to is that the community is not familiar with our services. We have an open-door policy, and anyone can come in and see what we do. We are here to help the community," Olsen said.

CREA's Spanish acronym stands for Community for the Re-Education of Addicts, and Hogar means "home." Most of the clients were Hispanic men addicted to heroin, cocaine, alcohol, methamphetamine and other drugs, Olsen said. The program's 21Ú2-year residential treatment begins with intense counseling, family therapy and community service.

According to city records, CREA opened the center in September but never applied for a permit to operate in a residential neighborhood. In October, planning officials notified staffers at the center that they needed a permit. CREA applied for the permit in April.

Rich Unger, Orlando's chief planning official, said his staff recommended approving CREA's permit request, but the Municipal Planning Board denied it. The center residents moved out last week.

"There were some issues about the size of the structure and the number of people living in it," Unger said of the board's decision. The 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom center housed 14 full-time patients and three staff members.

More than 100 residents signed a petition and e-mailed numerous requests to theboard and City Commissioner Patty Sheehan last week asking to close the center.

Tom Cardin, who lives a few blocks from the facility, e-mailed Sheehan expressing his concern that the center violated zoning laws.

"Instead of granting the rehab center a hearing . . . the city should be evicting them. It is hard to imagine that a drug rehab center that feels it's OK to break laws would be able to teach inmates otherwise," Cardin wrote.

Sheehan agreed with the planning board and said the facility needed to be at least 500 feet from residential property. "I think the separation requirement is essential when you're dealing with this type of facility in a residential area," Sheehan said.

But CREA President Javier García, whose father, Juan José García Ríos, founded the program in 1968, said he didn't know he needed to apply for the permits. "I just wanted to prepare the house so the city could see what we're about and know the good we do for the community and our clients," said García of Orlando.

The program was started in Puerto Rico by García Ríos, who battled his own addiction. Since its creation, CREA says it has treated more than 50,000 addicts, with 28,000 successfully completing the program nationwide.

The nonprofit program is funded by donations. As part of their therapy, the men bake their own recipe of sweet caramel flan and custard after Sunday church services. Although they don't sell it, they accept donations.

Residents also complained that the center was one more social-service in-house program in a neighborhood where there is an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter and the Women's Residential and Counseling Center.

"Our neighborhood has its share of social-service programs. They are not ideal for a residential area. We just don't need them," said Raymond G. Cox, president of the Lake Eola Heights Historic Neighborhood Association.

However, Bob Rosen, who owns the CREA house, supported the group and said the planning board's decision and community reaction are "very disappointing."

"After listening to these people and seeing what they do, I admire the dedication and mission they perform," Rosen said.

The Lancaster Road center is outside the city limits, and Orange County does not require that it have the same permits as the city, according to the Orange County Property Appraiser's Office.

Unger said the city's decision could be appealed, but García said he would rather move to the Lancaster site even if it means housing only some of the patients.

"It's a shame, really," he said. "Here we were helping these people, and now we have to release them back to the streets, where they have no help, no home or peace of mind."

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