SAN LEANDRO — He hadn’t yet made it through the doors when his body crumpled to the ground.
There lay André X. La Monte-Lee, a 58-year-old man, a gentle man, a kind man, a musician who had once played gigs across the Bay Area but had gotten his heart broken, turned to drugs, became addicted to crystal meth and now found himself living on the streets.
He had made it to the doorstep of the Cherry Hill Sobering Center just before his body gave out. It was maybe his 50th time there. He lost count. Folks at the clinic knew him by name.
“André?” asked a familiar voice. “You good?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I just want to lay here.”
The familiar voice was Anthony Bass, an addict since he was 11 years old, when he got hooked on the same drugs his family members were using.
He ran away from his San Mateo home when he was 11, and spent his adolescent years living on the streets and bouncing in and out of juvenile detention too many times to count. “I put my hands on a lot of people I shouldn’t have,” Bass said. He spent time in county jail — several of them — before he landed in San Quentin State Prison, where he spent his 31st birthday. .
That was in 2011. He has been clean since.
In 2018, Bass took a job at Cherry Hill in San Leandro. Now he’s the program manager, running a clinic of 19 full-time employees who are trying to keep people like La Monte-Lee alive for one more day.
A 24-hour sobering center operated by Horizon Services, Inc., Cherry Hill is a safe haven for those who hit rock bottom and have nowhere else to go. If they’re too drunk, too high, too sick or too weak, this is the place for them.
There’s no insurance needed, no cost, no wait time and it provides a direct line to addict-specific care.
The sobering center is a one-night pass to a second chance. Survive one more night, make it until tomorrow, and maybe then they’ll reach the point that Bass reached a dozen years ago.
“You just know when it’s your time,” said Bass, 44. “I tell the clients now, ‘it’s OK, you don’t have to come in here and get sober. We’re not looking for the grand slam. Take the base hit. One night. Get the aftercare services you need. You know we’re a space for you if you ever need it.’”
The organization hopes to raise $25,000 through the East Bay Times’ annual Share the Spirit campaign, which highlights nonprofit organizations that work to help vulnerable communities, like the clientele at Cherry Hill. The funds will be used to create and distribute 1,000 safety and comfort kits to homeless individuals living in San Leandro and Oakland encampments and spread awareness of the sobering center.
During the time he spent in jail, Bass’ father died. His twin boys had been taken away from him and adopted by a foster family. He hasn’t seen them since. They’re 23 now. He also has a son, now 21, and a daughter, now 17. He missed a big chunk of their lives.
“That volatile behavior, I adopted that from my parents,” he said. “I’m not that type of person but I acted out the way I did because of how I was feeling. That’s how I expressed my emotions. That’s why I can relate to these people here.
“They come here and are violent, but they really don’t want to be. They’re just trying to be heard. But nobody is listening.”
When a client enters the sobering center, they’re showing up on their own will. Sometimes a friend or family member drops them off, or a police officer picks up an intoxicated person from a park bench and brings them by, but they only enter the doors if they choose to do so.
As long as they’re not physically threatening anybody, they’re allowed to come in.
Walk inside and there are at least three staff members always on site, ready to provide a hot meal, a cup of coffee, a shower, clothes and a cot to sleep on.
“Anthony says we’re Ground Zero before treatment even starts,” said Anna Phillips, the chief program officer at Horizon Services. “We’re their first introduction to their system of care.”
There’s a medical director on site to help them get any medications they need, including Narcan, which has been used several times to save the lives of folks who overdose on opioids. There’s a recovery-care specialist to nurture clients back to health. And case managers to guide them to their next steps, like a detox center or in-patient rehab, if they choose to go that route.
Most, like La Monte-Lee, aren’t one-time visitors.
Having gone through the experience himself, Bass makes sure clients understand he’s on their team, even in their darkest moments.
Bass is the “heart and soul of the sobering center,” said Phillips. “Our staff gives them a lot of hope. And they keep coming back until they’re ready.”
Phillips estimated that the sobering center gets about 20-25 people per day, or about 700 per month. It’s primarily funded through Measure A, which was passed in 2004 and raised the sales tax in Alameda County by $0.005 to help fund emergency medical and mental health services to the county’s low-income residents. Donations also play a big role.
“We’re targeting at-risk individuals in the community who are intoxicated and in encampments,” Phillips said. “It’s keeping the person off the street and getting them back into society in productive ways.
“Jail and the emergency room, that costs a lot of money to bring them in and it takes time. We’re working to send a message that it is an easier and more cost-effective way for the community.”
Bass said he has seen some people come through more than 100 times. But all it takes is one time for a person to finally feel like they’re ready to get sober.
That’s what it was like for La Monte-Lee, who recently marked nine months of sobriety after making “the decision I wanted to do something different.” His next step is to join the workforce.
“I’m about to hire him,” Bass said. “He knows the program. He gets to see it from a different side now. My counselor offered me a job years back, that’s how I started working for a program. You have to pay it forward.”
Bass now lives with his daughter and mother, who he cares for. His sister is also living with him. His brother was murdered at the beginning of the year.
“I’m taking care of everybody,” he said.
And who’s taking care of him?
“These clients,” he said. “André. The company. As long as I stay busy and keep my mind in the right place, I’ll be OK.”
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
How to help
Donations will be used by Horizon Services/Cherry Hill to create and distribute 1,000 safety and comfort kits to homeless individuals with substance abuse issues living in San Leandro and Oakland encampments and spread awareness of the sobering center. Goal: $35,000
How to give
Go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate or print and mail in the coupon.