Headrest Makes Pitch To Relocate

Residential Rehab Program Eyes Former Hannah House

The now-empty location of Hannah House, left, on Abbott Street in Lebanon, N.H., on April 3, 2014. 
Valley News - Sarah Priestap

The now-empty location of Hannah House, left, on Abbott Street in Lebanon, N.H., on April 3, 2014. Valley News - Sarah Priestap

Lebanon — When Jo-An Morin answers the 24-hour crisis hot line at Headrest on Church Street she never knows what she’ll hear on the other end of the line.

It could be someone “literally in the act of suicide,” she said from behind her desk Thursday.

If a caller is hurting themselves or someone else, Morin may have to call 911. To do so while maintaining her caller’s anonymity, she first must clear the room — no easy task, she said.

Morin’s desk sits next to that of the organization’s residential coordinator, who is responsible for monitoring Headrest residents, as many as eight at a time, who are undergoing substance abuse counseling — typically during a stay of 28 days.

Spurred in part by a desire to reduce challenges to confidentiality for both residents and callers, Headrest has filed a request with the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment to convert the former Hannah House on Abbott Street — three blocks south of Colburn Park — in order to continue to assist people in recovery and those in crisis.

Hannah House provided residential services for pregnant teens and their children between 1987 and 2012. After helping more than 650 babies and young children and 600 teens and young adults, the home closed due to a reduced demand for its services and a decline in funding.

“When the opportunity arose we decided to go for it,” said Headrest’s Interim Executive Director Ed Rajsteter. “We view it as very little difference (from) what was going on there before.”

Hannah House was allowed to operate as a group residence under a special exemption granted by the city’s Zoning Board. The exception, granted in 1987, applied only to Hannah House.

In determining whether to grant the same permission to Headrest, the Board will consider the character of the area, whether a hazard or nuisance will be created and the impact on community services.

Headrest is not applying to make any changes to the footprint of the house, which is twice the area of its current home.

Rajsteter said he anticipates Headrest would make a few modifications to the 19th-century building’s interior, such as redoing the bathrooms, installing security cameras and new locks, and bringing the building up to code by installing an alarm system.

The expansion would address a need for space for women to stay with their children, said Headrest’s Clinical Director Judyth Leavitt.

Now Headrest residents are forced to ask family members to care for their children while they are in recovery, she said.

To better serve women with children, Leavitt said she envisions the new space would include two rooms specifically for them, as well as a day care.

“Keeping families together is really important,” she said.

She said she envisions converting Hannah House to a wellness recovery center with space for clients to learn everyday skills such as cooking. Headrest’s current kitchen is too small for classes, she said.

An added perk of the Hannah House location is that it would allow Headrest to expand while remaining in downtown Lebanon, said board chairman John Creagh.

Opportunities for employment and easy access to public transportation, as most Headrest clients do not have licenses or cars, are particularly important, he said.

Creagh does not anticipate the debt service for the former Hannah House building would be higher than what Headrest pays currently, but said that doubling their space will add to operating expenses for heat and electricity.

Should the project go through, Rajsteter said he is hopeful another group might buy the current Headrest house for transitional housing.

Neighboring property owners shared mixed responses to Headrest’s plans for the site on Thursday.

Josh Durst, a Norwich resident and owner of a rental property behind the former Hannah House, described the area as “my idea of what a small town should be.”

He did not express concerns about the prospect of Headrest clients moving in.

“I don’t have any problem sharing the neighborhood,” he said. “We all need a second chance.”

Susan Clark, a 34-year-resident of the neighboring Chestnut Street, stated a decidedly different point of view.

“We’re not for it on this street, not at all,” she said. “Why on earth would they pick a street that has always been a neighborhood?”

Clark said that she also did not support Hannah House when it was inhabited by pregnant teens and their children. She particularly pointed to concerns such as littering and cigarette smoking.

She said people struggling with addiction who want help should be able to get it, but that she would prefer they receive treatment elsewhere.

“Most people in Lebanon would not want it in their backyard,” Clark said.

Lebanon Police Chief Gary Smith reviewed the past five years of call data relating to Headrest in its current location.

“I’m not finding anything that is of a serious nature,” he said.

The city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment will consider the proposal at its meeting Monday at 7 p.m.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.