Some of the worst moments of 19-year-old Cameron Steck’s life have occurred in college dormitories. On his first day as a college freshman at SUNY Buffalo in the fall of 2011, he began a three-week beer-drinking binge that ended in what he now describes as “an emotional breakdown.” As he recalls, “I lost my mind.”
A heavy drinker and soccer standout in high school who received a DWI on his prom night, Steck decided to give college another try—immediately. Moving back home to Long Island, he enrolled at CW Post, where he started the semester late. His second crack at managing the freedoms of college life was just as brief and even more disastrous, ending when his friend’s roommate found him in their dorm room with a bottle of vodka and a suicide note.
That led to a brief stay in a psychiatric facility and the realization, he says, that he was an alcoholic. Steck dedicated the next eight months—the rest of what would have been his freshman year—to establishing his sobriety, with stays in residential treatment facilities in Connecticut and Florida. Then he decided to give college one more go.
But he didn’t want to live in a dormitory. That’s why, in August, Steck moved into Tribeca Twelve, a new residential community in Manhattan for college students in recovery. He lived there all semester, without taking a sip of alcohol, while enrolled in a communications-arts program at the midtown campus of the New York Institute of Technology.
Tribeca Twelve is New York City’s first attempt at answering a question raised by leaders in the emerging field of collegiate recovery: Where should college students with substance-abuse problems live if the worst possible place anyone in recovery could live is a college dorm?
According to a 2007 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 49 percent of all full-time college students engage in binge drinking, drug abuse, or both, and a full 23 percent meet medical criteria for substance abuse. And colleges in New York City, while often less tethered to hard-partying Greek life than large state universities, are not immune. “There’s no college in this country that is not having to grapple with these issues,” says Dr. Zoe Ragouzeos, director of NYU’s Counseling and Wellness Services.
City colleges are tackling substance-abuse issues in often innovative ways. The New School sends health educators into dorms and to a class taken by all first-year students in its Eugene Lang division to discuss safe alcohol use. First-year students at NYU are required to complete AlcoholEdu, a two- to three-hour Internet alcohol-education module, before arriving on campus. To support students in recovery, NYU hosts AA meetings on campus and provides free acupuncture that “really helps with cravings,” says New School health educator Tamara Oyola-Santiago. Both schools also offer individual counseling that can be tailored to help students achieve their sobriety goals.
NYU offers sober floors in three of its dorms, yet no city university has residential facilities specifically tailored for students in recovery—a fact that surprised Dr. Barbara Kistenmacher, the executive director of Hazelden New York. Hazelden, the venerable Minnesota-based addiction treatment center that originated the 12-step program, operates a Chelsea outpatient facility, where, Kistenmacher says, her staff treats many young people who got clean after dropping out of college but then relapsed when they returned to college—and college dorms. She says that she and her colleagues found it remarkable that, in a city with 500,000 college students between ages 18 and 25, “there was no collegiate sober-living option for students in recovery.”
Dr. Kitty Harris, director of the Center for Addiction and Recovery at Texas Tech, which for more than 25 years has provided therapeutically supported sober housing for Texas Tech students in recovery, sees the lack of housing tailored to students in recovery in New York as the manifestation of a wider pattern. Colleges, says Harris, focus most of their energy on prevention efforts rather than on students in recovery—in part, she says, because “there is a stigma” associated with students who have chemical dependencies.
In the meantime, Hazelden stepped in, opening Tribeca Twelve, the city’s first therapeutically supported collegiate residence, in October 2011. Tribeca Twelve is open to students attending any area school, as well as students who are not currently enrolled in college. The residence offers a large therapeutic staff, with counselors ready to talk with any resident who’s feeling lonely or experiencing cravings, 24 hours a day. Residents are required to attend one AA meeting per day in a center on the building’s ground floor. There’s also a level of luxury unmatched by almost any college dorm, with marble in the bathrooms, Silestone kitchen counters, and a living room fireplace, as well as a furnished roof deck and a music studio.
All this doesn’t come cheap. Tribeca Twelve charges residents $5,500 per month for their stay and doesn’t accept student health insurance. Steck, who considered enrolling at Rutgers, which offers a nationally recognized housing program for students in recovery on the model of Texas Tech’s, decided on Tribeca Twelve in spite of its cost; he says that he wanted to live near his sister in Manhattan, and hopes to ultimately work as an elementary school teacher in NYC. “I knew going in that it would be for a limited time,” he says when asked about the cost of living in the facility, which his family is paying for and which is nearly three times the cost of living in NYU’s most expensive dorm. He says he used the enhanced services on one of his first nights in the facility, when he walked downstairs at 3 a.m. to discuss worries about his future. Back in his room after a brief chat with a counselor, “I slept like a baby,” he says.
Although Tribeca Twelve has only been open one year, Hazelden has its sights on replicating this model of recovery housing in other cities. But that will only happen if a critical mass of recovering students’ families can afford to pay Tribeca Twelve’s residency fees and if Hazelden—which has a 60-year track record of success with its residential programs—demonstrates the effectiveness of this new dorm model. Hazelden is already tracking residents who have left the facility, but Kistenmacher refused to share any early findings with the Voice. Craig Sloane, a leading city addiction therapist, calls the Hazelden model “the gold standard for abstinence-based treatment” and says it “works great for the right people”—those committed to, well, abstinence.
Kistenmacher points out that Hazelden purchased Tribeca Twelve’s West Broadway building at a deeply discounted price in the wake of the housing-market bust and says that the interior was designed “on a shoestring budget” with the help of the vice president of the Hazelden corporation, a designer. The goal, she said, was “to create an environment that feels healing to people.” And she points out that Tribeca Twelve is less expensive than other comparable New York City sober-living facilities. Aside from Tribeca Twelve, there are two other upscale sober-living facilities in the city, though neither is designed specifically for college students: Townhouse on Sixth in Park Slope and Loft 107 in Williamsburg each charge more than $10,000 per month for a single room.
“I think they really put a lot of thought into the design,” Sloane says. “It wasn’t just, ‘Let’s make a really cushy environment for rich kids to stay.'”
With mandatory “eye-opener” meetings where residents discuss their goals for the day, a wake-up time, 2 a.m. curfew, periodic drug testing, and random room checks, life at Tribeca Twelve is hardly cushy. Steck says he watched three roommates come and go during his first three months—two because they violated Tribeca Twelve’s zero-tolerance policy for substance use. Even residents who aren’t forced to leave often don’t stay longer than a semester, with the cost of living there dictating a firm departure date. Although Kistenmacher says students can live there as long as four years, it seems unlikely that many will, given the cost. So far, only three students have stayed as long as 12 months.
When the Voice interviewed residents in December, four were planning to leave Tribeca Twelve after just a few months, including Steck, who says that his family “definitely cut back” in order to pay for his time at the community. His former roommate Evan Lorberbaum, who arrived at Tribeca Twelve last fall after leaving Tulane University, where he suffered bipolar episodes that he says were aggravated by alcohol and marijuana use, was preparing to depart as well. During his residence, Lorberbaum took classes as a non-matriculating student at the New School, started a T-shirt company, and applied to study art and business at NYU’s Gallatin School, where he will enroll in January.
Kara Lerner, who came to Tribeca Twelve after one semester at Connecticut College that was followed by a period of intensive residential treatment, and her Tribeca Twelve roommate Erica Frawley signed a lease on an apartment in Williamsburg, where they hope to support each other in sober living. Lerner, who says her extended family paid for her stay at Tribeca Twelve, added that cost was driving her timetable for leaving. “But it’s mostly just that I’m ready,” she adds.
The cost of Tribeca Twelve might be the reason that, after a year of operation, the housing is not yet at half of its 30-resident capacity. In December, before the four students departed, there were just 11 residents. Ragouzeos, who describes the facility as “pretty pricey,” says that she refers students to Tribeca Twelve, but with the caveat that NYU’s student insurance won’t help cover the bill.
Kistenmacher says that the reason for the low number of residents is not the cost of staying at Tribeca Twelve but the fact that “we’re a new program. We’re still getting the word out.” To build relationships that will lead to referrals, Kistenmacher has reached out to the counseling centers at both Fordham and NYU, and even placed ads in The New Yorker.
For Steck, who has not yet solidified his plans for where he’ll live next, the experience was worth it. Living amid the temptations of the city, but with the cushion of therapeutic support, has made him more confident, he says. During his first month living at Tribeca Twelve, Steck says, he used to linger before the displays of beer in the deli where he went to buy cream soda. “I used to stand there, crave, decide which one I want,” he says. But as the weeks passed, he was more likely to “see the beer out of the corner of my eye and turn away.”
“This place really helped me get on my feet,” says Steck. In the meantime, he is chairing a new AA meeting for young people that will be held in the building—and that he can continue to attend—and is looking ahead to next fall, when he plans to be transferring from NYIT to a new college—or, as he put it, “taking my talents to a different school.”
Throughout the fall, as Steck pushed the weekend-curfew envelope, he’d often pass groups of people stumbling out of bars, at the cacophonous height of their revelry, as he made his way home. Seeing this didn’t bother him. “I like to see that. It reminds me where I came from, and I never want to forget where I came from, because it was miserable,” he says. “I have such a bright future ahead of me.”