WARDS ISLAND — Sharon Watt used to live in the eastern edge of Long Island and give people $200 haircuts in Montauk. Now she lives in a former psychiatric hospital on the East River.
“Feeble-minded women, that’s what they used to call them,” Watt said of the terminology used to describe alcoholic women treated at the center in the early 1900s.
She is one of about 230 people living in a new $25 million in-patient treatment facility called The George Rosenfeld Center for Recovery, which celebrated its grand opening Wednesday. The facility specializes in treating women with children, young women, and people 55 and older.
Watt is addicted to pain medicine. Because of the addiction, she let her cosmetology license expire, which prevented her from working. When she decided to get treatment, Watt looked for treatment centers in Long Island but found that most were either full or closed.
“I am so fortunate to be here,” she said.
Odyssey House, which runs the new center, has noticed an increase of people from Long Island and Westchester seeking treatment in New York City. Wards Island is the perfect location for an in-patient facility because it is isolated but also a short bus ride away from Manhattan, said president and CEO Peter Provet.
“It’s a little oasis in a New York City, in a setting where people can concentrate in their struggles, their mistakes and their commitment to change,” he said.
While most treatment facilities treat men, this facility is different, said Arlene González-Sánchez, commissioner for the state's Office of Alcoholism & Substance Abuse Services.
“What’s unique about this program is the integration of services and the specific focus on treating women with kids,” she said. “That’s a population that people have not really developed programing for ... and usually women don’t seek services because they don’t want to lose their loved ones, their kids."
The center has a gym and art classes for residents. Children can go to universal pre-K classes or day care. Adults can get their GED or earn college credits online. Everyone has access to counselors who can help them find jobs and homes.
Amy, a single mother from Staten Island who is addicted to heroin and has a bachelor’s degree from Manhattan College, was among the first group of people to move into the facility in the Spring. She declined to share her last name.
She grew up on Staten Island and recently lived in an in-patient center on 121st Street in East Harlem. Living on Wards Island is a nice escape from city life, she said.
“Allowing my daughter to experience grass and fresh air and quiet, for me that’s amazing,” said Amy. “I’m very grateful to be able to be here and be able to take her outside.”
For Watt, living on Wards Island reminds her of home.
“The island reminds me of where I’m from,” she said. “When I go to 125th Street I’m out of my element.”
Buses from Wards Island to East Harlem drop people off at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, an area that has struggled to address quality of life issues like loitering, public urination, open drug use and some violence.
Residents and politicians in East Harlem have critiqued what they call an oversaturation of rehab facilities and homeless clinics in their neighborhood. While critics acknowledge that people need these services to better their lives, they say that East Harlem has more facilities and shelters than other neighborhoods.
Odyssey House has been operating in East Harlem for more than 20 years, hosts street fairs and other community events, and has a good relationship with the local community board, Provet said.
Additionally, the organization makes sure its patients are good neighbors.
"We run very tight programs," he said. "We have a lot of rules and regulations and the clients who come very quickly get on board in terms of respect. Respecting self, respecting others, respecting community."