Proposed N.J. sober living home vandalized with flooding

Police are investigating what appears to be the intentional flooding of a proposed sober living home in Burlington County that has run into opposition since it was announced in December.

Around 9 a.m. on Jan. 14 Evesham Township Police responded to a report of water damage to a house on the 100 block of Monmouth Green, said Police Lt. Justin Graff. When officers arrived, they found that drains in rooms on the first and second floors had been clogged and the water turned on, flooding the house, he said.

No one has been arrested, but police said they believe the vandalism may have been done to prevent the sober living home — a facility that offers a safe and structured living environment for people recovering from drug and alcohol abuse — from moving forward. Some residents had claimed the site would be dangerous for the community.

“We believe that the motive behind the crime could potentially be the fact that they don’t want that residence in the neighborhood,” Graff said. “And that they’re trying to prevent it from succeeding.”

Several interior and exterior doors were also sealed with caulk, in an apparent attempt to block people from entering and shutting off the water, police said. According to Mark Werner, who leases the property from SL Housing, water flooded the house for about eight hours.

“There was nothing stolen from the house,” said Werner, CEO of Cayuga Housing, which is set to operate the sober living home. “It was a targeted job where they went in with the intent to destroy the home and prevent us from opening.”

An initial police press release did not note that the vandalized residence was the planned sober living home to avoid attracting a lot of attention, said Graff.

The flooding happened just days before the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs was set to conduct an inspection of the home, said Werner. The damage will take at least three weeks to repair, he said.

A few township residents have expressed vocal opposition to the home, and they have attempted to rally others to their cause, said Werner. The majority of Evesham Township residents supported the home, said Werner and Evesham Township Deputy Mayor Heather Cooper.

At the home, residents would be taught budgeting and other domestic duties, said Werner.

At a Dec. 8 township council meeting, several residents voiced fears that the home — down the block from J. Harold Van Zant Elementary School — was too close to children. Most residents acknowledged the need for such homes and for recovery programs, but said they did not want the home in their neighborhood.

Cooper, whose brother died from a fentanyl overdose and had lived in sober living homes, was criticized when she spoke in support of the home.

“My position still stands,” said Cooper. “Because I understand who these people are. That these are productive members of society that had made bad decisions. … But I understand when you feel like something is coming into your community that poses a risk.”

Some opposed to the home implied that the people living there would bring a bad element to the neighborhood, according to the meeting’s minutes.

“What was upsetting to me is people were comparing them to sex offenders or criminals,” said Cooper. “We know nothing about the people that are going to move in. They haven’t even moved in yet.”

Cooper and Werner said there was no evidence that sober living homes posed a safety risk to a neighborhood. No municipal data showed an increase in crime, said Cooper, despite at least three other sober living homes already operating in Evesham Township.

As Werner and his crew rebuild, they said they hope the home will still serve as a place for people in recovery to live. Cooper said that since the vandalism, support has actually been bolstered.

“For the most part, the community has been nothing but very welcoming to us and supportive of us,” said Werner. “This is a few individuals who were willing to voice their opinion strong enough and go to the extent of breaking in and causing damage to a home.”

Anyone with information can call the Evesham Police Department at 856-983-1116, the department’s tip line at 856-983-4699, or email at [email protected]. People can also send tips by texting ETPDTIP to 847411.

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