Rehab Center's Downtown Move Is Up for a Vote by CB1

Howard Josepher, founder and president of Exponents, addresses Community Board 1's Financial District Committee, which later voted to oppose the organization's move to the Finanicial District until a public hearing is held. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jan. 27, 2014

UPDATED 2/14 to reflect vote by Community by 1.

Howard Josepher stood at a window in the new fourth-floor offices of Ex­ponents, the agency he founded 26 years ago that now daily serves 40 to 50 low-income substance abusers, HIV-infected clients and newly released prisoners. Looking out at lower Washington Street and the Fi­nancial District skyline be­yond, he took in the view with seeming wonder.

“You tell me, are these residential buildings?” he asked the reporter who was being shown around the offices.

A mix, he was told.

“You see, I didn’t really know that. I thought it was all offices.”

Indeed, Josepher, the president and CEO of the agency, has been getting a lesson in the Financial District’s residential growth, and not an easy one.

Unable to renew the lease on its home of 19 years on West 26 Street, Exponents this month moved to a sprawling, 24,000-square-foot floor at 2 Washington St.t, a 31-story building just north of Battery Place that is near several apartment buildings. The Learning Experience, a nursery school, is next door.

Early last month, Josepher had come to Community Board 1’s Financial District Committee to introduce his org­anization. The appearance was part of a community notification process re­quired for a state license to practice its drug treatment program in the new location.

Josepher was not warmly received. An online petition calling for a halt to the facility’s move had already been gathering signatures.

“You don’t think it spikes crime, to bring addicts into the neighborhood?” said one of a group of residents who had come to the meeting to oppose the facility.

“It hasn’t in the past,” Josepher re­plied.

“You realize you’re not servicing any­one in our neighborhood,” she re­joined.

“I don’t think that’s true,” Josepher said.

Downtown restaurateur Harry Poul­akakos, who lives near 2 Washington St., was even more direct.

“If I have anything to do with it you will never have a happy day here,” he shouted. “Why you come here?”

Before Josepher could answer, Poulakakos went on.

“To help me?”

“Can I answer your question? We come here because the space was available here.”

“We don’t want you here!”

Committee chair Ro Sheffe said he “greatly admires” the work of the organization but he called the timing “awkward for us,” a reference to CB1’s recent opposition to the city’s move of a probation office to the Fi­nancial District’s 66 John Street. “So there may be some heightened sensitivity,” he said.

The full board voted to “strongly oppose” the Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services (OASES) to withhold its decision on granting Exponents a drug treatment license until a public hearing is held to assess “the appropriateness” of treatment at its new location.

The board’s role is only advisory in the licensing process. Exponents had mostly moved into its space  and was able to offer its many other programs. (A federal contract to provide help to low-income HIV-infected patients makes up the largest portion of the agency's work.) Nevertheless, Exponents' license from the state to provide that service remains under review.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Josepher told the Trib.

An OASAS spokeswoman did not return calls for comment.

Housed for nearly two decades at 211 W. 26 St., Exponents has been located in the coverage area of the 13th Precinct and Community Board 4, both of which reported to the Trib that they had no record of problems associated with the agency.

In an email to the Trib, Sheffe wrote that the 13th Precinct “in many cases would not be able to determine whether any particular incident involved the facility in any way.”

Nevertheless, in crafting its resolution, CB1’s Financial District Committee chose not to oppose Exponents based on its clientele but on Josepher’s 11th-hour notification to the board—months after the move was a done deal.

Susan Cole, a co-chair of the committee, said Josepher’s last-minute ap­pearance before the board made the move to Washington Street seem like it was done in secret.

“It’s very hard for us to even listen to the good parts of your program,” she told Josepher. “Everybody is so uptight and tense, we feel you have done a terrible disservice. It’s all very surreptitious is how it feels to everybody.”

Josepher replied that he had been unfamiliar with the process and the need to notify the community board. “Ignorance maybe isn’t a good enough excuse,” he said. “But it wasn’t done to sneak something through.”

With Ex­ponents’ move to 2 Washington, Jo­sepher and his staff of 45 are bringing nearly a dozen programs to the building’s fourth floor, recently built out into a seemingly endless warren of classrooms, offices and rooms for group therapy.

On the day the Trib visited, the massive job of moving in was still underway, but clients were being seen, senior staff was meeting around a long conference table, and a certification class for aspiring drug counselors was taking place. While Exponents awaits its license to resume drug treatment services, other programs such as health and nutrition classes, self-esteem and vocational workshops, and job counseling can continue.

The bustle of activity around the offices seemed far removed from the controversy and harsh exchanges at the community board. Still, Josepher said, he was stunned and saddened by the reception he received there.

“We are very well-respected and the client satisfaction is incredibly high,” he said. “We’re proud of that and we hoped the community would be proud of it, too.”


Howard Josepher and a Pioneer Program's New Start

The roots of Exponents, now a $4-million-a-year, multi-service agency, goes back to the dark days of Howard Josepher’s own seven-year addiction to heroin. Graduating from college in 1961, he was an early experimenter with LSD and other drugs before turning to needles.

Multiple arrests and countless failed detox attempts marked his struggles in those years. Josepher, now 75, recalls reaching his lowest point while serving three months in The Tombs, the city’s former jail on Centre Street. Desperate for admission to a hospital treatment program, he was turned down.

“I didn’t have the opportunity to turn my life around,” he recalled. “I was just laying there in prison day after day, day after day.”

Therapeutic communities, where small groups of patients work together on their addictions, were getting started in the mid-1960s and Josepher joined fledgling Phoenix House with a few other addicts. In 1968 he became a member of its first graduating class.

By 1971, Josepher had worked his way up at Phoenix House, as a facility director and later a regional director. Eventually he returned to school for a social work degree and became a consultant to drug treatment programs.

The turning point came in 1988, when he was offered a three-year federal grant to work with HIV-infected addicts in a program called Arrive, the first such program in the country. Until then, federal attention and money had been directed solely towards the AIDS scourge in the gay community.

The program began with a few pa­tients in a tiny church basement on the Lower East Side. When the grant money ran out, Josepher continued the program, unpaid, in a building at 11 Beach St.

“We believed in what we were doing and we saw that the government was going to start investing in HIV prevention,” Josepher said.

He was right, and within two years his program was being funded. In 1994 it had outgrown its Tribeca digs and moved to Chelsea, where it remained until the recent end of its lease and the need to find affordable space—a search that ended at 2 Washington St.

“We looked in Chelsea, Clinton, East Harlem, West Harlem, the Lower East Side,” he said. “We just couldn’t find anything.”

Now, as Josepher walked the long, freshly painted corridors of Exponents, past dozens of unpacked boxes and a busy mix of staff, clients and construction workers, he took a moment's pause to consider the that still lay ahead.

“We'll just take it one step at a time,” he said. “One day at a time.”