They’re sitting next to each other in a crack house, holding hands. Their matching engagement rings glisten — the same engagement rings they pawned off five years ago when they decided to buy that crack house.
Over the years, Jared Cashner and James Sanzeri have sold their car, emptied out their retirement funds, and pawned their engagement rings all to keep and maintain a property at the corner of North Andrews Avenue and NW 25 Street.
They called it the Sanctuary House.
Their goal in opening the Sanctuary House of South Florida was to provide a safe and stable environment for men and women in the LGBT community struggling with drug or alcohol abuse.
The Sanctuary House takes in people who want to recover from drug and alcohol abuse and offers them recovery meetings, therapy sessions, organized doctor visits, and a place to call home.
Cashner walks a brick path through a garden leading towards the front of the Sanctuary House. A large tree with branches stretching over the walkway drops bright, pink flowers into a little pond. There are gardens everywhere, practically around every corner. Cashner loves the garden setting. They make the Sanctuary House seem tranquil.
He takes a seat on the porch swing on top of the marble floors and rocks back and forth.
It’s hard to believe that a little less than five years ago, this was not at all how his sanctuary looked.
With cracked floors, broken down walls, and no doors, this abandoned building became a ground for squatters and drug dealers.
“It was a nightmare when we first bought it,” Cashner said.
Cashner and Sanzeri purchased the abandoned property in December 2008 and turned it into a promising recovery center. It began with just three clients. It has since grown to a volunteer staff of 13 and up to 41 clients at a time. The Sanctuary House managed to raise $250,000 in 2012.
“We’ve come a long way since the broken down property we first bought,” Cashner said.
Wayne Campanele takes a seat next to Cashner on the porch swing. Campanele has been a client at the Sanctuary House since March 2012. He has been in and out of rehab centers since he was 13 years old. This is the first time he feels at home.
“And I didn’t even mean to come here,” he said. Campanele’s drug abuse problems got him into trouble. A judge told him that he could either go to jail or enter into a program. Cashner stood up in the courtroom and raised his hand, “I’ll take him,” he said.
“I couldn’t let him go to jail,” Cashner reminisces. “I know how hard it is, so I had to be the parent with the steel-toed boots.”
The minimum stay for a client at the Sanctuary House is four months, but most clients stay an average of a year, according to Cashner.
“This is the best I’ve ever been in,” Campanele said. Cashner leans forward and pats Campanele on the shoulder.
“I’m signing Wayne here up for classes tomorrow morning,” Cashner said with a wide smile. Campanele is planning to attend beauty school.
“I feel motivated,” Campanele said. “Like I have a purpose.”
Cashner hopes that every client leaves the Sanctuary House with a job or ready to start school. The most important thing is that they have something waiting for them when they leave.
“If you want to take classes, I will help you,” Cashner said. “Don’t worry about money. I will find a way. You believe that.”
Cashner stands up and begins walking a brick path around the Sanctuary House, through a fence and more gardens. He shows off the poolside area, situated perfectly under the shade of multiple palm trees and fully furnished. That’s not how it looked five years ago.
In December of 2008, the cracked concrete of a hollowed out pool was buried in the shadows of a large, yellow bulldozer. No trees. No furniture. The city was planning on knocking down what is now Cashner’s sanctuary.
“It was the most unattractive building in the neighborhood,” Cashner described it. And he wanted it.
To Cashner, it wasn’t just a crack house; it was a project. It was taking this decrepit, old house, a breeding ground for bad habits, and turning it into a safe place — into a home.
The couple bought their sanctuary before it was destroyed, but it was hardly habitable.
“The place was so bad when we first got it that it took me and James two months with a metal detector to find all the needles buried in the rubble,” Cashner said.
They did the repairs themselves and still do to this day along with managing the business end of the Sanctuary House.
“If there’s a leak in the house, it comes down to me and a plumber’s wrench,” Cashner said.
It took years to clean every apartment in the house and make all of the repairs. There are still a few repairs, as Cashner points out. A few doors jam and the roof needs work done — everything seems minor in comparison to the first repairs.
“Once we got the first big hurdles out the way, it was easy,” Sanzeri said. “We still keep busy, but we’re dedicated and we love it.”
Cashner pointed out a building across the road while speaking with SFGN. A few weeks ago, he recognized a drug dealer in the nearby building. As a 49-year-old retired court reporter, Cashner works closely with local police and local courts. He had the man removed from the building by police.
“I had him out of there so quick,” Cashner chuckled.
“See this,” he said pointing at a bench in the gardens just behind the main building of the property. It was a gray marble bench engraved “Joseph ‘Buddy’ Sanzeri,” in memory of Sanzeri’s older brother who died at the age of 15 from drug abuse.
“I’ll be damned if I ever let a drug dealer anywhere near this property,” Cashner said.
Sanzeri struggled from drug abuse himself. The 24-year -old has been in recovery for more than five years.
“It’s more than personal to me,” Sanzeri said. “My brother died from drugs. There aren’t many places for these people to go.”
Now he pours all of his time and effort into giving others the chance that his brother never got. If it’s up to him, he’ll be doing this “forever.”
Cashner and his late husband of 18 years adopted two sons, one of whom was born to a mother with severe drug and alcohol abuse problems.
“I knew how he was born. I knew he had drugs and alcohol in his system from birth,” Cashner said. “But he was mine the minute they put him in my arms and I knew that, too.”
Both partners have reason to feel close to this cause — close enough that they’ve only taken a total of nine days off in the last five years, they said.
“Someone said to me once ‘you’re not an alcoholic, you’re a workaholic,’” Cashner said laughing.
There are three buildings. The biggest is the main building where the gay men in recovery stay. The couple opened two more for lesbian women, and transgender clients.
He opens the door to one room in the main building. It looked just like the others, furnished with a pull-out couch, small coffee table, and TV. But this room was different. It was Cashner and Sanzeri’s home when they opened the Sanctuary House.
They spent all of their money and time on the Sanctuary House and ended up living in it with the clients for almost a year.
The couple didn’t intend to open the Sanctuary House, it was a “happy accident,” as Cashner calls it.
One rainy night in November 2008, the couple had a friend who struggled with substance abuse come to them with nowhere to go. They rented an apartment for him and helped him get back on his feet. The friend spoke at a recovery meeting and told others Cashner and Sanzeri brought him.
“It had a snowball effect,” Sanzeri said. “We weren’t just getting one or two calls about clients. It was more.”
Before they knew it, the Sanctuary House that could hold only three clients grew to house up to 41 clients.
“We’re planning on expanding the back end of the property to make room for more bed space,” Cashner said.
With Cashner’s close relationships to local judges and the police department, he gets calls constantly asking if they have room for just one more client.
The Sanctuary House grew rapidly, and before Cashner could see it coming, so did the bills. The couple sold what they could to keep the Sanctuary afloat, including their engagement rings, before their luck began to turn around.
They began receiving private donations from community members that wanted to support the cause. In September 2012, the couple opened a thrift shop just two blocks away from the Sanctuary House. All of the proceeds from the thrift store go towards funding for the Sanctuary House. According to Cashner, the thrift store makes about $8,000 a month.
With all of the money coming in from donations and the thrift store, Cashner and Sanzeri are able to offer bed space at the Sanctuary House to clients for $17.36 per day.
More people also volunteered their time to the cause as it grew. The Sanctuary built a staff of 13 unpaid volunteers. People like Eliana Dole volunteered their time.
Dole has been volunteering with the Sanctuary for over three weeks now, as their newest volunteer. She wandered into the Sanctuary House Thrift Store one day and immediately fell in love with the cause.
“When they told me about what they were doing, I thought it was incredible,” Dole said. Dole helps run the thrift store with Sanzeri.
“They just want to help others and it’s amazing,” Dole said. “If I can help someone to not hurt anymore, then I will.”
The Sanctuary House was recently recognized as a public charity in late April. The couple applied two years ago in order to work with other nonprofits and become eligible to apply for grants.
“Now, we’re in talks about upcoming grants,” Cashner said. He’s more hopeful now than ever.
Cashner doubles back to the front of the Sanctuary House. He fiddles with the engagement ring on his left hand, twisting around his ring finger. The couple bought the pawned rings back two weeks ago. They’re getting married at the end of June in Long Island.
“We’re finally going to take a vacation,” Cashner said laughing.
He reminisces on the changes endured since they first pawned the rings off.
“There were no toilets in the space,” Cashner laughed. “The first year was spent making it habitable. The second was spent making it beautiful. Now, it truly is a sanctuary.”
For more information about the Sanctuary House of S. Florida, visit sanctuaryhouse.info.