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Fargo housing program fights on despite criticism, resident death

Adam Martin, an ex-con and recovering addict who founded the F5 Project in Fargo to help people like himself trying to reintegrate into society, had a difficult week.Last Sunday, Aug. 13, a male resident at one of the group's four sober homes was...

Adam Martin
Adam Martin

Adam Martin, an ex-con and recovering addict who founded the F5 Project in Fargo to help people like himself trying to reintegrate into society, had a difficult week.

Last Sunday, Aug. 13, a male resident at one of the group's four sober homes was found dead in his room, likely the result of a heroin or opioid overdose.

Then on Monday, Aug. 14, the F5 Project was the target of criticism at the Fargo City Commission meeting in response to a complaint from a resident who said one of its houses violated city code because more than three unrelated people lived there.

Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn urged the city to track former inmates more closely and expressed concern about the people living in sober houses.

"These are convicted criminals," he said, "These aren't victims. Some of them could be sex offenders, murderers. We have no idea."

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Since then, Martin says he has been accosted on the street, received hostile e-mails, and has been pilloried on social media.

"I was a little taken aback," Martin said late last week. "Piepkorn made a claim about us that wasn't true. I got mad about it at first, but then I realized it was based on lack of education about who we are."

Evolution of a program

Martin, 35, started the F5 Project this past January. In short order, it has grown in size and scope. It operates four sober houses in north Fargo-Martin won't say where because he says residents fear for their safety after the criticism-and hopes to add two more next month.

But it does much more than that. The group also helps newly released prisoners get into addiction recovery programs, find jobs, and eventually permanent housing.

Martin founded the nonprofit organization a few months after giving a speech before 800 people at a United Way of Cass-Clay event in which he described his own experience moving from addiction and jail to recovery and a good job.

At the time, he was working as a business development manager for High Point Networks in West Fargo. High Point President Tom McDougall hired Martin to do sales in 2013 despite Martin's criminal record and history of addiction.

The gamble paid off. Martin was promoted. He got his driver's license back, bought a car, found a place to live, and re-established a relationship with his two sons. He became a model of what was possible for people "with backgrounds."

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He began speaking about his experiences at homeless shelters, treatment centers, and jails. But the United Way speech raised his profile and he began to be besieged by requests to speak and help individuals getting out of jail.

Demand for his time became so great that it began to interfere with his job. He'd cancel sales meetings to pick up inmates as they were being released. So he quit to devote all his time to the F5 Project.

It started with Martin

The program's name has a double meaning. F5 is the refresh key on a computer keyboard and symbolizes the organization's desire to help ex-cons and addicts get a fresh start. But it also refers to the number of Martin's felony convictions. He has been convicted twice for burglary, twice for motor vehicle theft, and once for terrorizing for threatening someone.

"I was locked up pretty much every year from the time I was 18 until I was 27," he said.

Most were minor convictions and he never spent more than four months in jail at one time. All of his crimes were committed while he was drunk or high. Addiction, he insists, was his real problem, crime merely a byproduct.

Martin grew up in Moorhead. He started drinking and smoking marijuana at age 13. He moved elsewhere in high school but dropped out after 10th grade (he got his GED while in jail).

"Drinking became the priority mentally," he says. "Every time I got it I made sure to use it to excess."

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By the time he was 18, he was living in Fargo, working whatever job he could get, but never for long. His drinking and drug use intensified. He shifted from beer to hard liquor, and from weed to cocaine and methamphetamines.

He tried "pretty much every drug available in Fargo other than heroin." He became addicted to meth, which he used to counter the effects of alcohol.

"When I did meth it made me feel like I was sober," he recalls. "Alcohol is a downer, meth is an upper. You're not sober, but you feel like you're sober."

In 2000, he underwent treatment for drug addiction in Fergus Falls, Minn., and has been able to stay off drugs. Alcohol proved more difficult for him to overcome.

"It was really hard for me to see it as a problem," he said. "One, it was legal. Two, all of my friends were doing it. I always tried to figure out how to drink like other people. But whenever I put the bottle in my mouth, I couldn't control myself."

He finally quit on April 29, 2013. He tried many times before. He can't explain why he finally succeeded. "It was just time," he says.

Death of a resident

All Martin has been through and is trying to accomplish makes him easily frustrated when people criticize F5, mischaracterize what it is doing, or make false statements about the group or the people that it serves.

F5's sober homes, Martin says, have never housed anyone convicted of murder, rape or sex crimes of any type, contrary to the suggestion by Commissioner Piepkorn. Anyone convicted of such crimes is automatically disqualified.

Individuals seeking to live in one of its houses must go through a stringent screening process. They must be approved by a case worker or probation officer to live there and complete an interview with Martin or his assistant.

"We're usually pretty good judges of who's going to be a good fit," he says.

Martin also insists the group has never violated city code about the maximum number of unrelated people who can live in a dwelling. He says occasionally someone additional may stay in one of its houses for a short period while they are seeking housing, but never for more than a week or two.

According to Dan Mahli, a Fargo city planner, a person isn't considered a permanent resident until they have lived in a residence for at least 30 days.

Currently, 20 people live in F5's four sober houses. It hopes to add two more houses by the end of September that would accommodate nine more. The group is also applying to the city to have two of its existing houses designated as group homes so they can house more than three people each. But that will require city approval.

When the program began, it didn't have a housing component and that wasn't part of the plans. But Martin quickly discovered that the lack of stable housing options often caused ex-cons, most of whom are addicts, he says, to relapse and eventually commit new crimes.

"I'd pick them up from jail, drop them off at a homeless shelter, and then I would see them drunk later in the week," he said.

Martin can endure the criticism the group has received better than he has dealt with the death last weekend of a man living in one of his sober houses. Michael Dean Peterson, 25, of Fargo, who was found dead in his room, had been a model resident, he said, often helping others, in part because he had a driver's license and a car, unlike most.

"That really hurt," he says. "He was a wonderful human being. It lit a fire under me. It makes me want to do more and help the people who aren't being helped."

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