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PROFILE: Access Housing’s Tyler O’Brien--Former Addict, Now Community Leader and Great Father

I first met Tyler O’Brien (photo) at a recent Hope’s Home Breakfast at the First United Methodist Church in Madison. He was talking with Street Pulse editor Jeremy Everson and my first impression was that Tyler looked like a pro athlete. He was well-dressed in a casual outfit, appeared very fit, and was wearing a snazzy Chicago Black Hawks hockey cap. I was then quite surprised to see him just 30 minutes later as he picked up a microphone and started to describe his long journey from alcohol and drug addiction to recent recovery before the Church’s packed breakfast audience of homeless and disadvantaged. For the last two years, Tyler, now 39, has been the co-director (along with Calvin Brace) of the “Access Housing” transitional sober living facility at 1721 Blossom Lane on the East Side. The units there run $425/month for shared housing in two buildings that are all male and currently house 48 men (ranging in age from 18 to 80). The facility receives no funding from the City of Madison and relies wholly on the tenant rent to pay the bills for the facility, which Tyler and his co-director Calvin rent from a landlord. Tyler said he loves his work there because he empathizes greatly with all the tenants and feels he has something to offer them from the similar experiences he has had in his own life. For information on Access Housing, you may contact Tyler at 608-381-0097 or Tyler told the First United audience that he came from a highly dysfunctional Irish family and had started drinking at the age of twelve. Although noting that he liked science and history, Tyler rarely went to school, he said, but made an exception during hockey season. Before quitting Madison East High School completely, he played centerman on the school’s hockey team under the famous U.S. Olympic hockey gold-medal winner Madison-born Bob Suter, and then went on to play centerman for the Madison Capitols, a traveling team also coached by Suter. But Tyler’s addictions and other problems only grew. In addition to addiction, he struggled with anxiety and depression. He moved out of his family home at 16 and started living in the home of a friend of his. This was convenient, Tyler said, because his friend’s father always had a lot of liquor in the house. In addition to alcohol, Tyler also did marijuana and ultimately moved to heroin while still in his teens. Then to pay for his habit, he turned to theft and ended up in jail.

The cycle of jail, release, and return to jail continued for a number of years. Tyler did marry during this tumultuous period and twelve years ago, his now ex-wife gave birth to his son Tegan. During Tyler’s last stint in jail (he was arrested at a hockey rink when he was 34), Tyler thought deeply about his future and made up his mind that he had to change because he wanted to be a good father for his son. He worked at various jobs in the prison as this gave him structure and responsibility, which he now wanted. When he was released in 2014, he was fiercely determined to change his life for the better.

He initially got a job at Madison-Kipp, a local producer of precision-machined aluminum die castings, but that did not last long and Tyler was soon out on the streets again looking for a job. With his prison record, he met rejection everywhere he went. Discouraging certainly, but Tyler was determined and he did not give up. Finally, he began to do volunteer work at Bethel Homeless Ministries, believing that he might help by sharing his experiences with visitors to Bethel who were coping with problems similar to those he had had. Then, eight months later, through Porchlight, he began a paid part-time position filling in at the Madison Library. This soon became a full-time paid position.

Tyler later worked for about a year in a paid position at Tullurian where he reached out to help those diagnosed with mental illness. Later he secured a paid position with Focus Counseling (funded by Wisconsin’s Comprehensive Community Services—CCS), where he worked as a rehabilitation counselor. Tyler has also taken a few courses at Madison College in the school’s Alcoholism and Other Drug Addictions (AODA) counselor tract.

Tyler had reconnected with Calvin Brace when Tyler was in jail and had enrolled in the Pathfinder Jail Diversion Program. Calvin was Tyler’s Facilities Counselor during this program and the two stayed in touch after Tyler’s release. On the outside, the two started discussing the possibility of setting up a living facility for those who were determined to move from addiction to sobriety. These early discussions culminated just about two years ago in the two men founding the Access Housing facility on Blossom Lane.

Now, Tyler O’Brien spends his days helping tenants at Access Housing and also trying to attend every one of young Tegan’s hockey practices and games. He also continues to work part-time at Focus Counseling.

Among the many people who have helped him greatly over the years, Tyler particularly highlighted Karen Andro, Director of Hope’s Home Ministries at First United Methodist Church for her kindness, empathy, encouragement, and optimism.

Now, Tyler is helping people every day and he is also being a great father. Sometime he even finds time to return to the ice and play a little adult hockey. His life is at a good place that he has worked very hard to reach. And he hopes that he can help many others reach a similarly good place. Street Pulse applauds Tyler O’Brien for his great efforts and for his great success.

by Michael D. O’Neill, Street Pulse Writer