CHICAGO — The nation’s epidemic of addiction to painkillers and heroin is fueling runaway demand for a once-obscure form of housing known as “sober homes,” where recovering addicts live together in a supervised, substance-free setting to ease their transition back to independence.
The facilities are rarely run by credentialed professionals and are only lightly regulated — a situation that has prompted at least five states to pass or consider legislation to impose basic rules on how they operate. Some homes have been accused of tolerating drug use and participating in insurance fraud.
“The ones that are good are fantastic,” said Pam Rodriguez, CEO of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, an Illinois nonprofit working to reduce prison time for nonviolent drug offenders. But the rapidly expanding field also includes “people exploiting the vulnerability of the population and their desperation to find a safe place to live,” she said.
Sober homes are based on an idea that has been around since at least the 1970s, when many communities had halfway houses — group homes reserved for the most desperate alcoholics with nowhere else to turn. These new houses cater increasingly to people who have become addicted to opiates. In recent years, the epidemic has touched more families who can afford to pay for care.
There is no nationwide estimate on the number of sober homes, but experts say the growth is apparent.
For instance, Prescott, Arizona, a city of 40,000, has 169 homes. That’s one home for every 237 people, with more on the way.
“We have houses opening up two or three a week here,” said Mary Beth Hrin, a Prescott resident who supports a bill to allow cities to regulate the homes.
One large network of homes, Oxford House, now has almost 2,000 houses in about 500 cities, up 20 percent in the last three years.
Families are seeking guidance in choosing a home and pressing for accountability for the money they spend there.
Some of the laws under consideration would require sober homes to be inspected and certified and subject to ethical codes and consumer protections.
After a scam involving inflated insurance claims for sober home residents, the Florida Legislature last year adopted a law effectively requiring certification of homes that receive patients from licensed rehab centers. Florida has an estimated 1,200 homes housing 12,000 to 13,000 people.
For now, most homes have little to no governmental oversight.
“In most states, there is not a regulatory body because recovery residences aren’t considered treatment,” said Amy Mericle, a scientist at Alcohol Research Group, a California nonprofit that studies alcohol and drug addiction.
Relatives often don’t know what to expect when a loved one checks into a sober home.
“Parents like us are blindly placing our children in these facilities,” said Jill Martin, whose 22-year-old son, Joey, died of an overdose in a Loma Linda, California, sober home where, she said, he was supposed to be regularly monitored. She is among those pushing for regulation in Arizona, her home state.
The best homes can increase abstinence and lower incarceration rates, according to the little research available.
“It instilled back in me the plain and simple things — common sense, staying away from things that would get me back into the streets,” said James McDaniel, a recovering addict who moved into a Chicago sober home in 2010 after leaving prison.
The homes are positioned to benefit from rising spending for addiction treatment, which is climbing at 5 percent a year and projected to reach $42.1 billion in 2020, according to federal estimates.
States have been pushing more drug offenders into community programs to curb prison costs.
Last year, Illinois spent $4.8 million housing parolees in sober homes — up 25 percent in the last three years. West Virginia recently announced $1.5 million in new addiction treatment funding that includes a women’s recovery residence. Ohio gave $12.5 million in grants to sober homes in the past three years.
The increased government spending has also invited fraud.
In Florida, some unethical operators recruit residents so they can conduct expensive urine testing covered by insurance, said John Lehman of the Florida Association of Recovery Residences, which represents sober homes in a state that’s a hotbed for addiction treatment centers.
Our takeaway: There must be balance restored between the right to housing, protection of consumers of health care services, and protection of neighborhoods from housing providers who know nothing of the social model of therapeutic housing which is the cornerstone of what a “recovery residence” is.
Please join us on Friday, April 29, 2016, from 8am – 11am for our free workshop at the Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce about the new regulations relating to sober homes in Florida. For more information, go to: https://soberlawnews.com/speaking-events/ and click on the link for this event. Seating is limited. Please RSVP to Elizabeth at firstname.lastname@example.org