- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) - To the passer-by, the Victorian house in a residential Worcester neighborhood near UMass Memorial Medical Center’s Hahnemann Campus looks like any other house. There’s nothing to indicate that the five men who live there are in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction. It’s neat. It’s quiet. And the tenants go to work or volunteer jobs every day.

The Living House, as it’s known, is one of what is estimated to be more than 300 sober homes, or recovery residences, in the state, an alcohol- and drug-free group-living arrangement in which tenants go to daily 12-step meetings and support each other in recovery. Typically, as at The Living House, a manager who is in recovery lives on site.

Some sober homes work wonders. Others fall far short - some have said, dangerously so.

Because sober homes don’t provide treatment services, they aren’t licensed or regulated by any government agency.

Recently, the state Public Health Council approved regulations that establish voluntary certification of sober homes according to standards set by the National Alliance for Recovery Residences, or NARR.

While certification is voluntary, the amended substance-abuse treatment program regulations require that starting later this year, state agencies, including treatment programs and courts, refer only to certified sober homes.

The first two sober homes to be inspected, one in Dorchester and one in Lynn, were certified Jan. 20.

State Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel, who formerly served as chief medical officer for Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, said, “I had many patients who were really saved by sober homes.”

Dr. Bharel acknowledged, “Some of them have room for improvement.”

She said the initiative to ensure basic standards were being met for safe, drug-free living environments would help people with substance-abuse disorder on their recovery journey, a key part of Gov. Charlie Baker’s efforts to address prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery to stem the rising number of opioid-related deaths.

Well-run sober homes would also be more welcome by their neighbors, she added, and reinforce the administration’s State Without StigMA campaign to reduce barriers surrounding substance-abuse disorder.

“Most of the Massachusetts sober houses are anything but sober. That’s the reality,” said Richard Winant, owner of a sober house in Wakefield and president of the Massachusetts Association for Sober Housing, or MASH. “But this is aiming to make a difference.”

Since the new regulations were passed, he said, “I’ve been talking to people from all over the state. The people I’ve talked to have been above and beyond (the standards) - they’re all in. It’s a breath of fresh air.”

He said he hoped the certification rule would weed out the bad ones.

MASH was formed nearly a decade ago by eight sober-home owners who wanted to operate at a higher standard, according to Mr. Winant. The organization now has around 15 members, including Stephen Sheldon of Newton, owner of The Living House and a few other homes around the state.

MASH is working with the Recovery Homes Collaborative and NARR to inspect sober homes and provide training to house managers. Training is expected to start March 22-23 in Boston and will roll out across the state.

The inspection application, standards, list of certified sober homes and process for complaints are planned to be on both the MASH (www.mashsoberhousing.org) and DPH websites within the next few days.

“I think that it’s extremely needed,” Donald M. Flagg, executive director of the seven-bed Crossing Over sober home in Fitchburg said. “It’s important to bring back the trust of the local community… to realize that these are good, legitimate programs for these men and women to continue their journey.”

Kenneth E. Lague, 27, of Brookfield moved into The Living House a few weeks ago as he works to recover from alcohol addiction. He had been in sober homes before he relapsed a few months ago.

He’s seen the good and the bad.

At a sober home in East Boston, Mr. Lague said, “There was a lot of bad stuff there with the other residents. People were passed out in the bathtub. It was pretty blatantly obvious that stuff was going on.”

He left East Boston for a much better stay in North Attleboro, where people stayed sober and the manager helped him get a good job.

But he slipped back into old habits after he left. “I wasn’t working the program as I should be, so it caught up with me,” Mr. Lague said.

After completing a detoxification program at Spectrum Health Systems in Westboro, Mr. Lague started looking for another sober home.

“It’s tough, it’s hard finding sober houses online,” he said. “They all represent themselves as good houses. That’s just the unfortunate part of it. Some just care about money.”

Sober homes charge anywhere from $100 to $150 a week, which is what Mr. Sheldon charges, to upwards of $2,000 a month. Insurance doesn’t pay for it because it’s housing, not services. Federal and state housing assistance doesn’t cover it.

With an entirely private-pay rental market, a vulnerable tenant population and no firm standards, Mr. Winant said, “That’s where the abuse comes in. You stuff 25 guys in a three-decker.”

Mr. Lague said his situation at The Living House is a far cry from the bad situations that he knows can occur. The residents go to a 7 a.m. Alcoholics Anonymous meeting together and then go out for breakfast. On weekends, they watch football and eat pizza.

Andrew R. Brancato, the house manager, said one resident didn’t meet 11 p.m. curfew and had to leave. But generally there aren’t problems and mostly, he said, “These guys are in bed at 9.”

Providing a clean, safe, sober environment is critical to a home’s success.

Sober-home residents have to remain drug- and alcohol-free, and there is supposed to be zero tolerance for abuse. A resident who tests positive for drugs or alcohol in mandatory testing will be asked to leave within minutes.

“If somebody relapses, we have a zero-tolerance policy on paper,” Mr. Sheldon said. “On a case-by-case basis, we give people a second chance. A relapse is not necessarily a train wreck.”

But he stressed, “We don’t give someone a third chance.”

Sue Krikorian of Leicester, a former Central Massachusetts regional manager for the parent support group Learn 2 Cope, said a sober home in Dorchester made all the difference for her daughter, Kailin, now 26, after she finished a 30-day residential treatment a few years ago for painkiller addiction - the second time.

After her first admission for treatment, Kailin came home to live and relapsed within 24 hours.

The second time, Ms. Krikorian told her she had to go to sober living and get away from her old temptations. She stayed for 10 months, a typical amount of time.

“I think just being around the sober community, I really think that community helps,” Ms. Krikorian said.

Sober homes also teach basic living skills, like making a bed, and provide structure for people who may not have been used to that.

While Kailin found the support she needed, Ms. Krikorian said, “I think it’s like everything else: You have to do your homework.”

“It’s kind of a crap shoot,” said Timothy M. Bibaud, first justice of Dudley District Court, which for two years has had a drug court. “It’s not like you have a desk reference book (of sober homes). It’s really just word of mouth.”

Judge Bibaud said he has referred many of the drug court defendants to sober homes, and regardless of a home’s reputation, it’s trial and error to find the right fit. Court officials plan to visit sober homes in the region on Feb. 5 and Feb. 12 to get to know them more in person.

Judge Bibaud applauded the new certification process. “It gets people thinking of the drastic need for sober homes,” he said. “Even 30 days’ treatment is not enough.”

Sober homes have generally flown below the radar, but occasionally a local issue comes up about housing codes and zoning.

Worcester Director of Housing and Health Inspections Amanda M. Wilson said there were three reports about sober homes, primarily related to overcrowding, since Jan. 1, 2015.

“With the new state guidelines, we’re obviously looking at what those guidelines are and how they fit into what we currently have for regulations,” Ms. Wilson said. “It’s a fair-housing issue as well.”

She said one group recently inquired about opening a new sober home in the city.

Municipalities can’t require special permits or restrict sober homes differently than family housing, under federal and state fair housing laws, according to NARR President David M. Sheridan. In fact, because people in recovery from substance-abuse disorder are protected under disability laws as well, communities have to make “reasonable accommodations” for housing.

The biggest sticking point has been whether sober homes are the same as rooming houses. Mr. Sheridan said federal case law has said, no, in part because the residents operate together in a family-like unit.

“What an opportunity this is for the state, that for the first time there’s going to be support and recognition between good housing and just anything that’s available,” Mr. Sheridan said.

___

Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), https://www.telegram.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide