Addicts seeking drug-and-alcohol-free housing upon leaving highly structured rehabilitation centers often face increased temptation and relapse when moving into unregulated “sober houses” being established across the state in response to the opioid crisis.
Currently, anyone in Pennsylvania could claim to host a sober-living home without any experience or oversight as long as it complies with local rental regulations.
That will soon change.
A new state law that takes effect in June requires drug and alcohol recovery houses — where addicts commonly cohabitate to offer each other support — be certified and licensed by the state if they receive any government funding or referrals. The licensed homes also must operate under a long list of rules and have written policies in place.
State officials estimate at least 500 sober-living homes are currently operating, but only about 65 receive government funding.
“They are marketing themselves as places for people living in recovery, but they have no oversight. They are only subject to local zoning laws,” said Ali Fogarty, communications director for the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, which will oversee the recovery homes. “If we could certify them, we can hold them to a higher standard to make sure it’s safe and healthy.”
Sober homes will have a grace period to comply with the new law. All rules and regulations much be in place by June 2020, Fogarty said.
However, she conceded what zoning officials have already pointed out: despite the legislation, unregulated homes likely will continue to operate if they don’t take government money because a landlord is free to rent to whomever he or she wants.
Sober house operates discreetly
Hazleton native Heather Hoffmaster, 24, died last year after overdosing on the synthetic opioid fentanyl at a sober house in Wilkes-Barre.
Her family knew nothing about the place.
When an ex-boyfriend got concerned Heather was overdosing during a video phone call, he had no idea where to send emergency crews or her family, who made frantic calls to Heather’s friends trying to determine her location, they said.
“When Heather overdosed, the cops and ambulance couldn’t even find it until we got the address from a friend that dropped her off there once,” her sister, Megan, said.
An Internet search for the name of the sober house on East Northampton Street in Wilkes-Barre provided no results and that’s intentional, Megan said.
“They just don’t have it searchable on the Internet. Heather found out about it through a friend who ran another sober house,” she said.
On Dec. 28, 2016, Heather asked friends on her Facebook page to suggest sober houses in Wilkes-Barre. A friend posted a few suggestions, including the place where she overdosed 12 days later. By the time she was found, Heather was brain dead. She died the next day in a local hospital.
It’s unclear what rules, if any, were in place at the home.
A woman who answered the door recently at the home said she leased the property and confirmed it was a sober house.
She said she might consider doing an interview, but did not contact the newspaper before publication of this story.
A Florida woman who is listed as an owner of the property denied having a connection to a sober house.
“I do not own a sober house and I do not live in Pa.,” she wrote in response to a message sent to her online.
Zoning official: We can’t discriminate
Those who run sober houses advertise them in online classified listings, such as Craigslist.
One local post reaches out to the “many countless people who struggle with addiction on a regular basis.”
“We are here to offer our support to those who want to face addiction and begin working toward their goals for recovery in earnest,” says one local advertisement. “When you are prepared to accept the invaluable assistance you need to achieve your goals for recovery, you deserve the assistance we can provide. Reach out and contact our friendly experts today, and you can start treatment without any delay. No pets, drugs, or alcohol.”
Rent is $333 a month, the post said.
Wilkes-Barre Zoning Officer William Harris said the city’s zoning law doesn’t address sober living houses.
Housing a small number of recovering addicts is the same as renting to anyone else — whether it be college students, members of religious sects or those with mental illness — and the city can’t discriminate as long as all rental regulations are met, he said.
The city’s zoning law merely prohibits more than four unrelated people from living in an apartment, he noted.
“In my opinion, we can’t discriminate against alcoholics or those recovering from drug addiction,” Harris said. “It’s four people living under one roof.”
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Gov. Tom Wolf in December signed a law that aims to regulate sober-living homes. The law, which takes effect in June, requires drug and alcohol recovery houses that receive any government funding to be certified and licensed by the state.
Some rules are:
All referrals from state agencies and state-funded facilities must be to centers licensed and certified by the state.
Only licensed centers will be eligible for government funding.
A state or county court must give first consideration to state-certified centers when referring someone to a recovery house.
Certified drug and alcohol recovery houses must:
Inform residents of house rules, residency requirements and lease agreements.
Have policies for management of all funds received from or managed on behalf of residents.
Have policies for criminal background checks for operators and employees.
Prohibit owner or employees from soliciting or accepting anything of value for referrals.
Have policies that require residents to participate in treatment and self-help groups.
Require residents to abstain from drugs and alcohol.
Have rules on appropriate use and security of medication.
Have smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers, and be in compliance with fire codes.
Not force residents to relinquish or sign over public assistance.
Have policies for dealing with complaints.
Have requirements for notifying family members of emergencies, including overdoses.