Lawmakers square off against sober houses
Paige has a faint scar running from the left corner of her lip into her cheek. She was shot three times trying to buy crack in 2007. Every tooth was shot out of her mouth. She was left for dead.
Now she lives in a West Palm Beach sober house. She wakes up for mandatory morning meditation. She goes to required meetings. She makes it home by curfew. She has found a clean house makes her feel clean. Making her bed in the morning makes her feel good about herself.
Living with other women in recovery helps her with her self-esteem, her feelings of isolation, despair, wasted years.
“I get it. People don’t want drug addicts, thieves, transients living in their area,” says Paige, touching on the inflamed social fray over the regulation of sober houses. “But my sober home saved my life.”
As much as sober houses may be unwelcome, Paige says, “They’re needed.”
Sober houses are group homes for people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Most people living in sober houses are fresh out of detox, looking for some sense of sanctuary as they transition back into a life of sobriety. They come from all brackets, from all over the country. Many say they can’t go home to a family that’s at the end of their rope, or back to an abusive relationship. They say that’s the last place they need to be, that’s the first place where they’d use again.
In Florida, anyone can rent out any house and call it a sober house. Critics say some sober house operators are more concerned with making money than helping those in recovery, and pack people into a house, bringing noise, traffic and reckless behavior to single-family neighborhoods.
Individuals in recovery are protected under federal fair housing and disability laws, but neighbors to sober houses say they want protection, too.
Such voices became the genesis of a proposed state law, under deliberation in the Florida legislative session, worded to regulate sober houses and protect people living in them. Opponents say the original legislation may have been designed to discriminate against sober house residents.
Sober houses have been surfacing in South Florida for decades, predominately in Broward and Palm Beach counties, with a notorious accumulation of sober houses in Delray Beach. Delray officials estimate there are at least 225 sober homes within the 16-square miles of their city. They believe sober houses are proliferating, but there’s no way to prove it. That’s the problem, that’s why they support regulation, they say.
Allyson Chambers, director of operations for three sober house locations across Palm Beach County, says public perception paints the picture of a sober house as a place where people are still using drugs and alcohol, stealing from their neighbors. She feels the stigma sticks, whether someone’s high on a substance or not.
“Everyone is so afraid of acknowledging that they have been touched by (addiction), whether they have a daughter, a friend, a colleague, someone has been touched by this disease,” Ms. Chambers says. “They’re in so much fear. And we’re just someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, someone’s friend, someone’s colleague, trying to get better.”
There are a total of 25 beds in the sober houses Ms. Chambers oversees and those beds are for women only. The women are required to make a 90-day commitment, but Ms. Chambers says they tend to stay six months. Rent ranges from $1,000 to $3,500 per month. Ms. Chambers says 25 percent of residents receive scholarships, because she’s unwilling to say no to a woman who’s willing to do the work.
“They do deserve to be in beautiful neighborhoods. They’re doing beautiful things,” Ms. Chambers says. “Myself, I would prefer to live next to people that are working a program, not just abstaining from drugs and alcohol, but trying to better themselves as human beings, versus neighbors that have parties every Saturday and are making a ruckus.”
Ms. Chambers says if she were out to make money, she’d be selling pharmaceuticals. If neighbors hear noise coming from her sober houses, it’s laughter.
Carl Flick found out there was a sober house in his neighborhood by the noise. Sitting in his backyard, he was privy to intimate, inappropriate conversations.
Mr. Flick went to the operators of the sober house, asking them to make a rule and ban cellphone talking in the backyard. “I was forceful yet diplomatic and consistent: ‘This must be solved,’” he says. “What happened was we drove the noise out of the backyard and into their front yard,” leading another neighbor to complain.
Overall, Mr. Flick feels fortunate compared to neighbors of irresponsible sober houses. “We dodged a bullet,” he says. “But even though we’ve had complaints and been able to resolve them, we are still unprotected.”
Mr. Flick fears the absence of legislation could beckon more sober houses to the neighborhood. He wants equity and he wants minimum distance requirements.
“If the neighborhoods have to accept this, then we want to make sure that there’s equal distribution, that there’s not an over agglomeration,” he says. “And right now, we have no protection against that.”
Mr. Flick feels the proposed legislation may create more problems by being inadequate legislation. “We want the state Legislature to really do their homework, because what they’re doing is a knee-jerk reaction. Welcome to Florida. Tallahassee. They don’t really vet the issue properly, they just quickly create legislation,” he says.
The legislation: Twin bills were filed in the state Senate and House of Representatives on Monday, Jan. 6. As of Monday, March 24, Senate Bill 582 has largely remained the same: Legislation would require the registration of sober houses through the Department of Children and Families, disclosing the number of individuals living at the sober house. Sober house operators would be required to give 48-hour notice of eviction or provide alternate shelter to tenants in an effort to prevent homelessness. DCF would conduct background screenings of sober house owners/operators as an effort to prevent seedy situations.
The legislation would authorize DCF to conduct inspections. Opponents argue DCF agents could enter at any time without warrant. Advocates say agents would only inspect upon certification or complaint.
The Senate bill has yet to pass appropriations. A timely investigation by The Miami Herald underscores DCF’s desperation for money and staffing, shining light on the link between substance abuse and child welfare.
House Bill 479 was amended by the Healthy Families Subcommittee to create a voluntary certification program for sober houses and sober house operators, with the caveat that treatment providers would only refer patients to certified sober houses.
A list of all certified sober houses and sober house operators would be published on the DCF website, making addresses very much public record.
“The initial bill filed was a Trojan Horse of discrimination under the guise of consumer protection,” says Jeffrey Lynne, a zoning attorney in Delray Beach. “You have to look at your legislation. Are you looking to protect sober-house residents or single-family neighborhoods? If your focus is the residents, here you go, put a bow on it. If that’s not your focus, it’s illegal.”
Mr. Lynne sees the regulation of sober houses as a civil rights issue. He says he’s not advocating, he’s speaking the law. When he defends sober houses, his words get heated. He says the more cities fight him, the more he will entrench himself in representing the recovery community.
“Bring (civil rights) up in the context of the recovery community and people go, ‘How do you compare people in recovery to African Americans or gay rights?’ ” he says. “I don’t need to. The law does.”
People in recovery are protected under the Fair Housing Act and the American with Disabilities Act. The FHA was amended in 1988 to include people with disabilities. The ADA was passed in 1990.
Mr. Lynne stresses the proximity of these dates to show there was a problem. He says people were not treating each other with compassion because it took another federal law of great magnitude to demand people do so.
He feels such laws are still needed to remind people to treat each other with respect. He says he has had a woman curse at him and spit on him at a public hearing, where he was representing someone who wanted to bring a residential recovery program into Delray.
“There’s a big public policy debate that we are not prepared to have as a country, and that is, what do you do with people who are addicted to substances,” he says. “We as a people continue to ostracize them and alienate them.”
Though the language in the proposed state law has been crafted “to protect persons living in a sober house,” Mr. Lynne says there’s a difference between saying it and meaning it.
In a recent newsletter, state Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, conjures the scene of residents who have scraped and saved all their lives to live in a safe, middle class neighborhood with their children — to live the American dream — when one day, out of nowhere, a sober house arises:
“Slowly, properties near their home begin to have a flurry of activity: drug transactions within feet of where their children play, people coming and going at all hours of the night, screaming in the early morning, catcalls directed at preteen girls and police presence on a nonstop basis …
“Their previously safe and quiet neighborhood is physically threatened with the arrival of this poorly managed business,” a sober house.
In a phone call from Tallahassee, Rep. Hager adds soiled mattresses and defecation to the scene. Addressing accusations of discrimination, he says, “If it comes down to a conflict between somebody who injects himself, by his own choice, with heroin, and a child, I will always come down on the side of a child.”
Rep. Hager says some sober houses are well run, but many are not. He says he does worry about individuals, recovering addicts and alcoholics, who are abused in sober houses, kicked out on the street after shady operators take their money.
He says sober houses are proliferating because they’re profitable. Anyone can buy a house, lure the vulnerable to detox in the Florida sun, stack bunk beds in the garage and take their money to the bank. Rep. Hager says any time big money’s involved, there will be opposition to regulation. From day one, he has encountered resistance to his bill, but says he has received signed letters from 125 elected officials, which shows him, there’s significant inertia, something must be done.
Michael Weiner, the founding attorney of the Delray firm where Mr. Lynne practices, points to a wall in his office displaying photographs of himself alongside the likes of George W. Bush, Jeb Bush, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.
“I’m a good Republican. Rep. Hager’s also a good Republican. I find it ironic that he feels government intervention is somehow going to cure this particular situation,” he says. “I find it ironic that everyone wants to establish how it should be cured without knowing the facts.”
Last year a Senate committee directed DCF to file a report on recovery residences. The report ultimately concluded that sober homes are elusive and litigious and that more money needs to be appropriated for more studies.
“If you are serious about regulating an industry, then let’s get to what needs to be regulated and how we regulate it,” Mr. Weiner says. “The facts, they’re not here yet. We’ve got anecdotes, they’ve got anecdotes,” and the two sides can exchange them punchfor punch.
“The first time I saw it,” Mr. Weiner says of the disdain for the recovery community, “was in the early ‘90s. There was a hospital that was formerly operated exclusively for psychiatric patients. It was in western Delray, or what was then western Delray, and it was to reopen to treat addiction only.
“Imagine, it was a psychiatric hospital up until that time. When it came to reopen, the local city residents filled city hall and I was hired. That was the first time I had seen it. And I thought to myself, it was quite shocking to think people had been there with schizophrenia and every other diagnosis in the world and no one said a word. All of a sudden it was recovering alcoholics and we had hundreds of people in the room.”
Mr. Weiner believes legislators are sincere in their desire to help their constituents. He says people in the recovery world want to see good regulation, too. He believes there must be a better way, more reasonable legislation, more appropriate dialogue, to make those in the community and those in recovery feel comfortable.
“For better or for worse, there is a social contract, and it means that the general community may have to endure some change, maybe even some dislocation, much as they did in the ’60s,” when neighborhoods were integrated, Mr. Weiner says. “They may have to endure change now and get over what fear they have.”
State Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, says unregulated sober houses change the character of neighborhoods. He acknowledges that people have a right to open a sober house, “We’re not saying you shouldn’t,” but just as people in recovery are trying to make their lives better, he says his bill aims to make sober houses better.
“The bill lets us know where sober houses are and provides minimum standards of quality of life for the people who live there,” he says.
Sen. Clemens feel confident his bill will pass the Senate. He feels the struggle will be with Rep. Hager in the House. “We’re continuing to move our bill forward in the form it’s in, perhaps with some additional language in the future to further protect residents,” he says. “At this point, I don’t anticipate us watering down or weakening the bill to match up with the House version.”
Sen. Clemens says it’s easy to attract folks to Florida. “If we can’t get a handle on it, Naples has nice beaches, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if (sober houses) became an issue over there, as well,” he says.
Asked to accentuate the real problems, not the perceptions, of sober houses run by “unscrupulous owners,” Sen. Clemens pivots to Terrill Pyburn, interim city attorney for Delray Beach.
In the conference room of her office, Ms. Pyburn hands over a scripture-thick stack of papers containing the photograph of a sober house operator who was arrested for selling drugs, a photograph of a registered sex offender who was managing a sober house and a photograph of sober house apartment units attached to a bar.
The document also contains logs of police, fire and emergency calls to residences believed to be sober houses.
Ms. Pyburn explains the city’s definition of family allows three unrelated people to live in a dwelling. A landlord can apply for “reasonable accommodation” when the number of tenants exceeds the city’s code. Thereby, the data estimates there were 225 sober homes in Delray in June, based on the number of requests for reasonable accommodation, but that number does not include sober houses with three people or less, or sober houses that have not sought accommodation.
Ms. Pyburn says there’s no way of knowing the number of sober houses, sounding the war cry of those who say: “That’s why we need legislation.”
Ms. Pyburn defends the proposed legislation as protective, not discriminatory, by saying, “Federal law states that you can, in plain English, you can have regulations that may be imposed in the realm of persons with disabilities, so long as they are legitimately related to a government interest. In other words, if the regulation helps, not hurts, the protected class.”
Ms. Pyburn says the proposed legislation helps prevent people living in sober houses from being kicked out in the middle of the day or night by way of the 48-hour notice prior to eviction, responsive to the state interest of affording the tenant due process and preventing homelessness. “That’s logical. There is a nexus there.”
She says the required background checks will stop sexual offenders from running sober houses or stop sober house operators from selling drugs, responsive to the state interest of providing the tenant a safe place to live and preventing relapse. “That’s logical. There is a nexus there.”
Regarding opponents casting allegations of discrimination, she says, “Either they haven’t read the legislation or they’re just giving blanket arguments that really are unfounded and have nothing to do with and are not applicable or relevant to the legislation that we’re proposing. And that is what is upsetting.”
The Florida Association of Recovery Residences, a not-for-profit organization with a mission to create, monitor, evaluate and improve standards for sober houses in the state, has certified 26 programs operating 127 homes and presently is in the midst of certifying an additional 122 homes. Every one of these sober house operators voluntarily sought FARR certification.
“I believe strongly, the state should have a curriculum established for the education and training of owners/ operators of recovery residences. They should be forced to register, they should be forced to comply, but the residences should not be listed anywhere in the state file,” says John Lehman, FARR president.
Mr. Lehman says he has heard many a mayor vow, ‘We don’t know where the sober homes are, but as soon as we do, we’re going to get rid of them all.’
“I can tell you from talking to recovery residence owners/operators,” Mr. Lehman says, “the big challenge for them to come out of the closet and even apply to FARR for certification is, ‘We don’t want them to even know we exist, because they’re going to come — it’s a witch hunt — they’re going to come and they’re going to try and close us down.”
Mr. Lehman acknowledges there are bad sober house operators. Some sober houses are overcrowded. Some residents can use whatever substance they want, as long as they pay rent. He says some houses are not concerned with recovery but “house insurance cards,” collecting multiple urine samples a week to generate ungodly amounts of money. He says people in the industry call these places “piss farms.”
“Nobody wants active addicts living next door,” Mr. Lehman says. “ADA defines this disabled class as being people that are in recovery from addiction … If you’re not in recovery, if you are actively using, you are not protected.”
Mr. Lehman feels sober house operators should have to demonstrate that their residents are in recovery. If they’re not, he doesn’t think the residences can be protected. He says legislators need to stop thinking about the homes, “FHA is FHA and it’s been tested … You’re not going to do anything about the homes, the homes get to be in single-family neighborhoods.” He suggests legislators start to change their thinking and move on to owners/operators. “You can regulate them,” he says. “You cannot regulate the homes.”
Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein says the motive behind the proposed legislation was protection for everybody. “Even the FHA and ADA were really meant just to level the playing field for people with disabilities,” he says. “They weren’t intended to give them more rights than people without disabilities, much like before FHA and ADA it was unfair that people without disabilities had greater access and rights than people with disabilities, so all of this is about parity.”
Mayor Glickstein likens the current, lawless state of sober houses to the Wild West: “No licensing requirement, no registration requirement, no background check, no inspection of facilities, there’s nothing.”
The way he views legislation, “It’s knowledge.”
Any reference to a “witch hunt,” he regards as “selfserving hyperbole.” He says it’s no secret where sober houses are located, “We know where they are. Everybody knows where they are … We have entire blocks, it’s not just sober homes, we have entire sober blocks.”
He stops himself. Sober houses are a sensitive issue. “It’s very hard to talk about it, having to craft your words, being concerned about how some lawyer is going to twist them out of context … Lawyers who are hovering around, who have made a fortune, that have profited from this industry under the guise of anti-discrimination, looking to pounce on the words of every elected leader, city official, legislator.”
From the vantage of city planning and city resources, Mayor Glickstein says it’s not the number of sober houses that’s the issue, it’s the number of people in the houses, it’s the number of beds. He says the number of sober houses is proliferating, the number of beds growing exponentially, but he finds himself in a catch- 22. How does he know they’re growing? “That’s why the registration is important,” he says.
The Palm Beach Gardens Police Department reports they have had no issues with the two known sober houses in the city. Officer Ellen Lovejoy, PBGPD spokeswoman, says no one in the department can speak to the issue of sober houses, because it has not been an issue.
David Levy, Palm Beach Gardens City Council member, says he has not heard from his constituents regarding sober houses. He says the matter has only been brought up once in city council meetings. “We support our sister cities and their efforts to change state legislation for better regulation,” he says.
Mr. Levy says a city has to protect its neighborhoods and recognize the rights of those in recovery. He feels there’s room for recovery and regulation.
The DCF response to the registration of sober houses, background screenings and inspections has been: “The department’s role is … to implement any changes the bill requires of the department.” ¦