SPECIAL REPORT: At ‘sober homes,’ issues of safety inside, safeguards outside

By 
Pat Tarantino and Stephen Kurkjian, Special to the Reporter
Nov. 4, 2010

Second of two parts.
Three years ago, a series of newspaper articles raised serious questions of safety and supervision in the operation of so-called “sober homes” throughout the city of Boston, prompting city and state political leaders to call for desperately needed reforms to assure that recovering substance abusers who lived in these homes had a chance for recovery.

The articles in the Boston Herald and the Bay State Banner found poor living conditions in many sober homes, including the fact that two men had fatally overdosed in one Roxbury sober-living complex, spurring local and state officials and leaders in the fight against substance abuse to call for controls on the homes to make certain that residents received the help they needed to stay clean while ensuring the homes did not pose a safety threat to neighbors.

“We don’t fund them, but we need to have oversight over them,” Senator Steven A. Tolman (D-Brighton) said in a 2007 interview with the Herald. “The neighborhoods have to have recourse if they are run inappropriately.’’

Three years later, little has changed. None of the proposed rules and standards meant to ensure safe living conditions inside the homes have been enacted, nor have any safeguards been put in place for neighbors concerned about the operation of these homes. In fact, an investigation by the Dorchester Reporter has found, no one inside Boston City Hall or the State House can state with accuracy how many sober homes exist in the city or how many people live in them.

PART ONE: Lack of daytime supervision prompts anxiety about group homes

Despite the lack of controls, the state Probation Department, which promised to review its ties to the homes in 2007, continues to allow its recently released prisoners to live in sober homes, but has no record of where these homes are located. In addition, despite the dearth of state oversight and controls, Boston-area sober homes have received more than $1.3 million in gap funding and construction aid in the last 10 years through the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency, a not-for-profit public agency, according to the newspaper’s investigation.

The Reporter found that no one in either state or city government is able to say definitively if the operators of the homes are uniformly meeting the need of providing safe and sober environments for their residents. As for homeowners, the newspaper found that there is no comprehensive way of determining if such a home has opened in a neighborhood.

As they have evolved, sober homes are intended to play a key role in the recovery process for those with serious alcohol and/or drug dependencies. They are filled with individuals who are believed committed to beating their addictions, have completed a recovery program, and are seen as ready to enter the workforce and begin living productive lives again. But these individuals need a stable environment at home to make the best of their recovery efforts.

Sober homes offer a communal space and, though free of clinical programs, prohibit any drug or alcohol use. Residents pay rent either weekly or monthly, generally out of their own pockets.
In contrast, the state pays about $130 million a year to operate about 75 group homes that provide residence and intensive rehabilitation programs for people recovering from alcohol and/or drug abuse. Individuals remain in those programs for approximately six months of clinical programming and are then expected to find homes on their own. Many of them end up in sober homes.

But because there is no state funding for the sober homes, nor any requirement that they provide on-going recovery programs, no one is safeguarding their operations, state officials acknowledge.
One owner who advocates for improving the status of sober homes estimated that at least 60 houses in the city of Boston have been turned into sober homes, with perhaps a dozen in Dorchester. However, Charles Yetman, who runs three sober homes in and around Boston, says he cannot be sure of the total number of the homes or the conditions inside them.

In an effort to bring some standards and cohesion to their operations, Yetman has called on owners of all such homes to join the Massachusetts Association of Sober Homes, which was formed three years ago in the wake of the negative publicity over the Roxbury homes.

In an interview, Yetman said that a code of ethics is needed to make certain that unscrupulous landlords don’t take advantage of recovering substance abusers by packing them into one unit and charging them exorbitant rent. If the owners do not adopt the reforms voluntarily, Yetman said he feared the state will impose more restrictive regulations that would do more harm than good.

“You have to understand that sober homes are the last step in the continuum of care before someone chooses to live alone again,” Yetman said. “Think of these homes as a place to practice living sober.”
Currently, the only control over these homes is the city of Boston’s Building Code, which sets out how much space such homes need to maintain to accommodate their having numerous unrelated people living under one roof.

Under the code, there must be a minimum of 150 square feet of “communal space,” which can consist of kitchen, living, or dining rooms, and 70 square feet of bedroom space for the first person living in the unit. For every other occupant of the unit, there must be another 100 square feet of communal space and 50 square feet of bedroom space, said Steven O’Donnell, director of the community outreach response team for the Boston Inspectional Services Department.

Initial concern over the operation of sober homes was triggered in early 2007 when residents in the Fort Hill section of Roxbury reported unruly activity around Safe Haven Sober Houses, a group of 11 townhouses that had been converted into sober housing where as many as 12 people were living in each unit, each of them paying about $140 a week.

Neighbors complained that a stream of supposedly sober residents made daily trips to a nearby liquor store and left empty needles and other drug paraphernalia outside their homes. Further investigation revealed that several had suffered drug overdoses inside the Safe Haven townhouses. The Herald quoted one former Safe Haven resident as saying the homes were a “zoo” and claiming that others living at Safe Haven got high daily and failed drug tests without fear of being expelled.

Inspectional Service Department workers secured an administrative warrant to enter the home and found up to four residents living inside in a single bedroom, “packed like sardines,” one inspector told the paper. Other issues involved garages and basements being converted into additional bed space. From later court documents, it was estimated that Safe Haven owner David Perry was earning $14,000 a week, or about $725,000 a year, in rental fees from more than 100 residents.

The city of Boston later filed suit in Boston Housing Court against Safe Haven, alleging that it had violated municipal zoning codes by turning its townhouses, originally zoned as single-family dwellings and meant to house no more than four unrelated individuals, into lodging houses without city approval. Additionally, ISD inspectors stated that the garages and basements of these homes, originally intended for storage purposes, could not be turned into living spaces due to a lack of available land on each parcel.

Rather than contesting these violations directly, Safe Haven’s attorney Andrew J. Tine says the Zoning Board is discriminating against people recovering from addiction, a violation of the Fair Housing Act. “The Zoning Board wouldn’t come down on nine people in a family living in one house,” said Tine in an interview with the Reporter. “This is clearly a case of discrimination against my client.”

In addition, city lawyers contended that Perry had turned the units into sober housing without determining how committed individual residents were to staying sober. As many as 200 Safe Haven residents had been sober less than two weeks before entering the homes; the city contended that residents could not be considered in recovery until they had attended some sort of licensed program.
“It did not concern Mr. Perry that a resident was getting sober on the same day as he or she was entering Safe Haven,” the city stated in a “statement of facts” filed with the Housing Court. The three-year long suit and counter-suit between Safe Haven and the city continues in Boston Housing Court, and Safe Haven continues to operate several of its townhouses as sober homes, Tine said.

Perry is now the executive director of Recovery Educational Services, a non-profit company that owns five of the contested Roxbury townhouses and houses between 40 and 50 individuals in recovery.
In the wake of the Safe Haven disclosures in 2007, then State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson called on then Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien to stop releasing state prisoners to sober homes. The Banner reported that O’Brien had agreed to the halt. However, Probation spokeswoman Coria Holland said recently that the department had never ordered such a halt. She also said the department has no records showing how many prisoners are now being referred to sober homes.

State Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, a Democrat from Leominster who chairs the legislative committee on mental health and substance abuse, said the state still lacks an in-depth survey on the operation of sober homes. The Legislature this year ordered the Department of Public Health to conduct such a study but gave the agency until the end of 2011 to complete it.

“This study is going to finally let us know just where these programs are and what it is that they do exactly,” Flanagan said. “We are not looking to over-regulate these places, but hold them accountable for what they do.”

Flanagan says that sober homes are a priority for her because the state expects a hike in substance abuse as the recession continues, adding that the lack of oversight means the state only knows about these programs when something goes wrong.

Massachusetts is not the only state that has wrestled with the operation of sober homes in recent years. New York’s attention was similarly prompted by an alarming pattern of drug overdoses in several homes. Kate Browning, an elected official in that state’s Suffolk County, said she was shocked to learn that “speculators” had purchased foreclosed summer homes, were converting them into crowded group residences, and collecting up to $450 in state-funded rental subsidies while providing little oversight to residents struggling with addiction.

According to Browning, rental subsidies from the state are so lucrative that some sober home owners regularly visit Department of Social Service sites to recruit new non-addicted residents who are homeless or in need of psychiatric assistance. New York, like Massachusetts, has no official title for sober homes or operational guidelines, making a comprehensive count of such residences impossible. But by tracking DSS rental subsidies, Browning’s office estimates that there are 20 sober homes in her district and up to 250 in Suffolk County, which has more than twice the population of Boston.

“They’re called sober homes, but it’s not really the case,” said Browning. “It’s just an individual opening a home, packing people in, and making a lot of money."

In Minnesota, owners of sober homes formed their own organization, the Minnesota Association of Sober Homes (MASH), in 2007 after St. Paul city officials raised concerns about the large number of new facilities opening for business without any oversight and then began a year-long investigation into the industry.

MASH vice president and sober home owner Chris Edrington said the organization not only ensured sober homes a place at the table as St. Paul officials devised a set of regulations guiding sober home management, but also improved the quality of care offered to residents looking for a place in one of the 400 MASH-approved beds throughout the state.

Members meet to discuss accreditation standards and perform regular site visits to each accredited home to ensure a safe environment and proper supervision. They also run two house manager training workshops every year. Now, Edrington says, hospitals and rehabilitation programs insist that sober homes seek MASH approval before referring patients.

“Sober housing was really hit or miss in the past,” Edrington said. But now those referring clients to them “have become more and more interested in consistency, in knowing that these homes are run well. Before they had no way of knowing that.”

Stephen Kurkjian is the Senior Investigative Fellow and Pat Tarantino is a reporter at the Initiative For Investigative Reporting in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University. Their work for the Dorchester Reporter is funded by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. The foundations are committed to supporting investigative and watchdog journalism by community news organizations in the Boston area.
Stephen Kurkjian can be reached via e-mail at stephen@dotnews.com, and Pat Tarantino can be reached at pat@dotnews.com.

The first part of this series on group homes in the neighborhoods can be read here.