BPD chief: Feds need to toughen laws on sober homes

The superintendent-in-chief of the Boston Police Department is calling on the state’s representatives in Washington D.C. to change federal law and allow for sober homes to be regulated.

Superintendent Daniel Linskey noted the city licenses day care centers and homes that care for the elderly.

“It makes no sense to me” to not license sober homes, he said at a City Council hearing last week.
The lack of regulation of sober homes has been a source of consternation among local elected officials, as a proposal for more sober housing in Lower Mills has prompted push-back from local merchants and residents who say the project is too dense for the neighborhood.

A state Department of Public Health study released last month indicated that federal housing laws view sober housing residents as disabled, and they cannot be regulated in a way that could be seen as discriminatory.

At a Thursday night hearing held in the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot School’s cafeteria on Columbia Road, councillors took testimony from state and city-based regulators, as well as neighbors of the proposed Lower Mills project, on the sober home industry.

In his testimony, Linskey said his father was an alcoholic, who turned sober when Linskey was three years old. He became engaged in the alcoholic recovery community.

Linskey said he was familiar with two kinds of sober homes: those that are safe, reliable and armed with the knowledge of what it takes, and those that become a “huge drain” on police resources and are harmful to the community.

“Unfortunately, the need for sober homes has increased,” Linskey said, due in part to prescription drug abuse.

In the last five years, sober housing has become a “new cottage industry,” he said.

Linskey said police can work within current laws and statutes, such as enforcing noise ordinances, and the Inspectional Services Department can enforce building codes.

Asked by District 7 Councillor Tito Jackson what the community can do if a sober home has turned into a problem property, Linskey said, “Please call. Let us know there is a problem.”

The exact number of sober homes in the city is unclear, but those that become problem properties are “known to us,” he said.

And because of the lack of regulation, the quality of each sober home can vary, according to Rita Nieves, director of the Boston Public Health Commission’s addictions prevention, treatment and recovery bureau.

“Unfortunately, though data indicate that sober homes can play a role in ensuring individuals leaving treatment can benefit from the stable, controlled environment that comes with a group commitment to sober living, without licensing or certification, there is no way to monitor the impact of individual sober homes on those in our community seeking to recover from addictions,” she said.

A couple of sober homes can be found on the Internet, but it’s “incredibly difficult” to gather information on them, she told the City Council’s Committee on Labor, Youth Affairs and Health.

Nieves said her bureau supports setting up a voluntary training program for sober home operators, as proposed by the state Department of Public Health.

“Specifically, we are open to thinking through any opportunities we may have to work with referring entities, such as probation, and the courts, to ensure that they are committed to referring individuals under their jurisdiction to only a subset of sober homes which meet a set of potential voluntary criteria to establish their credibility and safety,” she said.

Jim and Elena Scherer, who live near the former Molly funeral home that may turn into sober housing in Lower Mills, said they were concerned about the density of the project and whether the employees will be professionally trained.

City Councillor At-Large Felix Arroyo, who chaired the hearing, said the lack of regulations surrounding sober homes is “stunning.” The testimony from residents who are concerned about unregulated sober homes in their area “really showed the struggles people had feeling safe in their own neighborhood,” he said.

District 3 Councillor Frank Baker, who joined Jackson in calling for the hearing, said state and federal officials should act to provide new tools for Inspectional Services and the Boston Police Department to deal with the sober home industry.

“The system is definitely broken,” Baker said.