Volunteer training eyed for sober home operators

The state Department of Public Health’s bureau of substance abuse services will be able to shoulder the cost of a voluntary training program for sober home operators, says the bureau’s deputy director.
In a legislatively-mandated report on the facilities, also known as alcohol and drug free housing, DPH officials suggested a voluntary training program for operators through the bureau that would be funded by the Legislature.

Federal housing law prevents regulation of the industry and people in recovery are protected under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the report noted, tying the hands of state and local agencies. According to the bureau, no state in the country has prevailed in any court challenge to allow for the regulation or certification of sober homes.

The 16-page report, issued in May, estimated the training program’s cost to be between $242,100 and $257,625 a year, on the assumption that there are 300 homes, at minimum, available for training.

Hilary Jacobs, the bureau’s deputy director, later backed off the report’s request for legislative funding, and told lawmakers at an informational hearing that the agency would be able to handle the cost. But incentives would be needed to prompt sober home operations to apply, she said.

“The incentive … that I think the Legislature could potentially help with is the requirement that no state agency or its vendors could refer to a sober home that didn’t go through this training program that the bureau provided,” she told the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, which is chaired by Sen. John Keenan (D-Quincy) and Rep. Elizabeth Malia (D-Jamaica Plain).

When Rep. Randy Hunt (R-Sandwich) asked what her agency can do about an unlicensed sober home, Jacobs said they can send a cease-and-desist letter to a sober home if it is also running an unlicensed treatment facility.

Boston Police Superintendent-in-Chief Daniel Linskey said some sober homes have become an issue in Boston’s neighborhoods, as well as in Quincy and Fall River.

Lower Mills residents and merchants have criticized a proposal for sober housing in the former Molloy funeral home, saying the density of the project is too much for the neighborhood to handle. And a sober home n Port Norfolk encountered neighborhood opposition last year.

The total number of sober homes in Boston remains unclear, since a registry listing such housing does not exist.

In testimony similar to what he said at a City Council hearing in June, Linskey pointed to day care centers and nursing homes as being regulated. “But we can’t go in and make sure people affected by alcohol and drug addiction, that they have a safe place,” he said.

Municipal officials operate within current laws to respond to complaints of sober homes in the neighborhood, he added, such as whether they violate noise or trash ordinances. But they are unable to ensure living conditions are “up to snuff,” he said.

The DPH report, while calling for the voluntary training program, recommends municipalities use existing laws, and questioned the benefit of additional regulations and licensing.

The report noted that sober homes’ neighbors have complained because they are afraid of an increase in traffic and crime and a decrease in home values, but sober homes and residents “are subject to nondiscriminatory enforcement of reasonable health and safety, building, fire, zoning, land use, and criminal laws.”

Malia said the committee tends to hear about the “bad” sober homes and called for highlighting the sober homes that do not receive complaints from neighbors.

“We need to help promote the good ones and promote positive follow-up, and hopefully that will drain some of the business away from the totally opposite places,” she said.