Seeking fiscal support for sober house effort

Those familiar with the struggle of recovery from opioid addiction say there is no more dangerous or difficult a step than the transition from a treatment program back into the churn, struggles and temptations of daily life.

Making plans, facing debts, finding a place to live, building new relationships while trying to avoid some old ones, can quickly boost stress. Perceived relief in the reality-escaping, numbing effects of a sedative is only a dealer away.

Relapse is part of recovery. Few reach the reward of long-term sobriety without experiencing it. For a heroin addict who has had an extended period of being clean, however, relapse can be deadly, as a dose once necessary for a desired high proves too much for a cleansed physiology to handle.

The intent of sober houses is to help former addicts meet these challenges, providing a living environment shared by residents who support one another in the goal of continued recovery.

At least that is the concept.

The reality, say those immersed in helping individuals trying to move past their addictions, can be quite different.

In good ones, individuals are encouraged to stick with their recovery plans. The atmosphere is positive, with residents urged to own their recovery, and success stories modeled. These are homes with reasonable living space, a shared commitment to maintain the property, and the security necessary to assure it remains alcohol and drug-free.

But in bad ones, exploitive landlords crowd together individuals in recovery, knowing their options for finding a place to live are limited. Lip service is given to maintaining recovery, but not the resources to support it or the security to help protect it. Dealers prey on such places, while neighbors dread them.

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits zoning and other regulations from being used to ban or limit individuals from living together in such mutually supportive environments. The rule is well intentioned and necessary. Without it, it would be difficult to find locations for any such homes. Unfortunately, some also exploit it. Under the guise of being a sober house, more rent-paying people are crowded into a one- or two-family house than would be allowed under zoning rules.

Therein lies the challenge: recognizing good sober houses and rooting out, or encouraging the improvement of, the bad ones.

Into that challenge steps the volunteers of the nonprofit Community Speaks Out group, many from families that have suffered because of addiction, committed to helping others in that struggle.

In New London, home to an estimated 30 sober houses of both good and bad variety, the group is working to establish a voluntary certification program. Using quality standards established by the National Alliance for Recovery Residences, volunteer inspectors would visit willing sober houses and, if the homes meet the criteria, provide certification.

Conceptually, at least, those transitioning from residential treatment programs would be referred to the certified sober houses, motivating other homes to gain certification or forcing them to close.

And conceptually, that sounds great. But this is a big challenge for a volunteer group. A past effort in the same mold stalled when state aid dried up. Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, through its new affiliation with Yale-New Haven Health, has provided a $5,000 grant, but that can only stretch so far. If this is not a sustained and concerted effort, owners of poorly operated but profitable sober houses will not be motivated to change.

Ideally, Connecticut would follow the model developed in Massachusetts. That state passed a 2014 law requiring the Bureau of Substance Abuse to establish an accreditation and inspection program for sober houses. It prohibits state agencies and other recovery programs from sending clients to non-certified homes. Massachusetts has about 100 certified sober houses.

Given Connecticut’s fiscal struggles, funding such a program is unlikely in the short term. This is unfortunate, because good sober houses mean more successful recoveries, which benefits society while saving the state money in reduced emergency response and treatment program costs.

Helping the Community Speaks Out group carry out an effective pilot program in New London by providing a large donation would be a worthwhile act by one of our corporate neighbors. With adequate resources, Community Speaks Out and New London officials could create a model program that cities statewide could emulate, in the process demonstrating the worthiness of future state support for these efforts.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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