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Grappling with how to improve safety at sober homes

Hartford — At this stage in the game, most who are paying attention to the opioid crisis agree: It’s preposterous that people in Connecticut have overdosed and died in places billing themselves as “sober homes.”

On Wednesday, however, several agencies and even a person in recovery expressed their concerns about a bill that attempts to address the problem.

The bill, House Bill No. 5149, was one of many discussed during a public hearing of the Public Health Committee. The committee raised this session’s bill, but it resembles a proposal made last year by state Rep. Michelle L. Cook, D-Torrington.

In short, the bill would make it so sober homes can promote themselves as such only if they register with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. It also calls on DMHAS to establish criteria for the acceptance and revocation of registrations, though it doesn’t identify which agency would be responsible for enforcement.

To uphold their status, the bill adds, all registered sober homes would have to keep opioid overdose-reversal drugs, such as naloxone, on hand and provide training to their residents on how to use them.

Chief among the dissenters Wednesday was DMHAS itself. Addressing the room, Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon said the agency wouldn’t be able to monitor the homes for compliance without additional resources.

The Connecticut Fair Housing Center took issue with the idea of not allowing unregistered sober homes to call themselves "sober homes." The provision would restrain the free speech rights of residents and owners of those houses, the agency said.

The center also said such legislation could violate the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act because it "targets members of a protected class — people with disabilities — for regulation."

Delphin-Rittmon additionally said compiling a public list of the homes would, by extension, reveal the disease of anyone who uses that address, whether on job applications, voter registrations or anywhere else. That, she said, could subject the residents to discrimination and harassment — something many who struggle with addiction already have experienced.

In later testimony, New London Mayor Michael Passero objected to that line of reasoning.

“We struggle to figure out where (sober homes) operate, but once we do, we have a list with them — we have to keep one,” Passero said, explaining that the list, when possible, includes contact information for first responders to use.

“In the neighborhoods where these homes exist, people know there’s a house operating,” he continued. “To pretend it’s somehow a secret and hide behind that to not strengthen the regulations as necessary is really regrettable.”

Passero said city officials have knowledge of at least 30 sober homes operating in the 5½-square-mile city but believe there could be up to 50. He said officials believe one person may own as many as 20 of the houses.

While there are good sober homes operating in New London and elsewhere — a point Delphin-Rittmon stressed — many more operate under the radar. The homes don’t provide treatment — just community — and thus don’t have to seek any official approval.

In New London, Passero said, some homes have launched construction projects without getting the proper permits. Others crowd people into single-family structures, despite boarding houses being prohibited in the city. Officials have seen fires, condemnations and other code violations in some of the homes over the years.

Last year, two people died of overdoses in sober homes in two separate incidents. The same number died of overdoses in such homes the year before.

Passero called on legislators to pass House Bill No. 5149. He urged them to also follow in Massachusetts’ footsteps by creating a statewide voluntary certification program. Created in 2014, Massachusetts’ program allows sober homes to seek voluntary certification and requires state-funded agencies to refer people only to homes that are certified.

“I am not proposing anything outrageous, but rather a simple way to bring sober houses up to a standard that our communities, our neighbors, our friends and our families deserve,” Passero said.

New London’s state Rep. Chris Soto and Community Speaks Out cofounder Lisa Cote Johns also spoke in favor of the bill. Johns told members of the committee about New London’s voluntary certification program, an initiative launched early last year.

Johns herself became nationally certified in order to certify others. She said five homes — one in Groton and four in New London — successfully have become certified under the program. Many more are in the process, she said.

Homes seeking certification must meet a series of rigorous but not unattainable standards, including having naloxone and meeting building codes. In exchange, the city places the homes on a referral list, making them more appealing to prospective residents.

Johns also told politicians the story of her son, Christopher, who died of an overdose at a New London sober home in 2014.

“I don’t want another mother having to have a picture of her child hanging around her neck because there are no regulations in place,” she said.


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