The neighbors are recovering addicts

I have long thought of Prospect Street, on the outskirts of New London's downtown, as perhaps the city's most charming street.

The tree-lined, block-long Prospect Street, the principal part of the Prospect Street Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, magically evokes a small New England town, where porch sitters chat with passersby, in a larger urban context.

In a city with many absentee landlords, the well-kept but modest historic houses of Prospect Street, many dating from the mid-19th century, the era of New London's whaling prosperity, are largely owner occupied.

Past and present residents have included art history professors from Connecticut College, visual artists, the director of a regional theater, a city school board member, social workers, a newspaper editor.

Prospect Street is also right now a flash point in the controversy surrounding the city's many sober houses for recovering addicts, which, despite aggressive efforts by city officials, remain completely under regulatory radar here and across the state.

Indeed, when first responders arrive at one of these sober houses, they might have no warning about what kind of residence it is. There have been two fatal overdoses at one of the city's unregulated sober houses.

Some of them provide substandard living conditions, mattresses on the floor, city officials say, and promise but don't deliver safe, drug-free environments to people looking for that in the midst of an opioid crisis.

"It's like the Wild West out there," said city Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein, who has been leading efforts to regulate the houses.

"The bottom line is that the (residents) are some of the most vulnerable people who are really trying to remain in recovery," she said. "We owe it to them to provide the safest, highest-quality living environment so they can move forward with their lives."

Milstein told me she chuckled recently when she opened a jar of jam she bought at a farmer's market, because of the warning label on the bottom saying it wasn't made in an inspected kitchen. And yet recovering addicts get no warnings when they move in to unregulated housing that promises a drug-free environment that may or may not exist. There are no warning labels that there are no inspections.

A bill that would have attached minimal regulation of sober houses, making residents sign waivers that they understand the facility is not licensed or inspected, passed the state House this year but stalled in the state Senate.

Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, incredibly, sadly, testified against the bill, noting that addicts are protected against discrimination because of their disabilities.

"We are concerned that requiring sober houses to self-identify and register with the state as a business entity ... will provide increased opportunity for discriminatory or stigmatizing behavior," she said in her written testimony.

This belies the fact that other states successfully have regulated sober houses without discriminating.

Rep. Chris Soto of New London, a sponsor of the House bill that passed, said, on the other hand, the measure proposed essentially would have treated recovering addicts as consumers who expect and deserve basic consumer protections.

On Prospect Street, I met recently with a group of neighbors alarmed about one of the clapboard-clad Greek Revival houses on their street being converted into a sober house.

They only learned about it after asking people working on the house what they were doing. And when they researched it, they discovered the house on Prospect is owned by the same person who owns a house on Colman Street that was raided by police in 2015 as an alleged drug factory.

The combination — no regulations and a drug arrest history at another house with the same owner — has put the neighbors into protest mode.

I sympathized with their distress until I had a chance to chat with Blanche Boyd, the Roman and Tatiana Weller Professor of English and writer-in-residence at Connecticut College, who owns both the new sober house on Prospect Street and the house that was raided on Colman Street.

Boyd, who told me she is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober 36 years, struck me as someone who is aiming to help, not take advantage of, recovering addicts.

Indeed, Boyd, who lives in Guilford, was one of the first sober house owners to agree to participate in a new voluntary registration program for sober houses initiated by Milstein and funded with a $5,000 grant from Lawrence + Memorial Hospital to the nonprofit addiction advocacy agency Community Speaks out.

It is the first volunteer registration program of its kind in the state.

Boyd explained that the drug raid at the Colman Street house, which she was renting as apartments, was what convinced her to open a sober house there. She enlisted the help of an old friend, also in recovery, who runs sober houses for men in New Haven.

The two in New London will both be for women, Boyd said. They are clean and comfortable and rules are enforced. Drug tests are administered frequently and anyone who fails has to leave that day.

Residents must attend four 12-step meetings a week, including one that she leads at the Colman Street house. They also have to have a job and see a therapist once a week, Boyd added.

Boyd also said she supports the registration and regulation of sober houses and would like to be a part of writing those standards and rules.

I suspect that many of the neighbors of the new sober house on Prospect Street would prefer that it go away. But at least they might be relieved to know it could come to be regulated, maybe as an example of best practices in the field.

A clean, stable and nurturing sober house on Prospect Street might also prove to clueless Commissioner Delphin-Rittmon that sober houses can be registered and regulated and still be located in the best neighborhoods, no stigma created.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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