Blumenthal visits New London to discuss sober homes

New London — Just days after co-sponsoring a bill to better regulate sober houses nationwide, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal stopped by the city Thursday to hear civic leaders’ opinions about it.

It was his second such stop. The first was Wednesday in Torrington, where about 50 sober homes operate with widely varying levels of quality.

“I think we share a bond with Torrington because we share their problem,” Mayor Michael Passero said early in the meeting. “I’m not sure we’re up to 50 (sober homes), but I’m also not sure we have an accurate count.”

Because sober homes are not subject to government regulation, a person does not have to contact authorities if he or she begins running one. The homes have been subject to scrutiny lately, in part because of their conditions. Some, for example, feature mattresses on the floor and pack in people like sardines. Others have little to no enforcement of their purported house rules.

Last month, a 30-year-old named Zachary Ramsdell died at a sober home at 47 Prest St. It wasn’t New London’s first sober house death — the city has been working since 2016 to urge house owners to seek voluntary certification — but it thrust the issue back into the spotlight.

The Senate bill in question, introduced by U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., calls on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to develop best practices for sober homes. It further requires states wishing to use SAMHSA grants for recovery residences to follow those best practices.

The bill comes on the heels of a Government Accountability Office report about sober homes in Florida, Massachusetts, Ohio, Texas and Utah. The report acknowledges that recovery housing can be a crucial step for those who are hoping to turn their lives around. But it also says a lack of oversight has led some recovery housing owners to take advantage of their tenants. Notably, it found that some addiction treatment providers were rewarded financially for referring patients to certain recovery houses, regardless of how well those houses operated.

“These homes can be key for people seeking to recover, if done right,” Blumenthal said. “But sometimes it’s done wrong and the operators are just in it to make money.”

Sitting inside the Public Library of New London on Thursday were city department heads, nonprofit leaders, first responders, people in recovery and residents who expressed interest in the topic.

Most agreed sober houses need more regulation. But many had different opinions about what that should look like.

Speaking on behalf of Community Speaks Out, board member Kenneth Edwards Jr. said any effort to encourage sober homes to become certified should be accompanied by substantial incentives for them to do so.

Terri Keaton, who runs A-CURE LLC, said all such homes should have paid support staff on hand. A-CURE runs four sober homes, including one at 851 Bank St. Keaton doesn’t own the home in part because she isn’t trying to make money off of others’ struggles.

To have support staff on site, Keaton explained, doesn’t mean to have medical or other treatment services on site. Rather, it means having an employee available to make sure residents are where they say they are and to teach them the basic steps to living a sober life.

“There needs to be support in these houses,” said Keaton, who’s more than 15 years into recovery herself. “There needs to be a case manager or some kind of help for the addict who doesn’t know how to get food stamps, or how to go shopping for clothes for an interview.”

Speaking shortly after Keaton, Trisha Rios, a part-time recovery navigator for the city, agreed.

“When I came in (to recovery housing), I barely knew how to take care of myself,” she said. “I spent my whole life getting high and running the streets.”

“I had other women show me the basics,” she continued, “and when I finally got up to speed, they were showing me where to go for outpatient treatment. You could have given me a list of (recovery resources) ... but I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

The state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services has accredited all four of Keaton’s homes. To achieve that status, she said, she obtained six years’ worth of education and required all of her staffers to attend countless relevant courses.

At the mayor’s request, city Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein provided an update on her work at the state Capitol, where legislators again are trying to craft a sober house bill.

The bill as introduced would have made it so sober homes could promote themselves as such only if they registered with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

DMHAS itself objected to the bill, saying it wouldn’t be able to monitor the homes for compliance without additional resources.

But the bill has morphed over the past few months. It now calls for homes to become certified with the National Alliance for Recovery Residences or a successor organization and then to report that certification to DMHAS. DMHAS in turn will list the home on its website, ideally making people more likely to choose it.

Passero cited a different city housing situation for comparison’s sake. With the help of federal vouchers, he explained, residents have been moving out of the troubled Thames River Apartment complex on Crystal Avenue and into other parts of the city.

“These tenants can’t use the vouchers to rent an apartment unless the apartment meets certain standards,” he said. “But there’s no level of that oversight with sober homes.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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