New ordinance to open sober homes to inspections in New London

New London — The 30 or more sober homes operating within the city are expected to move out of the shadows in the coming months with new city regulations that mandate a license.

The previously unregulated homes now are part of the same city ordinance that requires licenses and annual inspections for hotels, rooming houses and convalescent homes.

Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein said the passage of the ordinance by the City Council represents a groundbreaking win for the city, which under Mayor Michael Passero sought a way to address conditions at sober homes and the opioid crisis. Those efforts have included a push for state legislation and establishment of a voluntary certification program for sober homes.

The focus has been accountability and oversight, especially for those homes found to be unsanitary and unsafe because of dangerous code violations uncovered when there is a call for city services — a police, fire or medical issue, such as an overdose. At least seven people have died at sober homes in the city since 2014.

“We have our most vulnerable people working hard in recovery with absolutely no guarantees of quality, structure or safety at these homes,” Milstein said. “This is a really, really important measure not only for people living in a sober house but for the neighborhoods, as well.”

“We have some excellent sober houses operating in the city. It’s just the ones that want to operate underground and for all the wrong reasons we’re concerned about,” she said.

The ordinance mandates that sober houses obtain a license from the city that would be issued only after an annual inspection by the fire marshal’s office, building inspector and Ledge Light Health District. Violation of health, building or fire codes that are discovered could result in the city revoking the license, as well as fines of up to $100 per day.

The ordinance defines sober houses as a dwelling “occupied by more than five unrelated people, all of whom are in recovery from a substance use disorder or chemical dependency.”

Sober houses are protected from state regulations because they do not provide treatment. They also are mostly exempt from local zoning regulations because they are protected by state and federal regulations, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act.

And while some operate in an appropriate manner and truly care about the residents, Milstein said, some simply exist for profit.

“This puts them on our radar. We will know where the places are now,” she said.

Fire Marshal Vern Skau said until now he has been able to inspect homes under the rooming house ordinance, when there are seven or more unrelated people living under one roof. Rooming houses are regulated because they need zoning approval, which in turn triggers an inspection.

Sober houses, on the other hand, are protected and often not known about. He said some of the most common violations found in the homes is homeowners setting up beds in places never designed to be bedrooms. For example, it makes for dangerous conditions when multiple people are housed in an attic space with just one way out, Skau said.

Riccio Hope, president of the nonprofit New Creation House Ministries Inc., operates a sober home on Jefferson Avenue and plans to open another in the coming months in the area of Berkeley Avenue and Crest Street with about a dozen residents.

Hope said he’s been in the city for seven years and never shied away from inspections. He said the homes are Christian-based recovery homes with Bible studies, a houses manager and structure to prevent relapses from residents, many of whom are recovering from opioid addiction.

“We don’t just bring guys in and warehouse them,” he said. “We will invite (the city) in when we open a new house. We do everything the right way. How are you going be a mentor to the guys if you’re not doing it right yourselves?”

Hope said he struggled with his own problems in the past and “had someone there to help me on my feet and point me in the right direction.”

“I’m basically trying to do the right thing for these guys,” he said. “Money is not a gamechanger for us. We’ll bring them in with nothing and give them an opportunity. A lot of them just need a break.”

Hope admits to one death at the Jefferson Avenue sober house due to a resident who had relapsed.

“It rocked me to the core. It was devastating. But we look for signs and ask tenants to submit to random drug testing,” he said.

Hope said he understands the city’s intention and will abide but is unsure that making addresses of tenants public would serve the people in recovery who already deal with the stigma of addiction. 

State legislation passed this year allows sober house operators who voluntarily certify homes under nationally recognized standards to be listed on the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services list. Criteria for certification includes things like availability of the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone and residents trained in its administration. Hope said he has plans to seek certification.

The local organization Community Speaks Out, which raises awareness of the opioid crisis and helps people seek addiction treatment, has two members trained under National Alliance for Recovery Residences standards to conduct inspections and already has certified five homes, all owned by the same individual, in New London.

Lisa Cote Johns, a co-founder of Community Speaks Out and trained inspector, got involved after her 33-year-old son, Christopher, died in a sober home in New London in 2014. Another resident died in that same home, she said.  

There are 11 homes in the area that have contacted her for certification even as her group settles terms of an affiliation with the Connecticut Alliance of Recovery Residences.

Johns credited New London with taking steps to further make owners of sober homes accountable, “so they can go in there and at least make sure the ceiling is not falling down.”

“We've been fighting for this. I’m thrilled,” Johns said. “New London is doing incredible work.”

g.smith@theday.com

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