Sober house certification on hold in New London as state funds dry up

New London — A voluntary certification program being offered to the more than 30 sober houses spread across the city is on hold because of the lack of funds by the organization that sponsored it.

Ken Aligata, the program manager for the recovery housing program at the nonprofit Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery, said state grant money has dried up. The program was funded through the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Aligata had been working with New London and the owners of sober houses on a certification process that adheres to national standards set by the National Alliance for Recovery Residences.

“It’s just sad, especially in this time of great need with the opioid crisis,” Aligata said. “We had a good head of steam in New London. I think some of the homeowners were nervous but they were starting to come out, but I don’t think there was another city that took the approach (New London) was trying to take.”

Under an idea spearheaded by New London Human Resources Director Jeanne Milstein, the city had grappled with the issue of the mostly unregulated sober houses for recovering addicts.

The city had worked for months to identify and pull the homes out from the shadows.

Milstein, who heads what is essentially a one-woman department, started working on the plan earlier this year in coordination with the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery’s now defunct program.

The idea for voluntary certification was in part a response to the opioid crisis but also a way to provide quality assurances to sober house residents and also neighbors of those homes.

The certification process will ensure the conditions are sanitary, safe and up to code and that the residents have access to treatment and are not being overcharged. One of the conditions of certification, for instance, is that the homes carry the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone in the event of an overdose.

Several overdose deaths have occurred at sober houses in past years.

Sober house owners would benefit from a certification and be linked to a larger network of support services and included on a referral list, Milstein said.

“We want sober houses to provide a very, very needed service to those who are vulnerable but also ensure they are good neighbors,” Milstein said.

“Our intent is not to punish or use an iron rod. It’s really to provide resources and support so that people know, too, that if their loved one is going into a sober house, that it’s part of a larger system — there is some kind of support being provided and some type of oversight," she said. "It’s not punitive, it’s supportive and positive.”

Despite the work, Milstein said just two owners of sober houses had begun the certification process.

“It is a disappointment but we remain deeply committed,” Milstein said.

She said that while the effort to have owners certified will continue, perhaps with another organization, she has redirected some of her efforts on drafting legislation that would address the regulation of sober houses statewide.

Most of the owners the city reached out to did not respond to invitations so the reason they were not participating is unclear.

The simplest answer as to why more sober house owners did not show interest is because they don’t have to. In addition to no state oversight, the privately owned sober houses are not subject to local zoning and not mandated to register in any form. City Attorney Jeffrey Londregan reiterated that point during a visit to a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting last month.

Despite hoping to get a handle on unregulated sober houses, the city cannot institute a prohibition on or limit the number of such facilities in the city. The Americans With Disabilities Act protects groups of individuals living together in a “mutually supportive environment” to abstain from the use of drugs and/or alcohol.

Some commission members said it seemed unfair that New London should be host to so many homes compared to other communities. There is no ability, Londregan said, for zoning to limit the number of sober houses.

Both Londregan and Milstein said the only regulatory authority for the homes comes from applicable fire and housing codes for things like the number of people living in one home.

The state-funded homes, such as a Coit Street residence operated by the Southeastern Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, are regulated by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. Milstein said she would work with the state and organizations like SCADD and perhaps adapt the kind of oversight they provide for the privately run recovery homes.

“We’re moving forward to ensure our recovery homes are the best quality for the people they serve. We’re not giving up. We’ll figure out other options," Milstein said.

Aligata said Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery was the only organization in the state affiliated with the National Alliance for Recovery Residences and therefore the only organization that could offer a certification based on a national standard.

He said his hope is that another organization would step up and fill the void.

g.smith@theday.com

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