Legislators consider registration of sober houses

With an estimated 240 sober homes operating mostly unregulated throughout Connecticut, state legislators are considering two bills that would require those homes to register as businesses.

Local leaders and state legislators testified at a Public Health Committee public hearing in Hartford Wednesday that the effort would be a first step in weeding out the good from the bad: homes providing an affordable place for recovering addicts versus landlords who see a money-making opportunity amid the state opioid addiction crisis.

There is concern among some, however, that any attempt to register sober homes would unfairly stigmatize addicts, who are considered disabled under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

New London Mayor Michael Passero thinks the major problem lies with a lack of standards, oversight and transparency. New London has an estimated 30 sober homes and the quality varies wildly based on the owner.

“People have tragically died in our sober houses, the most recent fatality only a few weeks ago. Shockingly, this was the third fatality in the same house,” Passero testified on Wednesday.

The city recently announced a partnership with the local nonprofit Community Speaks out, which helps families struggling with addiction, to implement its own voluntary certification program for sober houses. It would be the first of its kind in the state.

A man died at a sober house at 24 Rogers St. on Feb. 11. It was the second overdose death at the same location and where Community Speaks Out co-founder Lisa Cote Johns’ son Christopher died in 2014. Johns attended the hearing on Wednesday carrying some of her son’s ashes in a heart necklace around her neck.

“It is appalling that sober houses are subject to absolutely no oversight, accountability or standards other than health, building and fire codes,” Passero said. “It is unacceptable that oftentimes we first learn about the existence of a sober house when there is a fatality or police interaction with the house.”

Passero said the city’s building official additionally has condemned three houses owned by the same individual that were once used as sober homes.

Passero was joined Wednesday at the state Capitol by acting Police Chief Peter Reichard and Fire Chief Henry Kydd.

Kydd testified that his firefighters have run into some potentially dangerous situations, including a fire in an attic that firefighters discovered housed space for 12 beds. And while multi-family homes can be inspected for local codes, he said, single and two-family homes are not.

The two bills being considered were introduced by state Rep. Michelle L. Cook, D-Torrington, and state Rep. Jay M. Case, R-Winsted. The bills would require the safe house owners to register as a business in the municipality and with the state Department of Public Health. Cook’s bill additionally would require the opioid-reversal drug naloxone to be available on premises and all tenants be trained to use it.

Opposition to the bill comes from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and others who argue that a registration would serve to further stigmatize the people in recovery.

“Sober housing is not treatment. In Connecticut, halfway houses and residential treatment programs are state-licensed living arrangements that provide treatment for individuals with addiction,” said DMHAS Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon.

Since sober homes do not provide treatment, they are not subject to state regulations and the tenants are considered disabled and therefore protected by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Federal Fair Housing Act.

“Enacting laws that target individuals because of their disability would be discriminatory,” Delphin-Rittmon said. “The Department is opposed to any legislation that would impede people with substance abuse disorders from integrating in the community of their choice.”

The concern, she said, would be limiting the ability of people in recovery to live in residential areas and would provide an increased opportunity for “discriminatory or stigmatizing behavior towards people with a substance-abuse disorder.”

State Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, said the latest effort would be a voluntary process and therefore would not be restricted in any way by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“There must be a delineation between those who mutually want to live together in recovery, and someone who is operating business under the label of a sober home,” Soto testified. “This requires legislation that will specifically define what a sober house is and, at a minimum, require those landlords to register as a business.”

It would protect against predatory and absent sober home owners, he said.

If passed, the legislation would make Connecticut one of at least four states to address the issue of sober homes in one way or another.

Massachusetts in 2014 passed a measure that required the Department of Public Health Bureau of Substance Abuse Services to establish and administer a voluntary training and accreditation program for the operators of sober homes. It also prohibits state agencies and other organizations from referring clients to homes that are not certified. As of January, Massachusetts had about 100 certified homes.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, the Republican co-chair of the Public Health Committee, supports the bill and said it would go a long way to help protect people from being taken advantage of when they are most vulnerable.

“I think there is a lot of positive support from this committee but there are legal issues to be grasped,” she said.

The hearing came on the same day that U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., prompted by a string of overdose deaths in the state, joined U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Orrin Hatch and Marco Rubio in calling on the U.S. Government Accountability Office to investigate federal and state oversight of sober living homes, and determine whether additional oversight is necessary.

“These deaths have raised questions about these facilities and the GAO review will be helpful in determining whether state and federal policymakers should consider additional oversight,” Murphy said in a statement.

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the number of people who have died of suspected overdoses in a Rogers Street sober house. Two people have died of suspected drug overdoses at a sober house at 23 Rogers St. in New London since 2014.

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