When a person who addicted to drugs or alcohol is discharged from rehab, they’ll sometimes live in what’s called a sober house -- a place where there’s supposed to be no drugs or alcohol around.
Sober houses generally are privately-owned, and aren’t regulated in most states. But some houses don’t enforce their own sobriety rules, which can jeopardize the safety of the people who live there, as well as the surrounding community.
In a quiet neighborhood in Clinton, Connecticut, Ken Aligata of the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery ran through an inspection of Right Path House, a sober living home where seven people in recovery for addiction currently live.
The house is privately owned. He was checking to make sure it’s a safe environment.
“Everything’s squeaky clean,” Aligata said as he looked in a bathroom, referring to his checklist. “There’s no drippy faucets. There’s no mold.”
Aligata is working to train and certify sober house owners across the state through a voluntary program. He wants to compile an online database of certified sober houses that he hopes will make it easier for people with addiction to find a place to continue their recovery after rehab.
In this case, the inspection went well. The house was spotless. Scented candles burned in the kitchen, and artwork made by residents hung on the living room walls.
Lisa Ferguson, who runs Right Path House, also lives there in recovery. She opened the house a year ago in part with the hope that her niece -- who was also struggling with addiction -- would live there.
“Unfortunately, she didn’t make it,” Ferguson said. “She died January 4 of this year. And I tried to get her in this house, because that would have turned things around.”
Ferguson said her niece died from liver failure at the age of 27. She said she might have qualified for a transplant if she had lived in a sober house.
But she relapsed after leaving rehab.
Ferguson now wants to give other people with addiction a safe, supportive environment for recovery. And the residents here, Ferguson said, are required to stay sober. If they relapse, they have to leave the house and go back to rehab.
“You didn’t get in your bad situation in 28 days,” Ferguson said. “It took you a long time to get there. So it’s going to take you a long time to learn the life skills to get out of it.”
Douglas Polcin of the Public Health Institute, located in Oakland, California, has been studying sober house living for over a decade. His research shows that people in recovery who live in sober houses are less likely to start using drugs again.
Polcin said oversight of house management plays an important part in creating that environment.
“I think it’s important to have standards for health safety, and operation of the houses,” Polcin said. “I think it’s important for someone to be actually going to the houses, seeing what’s going on there, inspecting the facility, meeting with the manager, and maybe even the residents, to get a good sense of what’s happening.”
There are state-funded and regulated recovery houses in Connecticut where people with addiction can live. But it can be harder to get into these programs. Many people in recovery opt for privately-owned homes instead, which are unregulated.
When privately-owned houses don’t enforce their own sobriety rules, residents can relapse, and many times, die from overdose.
At Right Path House, Ferguson -- a former schoolteacher -- includes meditation, yoga, and art sessions in her residents’ daily schedule. But the extensive care comes with a price tag of up to $6,000 a month. There are cheaper houses to live in, but some have been found to be unsanitary, overcrowded, and unsupervised.
Lisa Johns lost her son to a heroin overdose when he was living in a sober house in New London. Now she’s hoping to open her own recovery home. She said there’s a dire shortage of safe places for people to live in the New London area while they cope with addiction.
“I first thought that maybe my son didn’t want that sobriety, but I actually found out that it’s not a safe place to be,” Johns said.
Johns is also working to help people who are leaving short-term detox to find temporary housing that will support their recovery. She said she found one young man a place to live at a so-called sober house in Norwich. Soon after, she learned that he was asked by another resident to sell Percocet and fentanyl.
“So what do you think happened? He relapsed,” Johns said. “And we fought so hard for him. I have since gotten in touch with him, and he’s back on the right path. But how am I supposed to know what homes are good, and what homes are not? There aren’t any certified homes.”
Jack Malone of the Southeastern Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence oversees operation of two state-regulated halfway houses. He said many of those uncertified privately-owned sober houses in the city are just in it for the money.
“If someone is charging $140 a week for a room, they do not care about your sobriety and your well-being,” Malone said. “They’re in the business to make money. I get it. I understand it. But you can’t be saying ‘Well, I’m going to have a house for sober people,’ because what that engenders is real bad behavior. This is a chronically relapsing disease.”
Kelly, who’s in recovery for heroin addiction, is a resident at one of the halfway houses Malone oversees. She said she needs the structure and rules as she transitions back into everyday life. But she never had to live at a privately-owned sober house.
“I’ve been friends with people who live in them, and most likely they relapse,” Kelly said.
The city of New London is trying to tackle what it calls the “wild west” of sober houses by offering Aligata’s voluntary training and certification program. City officials estimate there are at least 30 sober houses in the city, but so far, none have gone through the certification.
New London Mayor Michael Passero said the city can intervene if it finds that fire and building codes aren’t being met. “But we have no legal mechanism to regulate the use of this building for the recovery purpose,” Passero said.
Federal law prevents cities like New London from passing ordinances that limit people with addiction from finding housing. Often, the only way city officials can keep track of privately-owned sober houses is when there’s police activity, an overdose, or a fire.
Jeanne Milstein, New London’s Director of Human Services, said that on her first day on the job this February, a battalion chief from the fire department approached her about the city’s difficulty managing sober houses in poor condition.
“I was very surprised by that,” Milstein said. “Because I just assumed that a place that was housing among our most vulnerable citizens would have some kind of regulation. And that’s not the case at all.”
There have been recent attempts in the state legislature to regulate sober houses, stemming from concerns that poorly-managed houses put the surrounding community at risk.
Aligata said part of a sober house’s success hinges on alerting the community from the beginning that its residents are going to be good neighbors.
“We want you to know that we’re going to open this house soon,” Aligata said. “And we’re going to have an open house with cookies and milk, and we want you to come down... and see what the recovery house is, and how it operates, and all the support it has for its clients.”
Aligata is now working to certify about 50 homes across Connecticut. He estimates there are well over 200 sober houses across the state.
Demand for sober house beds is still high as the state’s opioid crisis rages on. When Right Path House opened last year in Clinton, the surrounding community was not only supportive -- but also two neighbors, silently battling addiction just a few doors down, requested to move in.
WNPR’s Opioid Addiction Crisis Reporting Initiative is supported by Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network’s MATCH Program.