Imagine someone drowning at night in the middle of the ocean. Suddenly a ship appears! Spotlights pinpoint the poor swimmer. A floatation device is tossed into the sea, and words of encouragement float down from the deck of the boat. The swimmer is quickly brought on board and provided with warm food, camaraderie, and helpful information about the dangers of swimming alone. He agrees that tackling the ocean is a foolish notion, and resolves to rebuild a sane life on solid ground.
After several weeks on board the ship, he is returned to his homeland – but the only port available is a rickety old dock jutting out from a coastline jungle filled with dangerous predators. “Good luck!” the crew yells. “We wish we could drop you in a safer space, but this is all that’s available. If you can make it through the jungle, there’s a wonderful life waiting for you inland!”
And the ship sails away as darkness comes, the ominous sounds of the jungle growing louder.
Terrifying? Yes. And this is precisely how the landscape can look to people leaving treatment and trying to find safe harbor in their home communities. Grateful for the rescue and provision of the wonderful ship that pulled them from the water and set their feet on a journey back to physical and emotional health, they are baffled to discover that the support ends at the most critical moment: just as they are reentering the places where they first fell victim to the illness of addiction.
For many, returning to their previous residence is not an option, so they turn to what are often called “sober homes.” Many of these houses, lacking county or state oversight, take advantage of people in their most vulnerable moments, collecting payment from the county for rent and board while providing little or no support. “Several years ago, there seemed little means of stopping this predatory behavior,” say Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, President and CEO of Family and Children’s Association. “This kind of housing isn’t currently regulated. Even when reliable and safe housing is available, the Department of Social Services can’t ‘steer’ people regarding where to live.”
It is a frustrating situation not just for those striving to recovery and treatment professionals, but also for parents concerned about their sons and daughters. “Parents know they have to ‘cut the cord,’” says Pam DiLorenzo, the mother of a young man in recovery. “Recovery has to build toward independence and empowerment. But this has to occur in an environment that is safe and supportive.”
To encourage the growth of such environments, Dr. Reynolds and others like Nora Milligan, co-founder of Addiction to Recovery Magazine, came together to form the Sober Home Oversight Board. Milligan’s involvement was an outgrowth of both her own journey in recovery, and her son’s struggles with addiction. “When he came out of his third rehab, the professionals were all telling me, ‘Don’t let him come home – a sober home is the best next step.’ They were giving me the best advice they had, and I wanted to follow it. The problem was there were no good options. The best we could find was a shady house where he was exposed to more unhealthy behavior.”
The driving premise of the Sober Home Oversight Board was simple: if there was no way to limit or prevent “unscrupulous” operators from preying on people who needed help, perhaps there was a way to encourage the homes that were actually providing the support needed. This encouragement came in the form of offering more money to those who keep clean, well-managed homes, and were willing to voluntarily submit to having the county closely monitor them.
The cynically-minded might be critical of such an approach, believing that it taps into the same motive – monetary compensation – that drives so many of the poorly run houses. But such thinking overlooks a simple truth: long before such rewards became available there were already sober homes striving to truly support and assist people in recovery, like those operated by Mainstream House and Seafield Resources. And there’s even better news. Since 2014, new sober homes have been opening that, while they are not yet able to enjoy these new incentives, are nevertheless striving to meet stringent, self-imposed benchmarks.
One such agency is New Hope Rising, Inc., which operates three sober homes for men and women in Shirley and Mastic Beach, and is currently pursuing a fourth home in the Patchogue or Medford community. Featured recently in an NBC news story about the need for sober living supports, the agency takes its responsibility to its residents very seriously. One of the founders, Danielle Bruschi, says the agency began when she and co-founder Lauren McNamara were working with the homeless population and were troubled by the lack of safe and supportive housing resources for people with substance abuse disorder.
The two women got to work, building a 4-phase program that brings residents through a continuum of increasingly independent levels of accountability. “The same question always comes up when people are seeking sober housing,” says Bruschi, “whether they’re seeking it for themselves or for a loved one. That question is: How soon can the recovering person venture out alone? Of course, the hoped-for answer is different depending on who is asking.” New Hope Rising’s solution? A program that begins with the kind of supervision a family member wants in place, and moves toward the kind of freedom a recovering person wants to enjoy.
Bruschi and McNamara encourage such inquiries, and have even created a list of helpful questions that they share with people exploring housing options. The list includes everything from questions about curfew and having a car, to policies regarding length of stay and how relapses are handled. According to Bruschi, “A supportive environment doesn’t just focus on ‘not using.’ We also provide vocational support like transportation to interviews, exposure to wellness activities like meditation and Reiki, and sober recreational events like attending plays and comedy shows.”
Sober housing like that provided by New Hope Rising is certainly a step in the right direction. Incentives for such programs need to be increased to ensure their availability and facility their growth.
The jungle on the coast where newly sober people are landing is still full of predators. Real regulation and oversight – whether through the county or state – will ultimately be necessary to ensure the resources needed by many for safe passage to sober, purposeful lives.