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New York Looks to Regulate ’Sober Homes’

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The recent deaths of two residents of “sober homes” in New York State has revived an initiative to find effective methods for state government to regulate group housing for recovering addicts, Newsday reported Dec. 28.

Sober homes – also called recovery homes – are not certified or supervised by the state, and can open in any neighborhood. They utilize widely varying methods to help residents abstain from drugs and alcohol while providing only housing; treatment services, which are overseen by the government, are not offered in sober homes. Laws regulating them in other states have been struck down as discriminatory because addicts are considered disabled under federal law.

A 24-member task force is examining how to best regulate sober houses in New York. “We’re taking on this issue and looking to how we solve it,” said Karen Carpenter-Palumbo, commissioner of the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.  “Right now, we don’t have a way to ensure that [sober homes] are following standards.”

Both officials and advocates say landlords of sober homes sometimes greatly overpopulate the facilities and homes can lack basics like food and heat. “Some are basically boardinghouses,” said Beth Brockland, the lead organizer of Long Island Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods. The two men — who died within a week of one another — were residents of Dee’s House in Hempstead Village, a sober home that had been cited for overcrowding. The causes of their deaths are still under investigation.

But, the sober home’s structured lifestyle with daily chores, curfews and meetings makes it “an absolutely critical step for a lot of people,” said Richard Buckman, president of the Long Island Recovery Association and a member of the state sober-home task force.

Oxford House, the nation’s largest administrator of group housing for recovering addicts, is seen as a model that may offer a solution to the problem. At least 14 states use a revolving loan fund set up by Congress in 1988 to pay Oxford House about $100,000 a year to administer seed grants to sober house groups. To have access to the funds Oxford House agrees there will be at least six people per house, democratic house rules, no discrimination, zero-tolerance policy for alcohol and drugs, and a pledge to pay back the money.

In the meantime, the state task force is considering several regulatory avenues, which include obtaining more funding to create a voluntary licensing and reimbursement system, requiring homes that primarily house recovering addicts register with the state, and creating self-regulation standards within the sober home industry. 

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