The Coastal Star

Delray Beach: Sober home ‘bad actors’ blamed in push for change

'There is no one here who can guarantee how this is going to unfold,’ state Rep. Bill Hager said

about a new bill targeting dubious practices associated with the drug-rehab industry. He spoke during

a news conference at Delray Beach City Hall. ABOVE: Hager (center) is flanked by (l-r) Neal McGarry,

executive director of the Florida Certification Board; John Lehman, president of the Florida Association

of Recovery Residences; Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein, and state Sen. Jeff Clemens.

Glickstein described the industry as Delray Beach’s most intractable problem.

Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

By Nick Madigan

    Even as state legislators and Delray Beach officials outlined new measures in December to strengthen their armory of tools in the fray against an onslaught of troublesome and poorly run sober homes, they acknowledged doubt over the potential effectiveness of those efforts.
     “There is no one here who can guarantee how this is going to unfold,” Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, said during a news conference at which the measures were announced.
    His uncertainty was echoed by John Lehman, president of the Florida Association of Recovery Residences, the entity chosen by the Department of Children and Families to establish a voluntary credentialing system for the unregulated sober homes and apartments. They act as halfway houses for people recovering from substance use disorders but are often problematic for the residential neighborhoods that surround them.
    “We don’t think this is going to be a miracle solution,” Lehman said, referring to the legislative measures. “We will not be able to clear all this up in short order, but we are committed to the process.”
    Delray Beach officials estimate there are least 850 sober homes in the city, with more opening on a regular basis. When treatment facilities are added to the tally, the approximate number rises to well over 2,000.  
    Some of the sober homes, also known as recovery residences, have themselves become de facto treatment centers, in violation of licensing and zoning laws. Drugs are provided and tests of dubious efficacy performed in order to claim brazenly inflated insurance reimbursements.   
    A federal task force headed by the FBI is investigating some sober homes and treatment centers for financial malfeasance, including widespread allegations of insurance fraud and kickbacks from treatment facilities to sober homes in exchange for referrals. A grand jury is expected to hand down indictments soon.
    Delray Beach residents, some in expensive beachfront neighborhoods, have seen their lives disrupted by relapsed addicts shuffling through the streets, dropping hypodermic needles in their wake and being carted off in ambulances when they overdose. Deaths from such incidents — particularly as a result of heroin use — have risen markedly in Delray Beach in the last few years, according to city employees who prefer to remain anonymous.  
    “I have had to contend with picking up used needles, drug paraphernalia and empty alcohol bottles on a regular basis,” said Joanne Varga, who lives on Northeast Sixth Avenue, across the street from a residential recovery facility, formerly a motel. “We have had many attempted break-ins and our cars broken into, with shattered windows and stolen property.”

Federal laws hamper locals
    Officials in Delray Beach say they are constrained by federal law from enforcing local ordinances that might lessen the worst of the homes’ effects on neighborhoods, let alone from evicting their clients and closing the places for good, as some residents have demanded.
    Under the law, addictions are considered a disability, and both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act preclude any action against disabled people and their living environments that could be construed as discriminatory. Hence the voluntary nature of Florida House Bill 21, which became law in June last year and established not only the credentialing system but that such homes be open to random inspections and their employees subject to criminal background checks.
    The teeth in the law lie in a provision set to take effect in July, under which treatment centers — which are regulated as medical facilities and where addicts are ostensibly detoxed under doctors’ supervision — will be permitted to refer patients only to sober homes that are certified. The thinking is that those recovery residences that do not meet certification standards, or which choose to operate outside the system, will ultimately fail because treatment centers will not be sending them the residents they need to stay open.
    Another proposal, Senate Bill 1138, introduced at last month’s news conference by state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, would target unethical marketing and business practices at both treatment centers and sober homes. One of the practices at issue involves enticing clients with free rent and other perks at recovery residences as long as the clients seek medical help at particular treatment centers, which then collect hefty insurance payouts that they share with the sober homes.
    In an indication of how fraught the conditions are in some of the facilities, Clemens’ bill asserts that people staying in residential treatment centers or recovery residences have “the right to a safe living environment free from drugs, alcohol, harassment, abuse and harm.”
    Addicts who fail in their attempts at recovery or who get kicked out of sober homes because they did not follow the rules “end up on the street, still suffering from an addiction,” Mayor Cary Glickstein said in a telephone interview. “And they become victims of crime — or perpetrators of crime.”
    Glickstein, who described the “unaccountable and hugely profitable” residential recovery industry as Delray Beach’s most intractable problem, said his office was working with Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat who represents Florida’s 22nd Congressional district, to amend language in federal administrative rules and the Fair Housing Act so that local governments can have solid standing in their efforts against wayward sober homes and other facilities.
    “It provides the legal cover for us to start regulating what is a completely unregulated industry,” the mayor said. “That’s the hope. It’s the best we’re going to get, given the FHA and the ADA as they exist. We have bad actors exploiting federal laws that are not intended for this purpose.”
    The mayor described sober homes that “are run like barracks,” many of them “off the grid” until police receive a call about some criminal activity. “The officers show up, expecting two adults in the house and they walk in and it’s a sober home with eight or 10 adults in there,” Glickstein said. “The police can’t even note it on a report.”
    Although he noted that there are many legitimate players in the rehabilitation and recovery industry who genuinely try to help people with addictions and whose “heart is in the right place,” Glickstein said the collateral damage on the city from the “tidal wave of bad actors” is almost incalculable.
    “A significant percentage of nonviolent crime in Delray Beach can be ascribed to the transient population that lives in these sober homes and is affiliated with this rehab industry,” said Glickstein, who plans to invite Frankel and Gustavo Velasquez, the assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to Delray Beach in February “to show them firsthand what is going on.”
    Meanwhile, he said, the problem “is getting worse and we can’t do a thing about it.”
    Sitting outside the Starbucks café at U.S. 1 and Atlantic Avenue one afternoon in mid-December, a man who identified himself only as Steve said he had lived in a sober home for a time about a year and a half ago, along with as many as eight or nine other people. He ended up managing the place for about six months.
    “It helped me get where I am today,” said Steve, a 32-year-old native of Baltimore who has lived in Florida since he was 10. “I’m in recovery.”
    But there were problems. “The person I worked for was all about the money, not so much about anybody else,” Steve said. “I witnessed how the clients were being treated. If someone was late for curfew, or they relapsed, he just looked the other way. He didn’t abide by the rules himself. Due to what was going on, I got in the right mind to quit — before anything else got worse.”

Part II: Coming in February

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