By Jane Smith
The feds may be coming to the rescue of South County coastal cities beleaguered by the proliferation of sober homes.
Their chief ally is U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel.
In mid-July, she met with one of the original authors of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 1988 law that added disability status to the Fair Housing Act. Recovering drug users living as a family while maintaining their sobriety are considered a disabled class that is protected under federal law.
The law’s author suggested that Frankel reach out to individuals in the disability rights community to help make the case that “over-concentration of sober homes creates de facto segregation and violates the long-standing principles of integrating disabled individuals into the community,” according to Frankel’s July 15 letter.
Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie appreciates Frankel’s efforts. “She really is attacking this on all levels. It’s really a federal issue,” Haynie said. “We tried on the local level and failed. Statewide, the voluntary certification is a step in the right direction. But the rubber meets the road on the federal level.”
In addition, Frankel and 16 congressional colleagues sent a letter in early July to the U.S. Government Accountability Office asking for help in determining the number of sober homes nationally, statewide and locally.
The letter also asks the GAO to determine the regulations that cover sober homes, the range of services they provide and their roles in Medicaid and other federal insurance programs for drug and alcohol abuse.
“There is so much that we don’t know about sober homes,” said Frankel, a Democrat, who persuaded eight Republican representatives to sign the letter. “Parents who send their kids to sober homes to recover from addiction don’t know if they are effective. When problems arise, local governments do not know how to regulate and address community concerns.”
Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein marveled at the coast-to-coast support for the sober homes issue. “It illustrates that we are getting national support from both sides of the aisle and reiterates (that sober home proliferation is) not a parochial problem,” he said. “If there ever was a bipartisan issue, (this) is one.”
The city’s public safety departments spend an increasing amount of time responding to overdose calls. In the first six months of 2016, Delray Beach saw 242 overdose calls from heroin alone, compared with 195 heroin overdose calls in 2015.
Frankel’s letter follows one sent by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in early June to the GAO. Warren had two Republican co-signers: Sens.Marco Rubio of Florida and Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Warren’s office publicist said the office would let her letter speak for itself. A call to Rubio’s office was not returned.
The GAO said it has accepted the requests, “but the work is not expected to get underway until late this year. Once it begins, the first steps will be to determine the exact scope of what we will cover and the methodology to be used.”
Boynton Beach Mayor Steven Grant said his city would not wait until the feds can act. The city will proceed with its local business certification program to identify all home-based businesses and ensure the city is collecting the appropriate tax from the business.
Meanwhile, Haynie and Glickstein are waiting for the joint statement promised by Frankel after attending a sober homes forum in May. Before the forum, Frankel and an assistant HUD secretary toured sober home locations in Delray Beach. They saw luggage, clothing and furniture on front lawns, indicating evictions.
The assistant secretary was shocked and said he would go back to Washington and secure a joint statement from HUD and Department of Justice lawyers that cities could use as a basis for local regulations.
In her mid-July update, Frankel said, “The agencies have assured us that they are working hard to release the new joint statement in the near future, possibly as soon as August.”