To say Oxford House has generated a huge ruckus in Jackson with its plans to open numerous unsupervised "sober living" homes is a small understatement. New Jersey was the birthplace of the Oxford House experiment and has had its own share of problems with these unlicensed and unregulated homes for recovering addicts. Northjersey.com published a rather thorough and eye-opening article about the world of Oxford House "homes":
When Christopher Pesce died from a heroin overdose last October in a group home for recovering addicts, his grieving family wanted to know how the house had been regulated and who was responsible for the safety of its tenants.
What they learned stunned them: The house — a branch of an internationally recognized non-profit organization — was not licensed or regulated by the state; it didn’t have to be.
“It seemed so common sense that there would be regulations in a sober-living home,” said Pesce’s father, Larry. “Here we are, talking about the care of a human being, and there’s limited, if any, rules to follow.”
New Jersey is home to hundreds of recovery houses and sober-living facilities, including many in Bergen and Passaic counties. With heroin addiction on the rise, the housing of recovering addicts is a rapidly growing, but largely unregulated, industry.
In concept, sober housing is considered a helpful component of recovery: supportive, safe, long-term rental communities that ease an addict’s transition from inpatient treatment back into society. Sober homes can yield remarkable success stories, often at little cost — most have no clinical staff and few, if any, amenities. And that’s the point, the homes depend on recovering addicts to keep one another in line.
But as the Pesces and many other families across the country have learned, not all sober houses are safe or sober. The very independence that makes recovery housing empowering and cost-effective can give way to disorder, abuse and tragedy.
No New Jersey agency has responsibility for sober homes, though some receive state and federal funds. While most of the houses are legally required, at a minimum, to register with the state as a boardinghouse, it seems the great majority do not.
“There’s a huge need to have supportive housing for people in treatment or recovery, but it needs to be regulated,” said Frank Greenagel Jr., a counselor and addiction expert who until recently was in charge of a housing program at Rutgers University for students struggling with addiction.
In the absence of rules, Greenagel said, people will seize the chance to make a profit.
“They get a flophouse in Atlantic City or Camden, they pay $1,200 a month and charge $500 to residents, with no training, no staff, no protocol,” Greenagel said. “It’s the Wild, Wild West out there.”
There is no list of sober houses in New Jersey, and no data on incidents and deaths in these homes. But court records, interviews with treatment providers, officials and family members, as well as news reports from across the country suggest that sober homes not only house recovering addicts, but also may be havens for drug use, profitable for landlords and dangerous for residents.
To be sure, in a house of a dozen recovering addicts, there are likely to be slip-ups.
Oxford House Inc., which charters more than 100 homes in New Jersey — including the house in Rumson where Pesce died at the age of 25 — estimated in 2010 that 19 percent of its population of 24,000 residents nationwide relapsed and were expelled.
“We do everything we can” to minimize the use of drugs in Oxford Houses, said George Kent, the company’s regional coordinator, adding that deaths “very seldomly” occur in Oxford Houses.
“It’s something that absolutely rocks a house,” Kent said. “I don’t think we are the issue. The heroin epidemic is the issue.” (KF note: Sounds like guns, not people, kill people.)
New Jersey’s crisis of heroin and opioid addiction has magnified the problem. In 2012, more than 800 New Jersey residents died of heroin and painkiller overdoses and over the past decade the state has seen a 700 percent increase in admissions to state-licensed substance abuse programs for opioids which include prescription pain killers as well as heroin.....
Other troubles are tied to the business model itself. Sober houses can be highly profitable. With no obligation to hire staff and by packing more than a dozen people — each paying rent of $600 to $1,000 per month — into single family homes, landlords can reap handsome profits.
“The recovery house business is also a real estate business,” said Allen Sassman, a developer who has opened several sober homes. “It’s a way to hold real estate and keep it profitable. If you are not running it the way you are supposed to, you are just earning dollars.”
Drug treatment clinics are overseen by state health or human services departments. But most sober-living homes do not employ counselors or offer clinical services. In essence, they serve as de facto boardinghouses for recovering addicts.
“Sober-living facilities are not licensed treatment centers,” Department of Human Services spokeswoman Ellen Lovejoy said. “DHS does not license them. If they are not considered boardinghouses and licensed by [the Department of Community Affairs], then they are private residences not subject to licensure.”
The Department of Community Affairs, which registers and inspects group homes, like those for residents suffering from memory loss, and boardinghouses, considers only sober-living homes with designated owners or operators to fall under its purview. The Oxford Houses, which are legally considered single-family homes, have been granted exemption from DCA boardinghouse regulations, allowing them to rent space without putting residents on a lease. But the arrangement cuts both ways. Residents who run afoul of house rules can be kicked out without legal recourse......
Neither the DCA nor any other state agency regulates the state’s largest operator of sober houses, Oxford House Inc.
Oxford Houses are typically set up by a group of recovering addicts who are looking for housing. The group finds a house to rent (it must have at least four bedrooms and two bathrooms) and applies to Oxford House Inc. for a charter. If accepted, that allows the group to rent the house not as individuals, but as an Oxford House entity. For example, Oxford House Sears is the leaseholder of the Oxford home on Sears Place in Wayne.
The houses are “self-governing” — they have no in-house management — and are democratically run by the residents themselves, who elect house leaders to serve a term of six months. Oxford House Inc. likens the structure to that of a “fraternity, sorority, or a small New England town.”
The landlord of the house is paid directly by the residents and typically deals with the elected officers of the house, according to Oxford House Inc. If a resident is kicked out because of drug use — an Oxford House rule — the lease is not affected because it is in the name of the group, not an individual.
Those recovering addicts who are looking to join an existing home apply through Oxford House Inc. and are then interviewed by residents of that home.
Oxford House Inc. has a contract with the DHS Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services to operate in the state, and a $273,235 loan to pay for outreach workers and establish new homes, but Trenton neither licenses nor inspects them.
And while some who manage recovery housing say more state regulation could increase costs, lawmakers are moving forward with bills to ensure that sober homes are meeting their goal of helping addicts transition to productive life.
“This is one aspect of treatment not being regulated at all,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, who is co-sponsoring a bill that would place sober-living homes under the Department of Human Services and require the houses to notify an emergency contact if a resident is dismissed.
“They are a growing entity,” Huttle said. “We need to regulate them.”
The first Oxford House opened in Maryland in 1975, and the model soon caught on in other states. In 1988, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which required states to set up “revolving loans” for group sober houses based on the Oxford House model; the act was later amended to make the loans optional.
Twenty states had contracts with Oxford House Inc. in 2013, many including loans to start new houses and pay for outreach workers, who help start new houses and “assist with quality control,” according to Oxford House. New houses receive loans of up to $4,000, which are repaid to Oxford through rent.
No rent goes to Oxford House itself, the company says.
In fiscal 2013, Oxford House reported $4.1 million in income, more than half of which came from federal block grants, and 32 percent from state and local awards, including managed-care providers and Drug Court programs, according to the company’s annual report. Voluntary contributions from individual houses account for 10 percent of the company’s income.
Ninety percent of Oxford House’s $4.2 million in expenses in 2013 went to travel, outreach and personnel, aimed particularly at program expansion.
New Jersey was among the first to set up Oxford Houses and today has more houses than almost any other state. As of November 2013, there were 106 Oxford Houses in New Jersey — 79 for men, 27 for women — with a total of 837 beds.....
According to a 2009 Oxford House evaluation of its New Jersey program, more than three-quarters of the 1,292 residents of New Jersey Oxford Houses in 2008 enjoyed “continuous sobriety.” Nearly three-quarters of the residents, in May 2009, had served time in jail; 56 percent had been homeless.
In October 2013, Oxford House Inc. renewed its contract with the state Department of Human Services, getting a state loan of $273,235. The loan does not come with state oversight.
“Although administrative review was included in establishing the loan fund, the facilities are self-run and do not provide treatment, therefore DHS has no operational oversight,” DHS spokeswoman Lovejoy said. “The functioning of the home is the responsibility of the residents who join with the understanding that they must comply with the Oxford House manual and charter.”
The contract included $76,515 in new funding for a “full time outreach worker exclusive for the Drug Court population,” with the goal to open four or five new houses, according to the state’s award letter. Outreach workers identify properties appropriate for Oxford Houses, said Kent, the Oxford House regional coordinator.
“We are multiplying in New Jersey faster than I can keep up with,” Kent said, adding that the houses were the “No.Ÿ1 referral source for all treatment centers.”......
Pesce’s death alarmed Rumson residents, most of whom had no idea that 61 South Ward was a sober-living facility; town officials said they had not been informed, either. One neighbor said she thought the house was a fraternity because she often saw groups of young men and women drinking from red plastic cups and smoking on the porch.
Amid calls from residents to shut the house down, Rumson officials reached out to Oxford House leaders.
“The Oxford House in Rumson is relatively new and the death of a resident because of a heroin overdose is tragic and has brought community focus on the presence of the house,” Oxford House CEO and co-founder J. Paul Molloy wrote in a November 2013 letter to Martin Barger, Rumson’s borough attorney.
“Unfortunately, we believe many of the reports of dysfunction of the house are wrong,” Molloy said, adding that Oxford House had assigned an outreach worker to put the house on track.
“We haven’t been good neighbors, and I take full responsibility for that,” Kent told residents at a November community meeting, according to an account on redbankgreen.com, a local news website.
He acknowledged that the house “did not get off to a good start,” and said the first group occupying the house “was not the best mix of gentlemen.” The news report quoted him as saying that the current residents were “on their best behavior.”
On Dec. 15, 2013, ambulances returned to South Ward Avenue: a second man had overdosed in the house. He survived, but the next day Rumson sued Oxford House in Superior Court, seeking to close the house.
The house “has been a failure since Day 1,” the complaint said. There “has been no supervision, drugs are obviously being used at the facility … and there is a serious danger to the area and the residents.”
“Defendants have refused to allow drug testing, have refused to identify the individuals living at the facility and have refused to do or permit background checks. It has become a haven for drug addicts and possibly for criminals,” the complaint said.
In January, Oxford House Inc. sued Rumson in federal court, citing violations of the Fair Housing Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act and New Jersey legal protections for the disabled.
Oxford House frequently sues municipalities and insurance companies that seek to shut down houses, deny coverage or enforce local ordinances that would require variances, permits or background checks.
Many municipalities across the nation have zoning laws that prevent more than five unrelated people living in a single-family home. Oxford House sees such local ordinances as infringements on the rights of the disabled, a view upheld by state and federal courts.
In 2013, Oxford House was “actively engaged” in 12 cases across the U.S., according to the company’s annual report. New Jersey has seen several federal and state cases involving Oxford House over the past two decades.
In the long process of addiction recovery, relapse is considered nearly inevitability, and the odds in favor of an overdose in a house of recovering addicts are not insignificant. For example, last month two women died of heroin overdoses in the bathroom of an Oxford House in Fort Worth, Texas..... Rest of article