“Sober Living” Law Aims at Making Effective Solution, Better
Over time, issues and concerns have been brewing regarding what is commonly referred to as “sober living” residences. With some 37 such facilities located in Billings – more than any other Montana city – concerns have grown right along with their increasing number. It is hoped, proposed legislation will deal with the problems.
“Sober living” houses offer a structured environment, for people in recovery who need a safe and substance-free place to live. They are also commonly known as recovery homes or recovery residences. They do not provide treatment, but a safe, stable place in which to live. In Montana, the state government helps to pay the rent at $500 a month for three months, for those who have been released from correctional facilities, which usually comprise the majority of recovery house residents.
Others in need of a safe and stable place to live may also be referred to a recovery facility and in some cases a facility may specialize in offering shelter for specific categories of individuals, such as mothers with children.
The neighborhoods in which the residences are located often encounter problems— if not by the sheer number of people consuming available parking spaces, to the lack of supervision at a facility, or failure to notify supervising law enforcement officers if a parolee is ejected from a house.
SB-94 has been introduced in the state legislature aimed at tightening up the rules on “Sober Living” residences, which have been operating with very little oversight. Primary sponsor of the bill is Senator Barry Usher, Billings, who is a member of the Criminal Justice Oversight Council and heads the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. Also on the committee and a member of the Council, is Kathy Kelker, Billings, who also co-sponsors of the legislation.
Scott Twito, Yellowstone County Attorney, is also a member of the Criminal Justice Oversight Council. As someone who deals with issues of parole violations and recidivism of criminals, Twito believes that without any oversight, a sober living house increases the likelihood that those on probation or parole will reoffend.
The only requirement imposed on a recovery residence, by any entity of government, is to have a business license from the city. There are HUD recommendations that any residence should have only two people to a bedroom but that is in no way monitored.
While Twito understands and appreciates the benefits recovery residences can provide, he has also seen how the poorly-managed facilities can impair any progress an individual might make by putting them into a facility that does not restrict the presence of alcohol and drugs, and with other residents who may be pushing those things.
Billings has experienced an “incredible increase” in the number of sober living homes, points out Twito. The number of houses in Billings has been steadily increasing since 2019. The next largest number of sober living houses is in Helena, with six.
Twito said that he has heard discussions on the Council and from other state leaders, that places like Missoula and Bozeman don’t have as many residences because they “really pushed against them and did not facilitate their establishment.”
Given the limited requirements on a residence, and a $500 per bed incentive, there is inducement to crowd as many beds into a facility as possible. It has been reported that some owners have put as many as 15 “cots” in a basement.
The DOC has spent almost $1 million in rent subsidies on the program.
It is also likely that because Billings is a hub for mental health and other treatment programs, that many people in the state who need help, come to Billings.
Twito points out that several owners operate more than one facility. Three owners account for half the residences in Billings.
Among complaints that have been raised about the presence of “sober living” houses is that there is no process of letting the public know they are being opened in their neighborhoods or what they bring to the neighborhood. The facilities may be housing violent offenders, people on parole for homicide, or convicted rapists.
City planning officials have pointed out that the residents are viewed no differently than any single-family residence. They are not considered boarding houses. Under law the city is not allowed to discriminate, based upon age, disability or handicap, in how they regulate.
Encouraging the implementation of the new law are Richard and Terri Todd, who started one of the first “sober living” homes in Billings, and today oversee four such homes. They, too, are perplexed about how some of the homes function. “What was once an asset to the community is becoming a liability,” said Richard.
The Todds are urging that a “sober living home” be certified with a national organization and to meet their protocols and guidelines.
“Not all sober living homes are really sober living,” said Richard. Many are more like a “work camp.” “There is no structure…without structure residents are likely to go back to drinking and using drugs and have to be removed.”
Both Todds have had their own struggles and have been in prison themselves. It was through their recovery and personal experiences that they recognized what individuals need to successfully reclaim their lives. The Todds say they recognized that “there was a time when it became important that people have a safe place so they can put their recovery first and to help themselves.”
And, they say, recovery “takes someone who can relate to them.”
The Todds started their first “sober living” home in Billings in 2016. Their four residences operate under a non-profit called Ignatius Sober Living. Although they are not affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous, the Todds’ residences follow the 12 -step emersion program.
The couple quickly learned that they needed help and joined a national organization to become certified. The organization provides direction and training and regular conferences, which they attend, as do the managers in each of the homes.
“If we are not operating within the guidelines, the members have a place to go to report it,” said Terri. Historically, “if you look into ‘sober living’ there has been some horrific things that have happened to members.” To be certified by a national organization protects the members as much as the home owners.
Recovery residences have gained a footing in the country as an effective means to recovery because when properly administered and supervised, they work! Studies have shown that recovering individuals are less likely to relapse when living in a recovery residence.
“Often family and friends want to help,” said Richard, “but they don’t know how.”
A “sober living” residence offers support and structure that a family cannot give, no matter how much they want to help. “In sober living there is a thin line between helping and enabling,” said Richard.
Citing reports of city law enforcement that claim that there is a group of less than a hundred people in Billings who consume $18 million of city resources because of their recidivism, Terri said that through their recovery houses and treatment at places like Rimrock Foundation, she personally has seen seven of the individuals on that list break free and regain their lives.
Over the seven years that the Todds have been operating, they estimate that about 2500 people have passed through their homes – some for only a few days and others as long as three years.
In 2019, a study done by the National Institute of Health examined the net benefit of recovery residences and determined that there was a gain of $29,000 to the community, every six months, for each recovery resident, because “they are not utilizing services at such a rapid pace,” said Terri.
“We have been super blessed. We have had people who have started their own businesses and come back to hire others from their residence,” said Terri. “Our whole goal is no one has to be alone. They can come back here at any time.”
In the “sober living” residences the Todds operate, there are strict protocols by which the residents must abide. “We operate as a large family — every one contributes to the house.”
The goal is for each individual to be self-supporting in six weeks. “We have to help them through road blocks such as getting IDs, etc.”
“We work with them on basic life skills…stuff others take for granted. We teach them a work ethic and give them the tools to get themselves out of the position they are in.”
In their “sober living” households, of which there are typically about 12 members, the focus is on creating a family unit. There are requirements to attend a meeting of household members once a week, and to have a meal together once a week. There are curfews and the houses are open for visits from family or probation officers, with whom they communicate immediately should someone be evicted.
Residents must have a job or be engaged in trying to obtain one, an endeavor in which supervisors assist by teaching them how to do it.
Richard points out that these are people who have been “takers” all their lives, and they have to learn how to be part of a community. Besides becoming employed they are encouraged to volunteer in the community.
The Todds have been able to keep conflicts with the neighbors to a minimum by communicating with them and letting them know how to contact them if there is a problem. They do not allow any sex offenders in their homes because they do not want their neighbors to have to worry about their children.
The proposed legislation basically requires that recovery residences prohibit certain activities, maintain a registry of residents, and be certified by a qualifying organization in order to get vouchers and transitional assistance funding from the Department of Corrections. If passed the legislation would become law on October 1, 2023.
The legislation recognizes that such facilities can provide a healthy and sober living environment that helps those, with substance use disorders, achieve and maintain sobriety.
If passed the new law would require that a recovery residence register with the Department of Public Health and Human Services. They may also seek certification from a certifying organization of which there are several nationally, such as Oxford Houses, National Alliance for Recovery Residences, or Nuway.
The new law requires that a facility provide administrative oversight, quality standards and policies and protocols for its residents.
The recovery residence may not limit a resident’s duration of stay to an arbitrary or fixed amount of time. A resident’s length of stay is to be determined by their needs and progress and willingness to abide by protocols.
Responsibilities in overseeing the recovery residences are also assigned to the Department of Health and Human Services and to the Department of Corrections, including the provision of rent vouchers or transitional recovery funds for rent.