WSAZ Investigates | Sober Living Homes
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- It’s an approach to addiction recovery that has drawn mixed emotions for years, but a WSAZ investigation found it is also an industry that operates with little to no oversight.
Take, for instance, a recovery home in East Pea Ridge near Huntington.
It may look like a typical suburban residence, but it shows where the debate between neighbors and addiction recovery collides.
“I don’t think the neighborhood is the place for these houses,” said neighbor Sherri Chappell. “We’re told we have no recourse, which I find hard to swallow.”
The house along Rosalind Road is a first stop for recovering addicts -- one that Chappell and fellow neighbor Earl Strohmeyer said has shattered their sense of peace.
The home operator -- Tim Payne, CEO for Shirley Temple Transitional Living Homes -- took over about six months ago and says he noticed problems right away. Since then, he says he has increased staffing and implemented strict rules, along with a good neighbor policy that includes quiet time hours. He hopes those changes will ease neighbors’ minds.
“We want to fit in,” Payne said. “We don’t want to stand out. We don’t want to harm nobody. We want to help people.”
But this debate is not unique to a street in one suburb.
“The biggest problem that we have in Huntington is they’ll open up, and we don’t even know that they’ve opened up,” said Huntington Mayor Steve Williams.
The mayor and those WSAZ spoke with in East Pea Ridge want tougher regulations, so they raised their concerns during a recent sober living presentation to lawmakers.
“So many of them have just came in and they rent the place, or open or buy the place and throw mattresses in, and then they say, they have a program,” Williams said. “We have no problem whatsoever for the legitimate sober living facilities. The flop houses are the ones we want to be able to shut down.”
At the city level, Williams wants every recovery home to have a business license. That way he knows how many are in his city.
So WSAZ started digging into state regulation, and what the station found may surprise you.
In West Virginia, there is no registration requirement. That means state officials have no idea how many sober living homes are operating in West Virginia.
The most recent legislation aimed at cleaning up the industry passed three years ago. It tied state funding for recovery homes and client referrals to completion of a certification process, but that certification process is just voluntary.
The state started certifying homes early last year though the West Virginia Alliance for Recovery Residences, also known as WVARR. Its executive director, Emily Birckhead, says certification helps raise the standards and eliminate neighborhood nuisances.
“We also have people who are taking advantage and people who are doing things they are not supposed to be doing,” she said. “So our process was inherently designed to be the discerning factor, which programs are doing the right things. which programs are not. And a lot of programs fall somewhere in between.”
According to WVARR, statewide, 80 sober living residences are fully certified; 56 are in process; and 50 have been denied.
But being denied certification doesn’t mean the home has to close.
As for how many operators simply haven’t applied -- that’s anyone’s guess because the state has no registry for sober living homes.
Operators who receive certification become eligible to receive state funds based upon size and occupancy. For instance, state officials say a 30-bed facility could receive nearly $200,000 a year from one grant program.
Those certified can also receive client referrals from the state’s Corrections Division, Parole Board, hospitals and other entities, but state law clearly states those referrals are limited to certified facilities.
Yet WSAZ found that is not always the case.
Upon starting our investigation, WSAZ found the home in East Pea Ridge is not certified, but the operator says that hasn’t stopped him from receiving referrals.
“Where are you getting referrals,” asked WSAZ Investigative Reporter Curtis Johnson.
“We get them from hospitals, we get them from parole officers,” Payne replied. “We get them from prisons. We get them from all the walks of life, basically.”
“Are you guys WVARR certified?” Johnson asked.
“I won’t say yes yet, but we just got interviewed -- not interviewed, but they went through our homes, and we’re waiting on the documentation,” Payne replied.
“So you guys are in a, kind of, you’re in the process,” Johnson asked.
“Yes,” Payne said.
“Then how is it, by state law, you guys are receiving referrals?” Johnson asked.
“We have all of our guidelines, all of our emergency contacts, everything that has to do with being certified except for WVARR certification yet. And we’ve heard from different parole officers and stuff, ‘The clients have a right to choose where they want to be housed,’” Payne replied.
“Is it correct to say the DOC is basically given them the option of where they want to go, but not technically referring them to the facilities?” Johnson asked.
“Right,” Payne replied.
“Is that a bit of a loophole,” Johnson asked.
“I don’t know,” Payne replied.
The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation is responsible for signing off on all “home plans” for inmates who are granted parole.
A spokeswoman told WSAZ the agency does not allow parolees to live at a sober living home that has been denied certification.
For homes that are pending or never seek certification, she said the division will not make referrals, but it can approve placement at the inmate’s request.
WSAZ inquired further asking -- for inmates who seek a sober living option -- why the division would approve any request for a non-certified home, instead of a certified option. The spokeswoman did not respond.
Since WSAZ’s interview with Payne, the station learned his company was denied certification.
WVARR would not tell us why the home was denied.
A voicemail for Payne was not returned.
As for that home’s neighbors, like Strohmeyer, it’s an issue they say they shouldn’t be dealing with in their backyard.
“I do see the benefits because I’ve known people who have gotten help and have gotten their lives back on track, and I feel that both of these can be offered without having to infringe upon the daily life of people in their own, small neighborhoods,” he said.
While, WVARR would not tell WSAZ why a specific home is denied certification, it’s the director indicated that’s a change that she wants to make to provide extra transparency and accountability.
Meanwhile, she says WVARR can investigate complaint against any sober living home - certified or non certified.
All neighbors have to do is go to their website and follow the instructions.
For general information or questions about the West Virginia Alliance of Recovery Residences (WVARR), email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 304-360-0165. Tap here for information about filing a complaint for a home in your neighborhood.
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