WSAZ Investigates | Sober living homes

Published: Feb. 27, 2020 at 6:46 PM EST
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There's no question that our region sees the impacts of the drug epidemic. Everyday city leaders, recovery activists, and medical professionals work to find new ways to help people get clean.

There is one trend we are seeing grow in our communities, with sober living homes opening in neighborhoods. They usually have about eight addicts move in together as they work on themselves and getting clean. For many families who live in these neighborhoods, it doesn't sit well with them.

Most recently, a group of neighbors in Ashland addressed city commissioners about their concerns after learning of a sober living home on their block.

WSAZ has been looking into sober living homes since November, particularly ones run by a group called Oxford House. The national non-profit group has been around more than 40 years. At least six are open in Huntington, with others open in Ashland, and Kanawha County.

Throughout our investigation, we learned that Oxford House, or any sober living group do not have to tell neighbors, or even city officials that they have opened a facility. This is because recovering addicts are protected by federal laws for fair housing, as well as under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The neighbors in Ashland say they did not know for several months that one was on their street.

"It would be nice to know what's in your neighborhood," said one neighbor. "We went for several months and didn't even know it was there."

Commissioners say that was alarming to them, as well.

It's a courtesy, if nothing else maybe get the city to have an understanding of what is going on," said Ashland Mayor Steve Gilmore. "Therefore when you get neighbors coming down, we would have had some kind of educated background."

"If someone hears of an Oxford house potentially coming near them or in their area, there are some concerns," said Jim Borders who does outreach with Oxford. "They're good concerns, but if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. We have to give people chances to recover."

Because of the federal laws, there is no way to know how many sober living homes are open in a community. Oxford does have a list on their website of every address of houses in their organization. Huntington City Attorney Scott Damron estimates there are 35 open in the city. He says this is based on business licenses that have been filed, along with word of mouth.

Most Oxford houses are rented out by a homeowner to the organization. Borders says each tenant is responsible for about $100 a week in rent. In Huntington, landlords are supposed to file for business licenses for any rental property -- regardless if it's a family living in a home or if it is a sober living home.

Kellie Rowe lives in an Oxford house. She told WSAZ she understands that people are concerned. But she says the tenants do not have free reign in the house.

"We have rules and stuff," Rowe said. "We have curfews that we have to follow. We have to keep employment, attending meetings, and fellowship with each other."

However, the Oxford houses are self-policed. That means there is no one official that stays in the house regularly. Borders does touch base with the houses and attend their meetings. But most of the accountability is among the houses, including making sure others are on the straight and narrow.

"We're all drug addicts here," Rowe said. "We know the signs of someone that is using. We call a house meeting and if everyone agrees that person is high, they have 15 minutes to gather whatever belongings they can."

Borders says the self-policing method is the best practice for addicts to still feel like people and not prisoners.

"If someone is telling you what to do all the time, it is too much institutionalized, or a lot of people feel that way. They're not learning life's skills on life's terms."

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, released the following statement to WSAZ: “Recovery housing like those offered through Oxford House is a crucial part of a comprehensive recovery network, and I’m proud of the important work they do in West Virginia."

In West Virginia, legislation went into effect in 2019 to allow sober living homes to get a certification that if approved, would give those facilities state funding and referrals.

Huntington officials actually played a role in drafting that legislation.

"The new legislation is a significant tool that will be used to a sure that the homes are good quality, or professionally managed, and are actually accomplishing their state admission of providing safe, drug and alcohol free living conditions for people in recovery," Damron said. "In the past few years, a number of bad actors have sought to profit from the most vulnerable people by renting or purchasing substandard buildings and calling them sober living homes."

Damron says this will be important to Huntington to make sure good, legitimate sober living homes thrive. He says no sober house has gotten the certification yet, but many are in the process.

However, Huntington is taking things a step further. Damron revealed exclusively to WSAZ that the city is in the early stages of exploring an inspection ordinance on all rental properties, including sober living homes.

"Mayor Williams has become concerned with the increase of sober living homes in the city and how they affect residential neighborhoods," Damron said. "This would include both rental property and sober living homes. It doesn't focus on sober living homes, solely because we have a lot of issues with rental property being substandard and causing the same kind of problems sober living homes provide."

No matter location, city officials say there needs to be somewhere for addicts to get help, but they also want to maintain the sanctity of neighborhoods.

"It's one of those tough ones in city government to deal with," Gilmore said. "But I think all the support help for those who need help."

Gilmore adds he believes city officials should be in the know when facilities want to open in a community, saying he thinks that is an appropriate way to handle it.