By Tom Dalton
SALEM — In the world of substance abuse, there are a lot of facilities that help drug addicts and alcoholics. There are hospitals, residential treatment facilities, methadone clinics, outpatient programs and more.
They all have something in common: They are licensed and regulated by the state.
Not so with sober houses, which appear to operate in a vacuum. Although there is no one definition, sober houses often are lodging houses with rules where other recovering addicts and alcoholics offer support.
"Anyone can open a sober house," said Kevin Norton, president and CEO of Northeast Behavioral Health, a large regional health care agency that provides services in substance abuse and other areas.
Norton said sober houses are "not licensed, they are not regulated, there is no (required) treatment, and they can be problematic."
That certainly has been the case in Salem.
Two men died late last fall of apparent drug overdoses at 179 Boston St.
Although the city considered it a lodging house, Lynn District Court was sending men on probation to what it called a "sober living facility with treatment options and regular drug testing." In other words, a sober house.
The court sent probationers there until Dec. 4, the day a dead body was discovered in one of the rooms.
One of the owners of Hilltop Manor denies it was a sober house. He said it was "independent sober living" with strict rules against drugs and alcohol, but with no services on the premises. Residents were referred to outpatient programs, he said.
The city's Licensing Board, which thought Hilltop Manor was a rooming house, grilled the owners this week on the nature of the business. The questioning got heated.
So is there a difference between a "sober house" and "independent sober living"?
"It's semantics," Norton said.
Three years ago, Salem had a bad experience with a sober house on Salem Street opened by a man with a criminal record. It eventually was shut down, but not without a fight.
At the time, the man's lawyer said his client, even though he had no professional qualifications, could open a sober house under the U.S. Fair Housing Act, which provides protections for people with disabilities (i.e., the tenants).
The recent deaths on Boston Street have triggered City Councilor Michael Sosnowski to call committee meetings aimed at establishing stricter rules and regulations for lodging houses — rules that would also cover sober houses.
Police Chief Paul Tucker is on board. Knowing who's living in a rooming house, especially if they're former drug addicts and alcoholics, can be a matter of personal safety for the tenants in the event of a fire or other emergency, and public safety for a neighborhood, he said.
"I would want to know about it," Tucker said, "if not for any other reason than it would help us to do our job and to protect the public."
The state Bureau of Substance Abuse Services is currently preparing a report on sober houses, which will include a recommendation for state legislation, according to City Solicitor Beth Rennard.
"I called the Statehouse last week and was told that the report was in draft form and should be issued within two weeks," Rennard said in an email.
"In addition to whatever comes down from the state, the city is in the process of drafting regulations for the Licensing Board that incorporate fire, building and health codes, as well as local rules for the running of lodging houses," she said.
Those are based on regulations from the town of Brookline, she said.
Rennard stressed that they are not trying to prohibit sober houses, which she knows have federal protections.
That's a point Sosnowski has also made. He doesn't want to shut them down, just get control of an entity within the world of substance-abuse prevention that is not regulated by the state and can pose a potential danger to its tenants and the community.
At their best, sober houses can be an effective tool, officials say. They can be a safe place to live with house rules and support from other people battling the same demons.
"I think sober houses have value in the community," Norton said, "because someone that is dealing with their addiction typically doesn't have a lot of resources financially, socially or familial."
After someone comes out of a hospital or residential facility, a well-run sober house can be a saving grace and refuge.
"It's a living community in a supportive, safe environment," Norton said. "That's what sober houses are supposed to be and, depending on who's running them, who's operating them, what they can be."