Sober living operators, regulators struggle to protect those recovering from addiction

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The nation's epidemic of addiction to drugs and alcohol is fueling demand for a form of housing known as sober homes. But the substance-free settings can operate without a license and with little oversight. Now, state regulators are trying to figure out where they are.

It is an astounding figure; this year in Illinois five times as many people will die from drug and alcohol abuse as are killed by gun violence. But what happens to those who live?

I-Team looked into the challenge faced by those who are recovering from substance abuse and need a supportive place to live.

The sobering reality is there aren't nearly enough facilities for those trying to kick dangerous addictions, and those that do exist may be unregulated and in some places are unwelcome.

Cormac Burke, 21, knows some of the neighbors near his sober living home in west suburban Hinsdale are worried and unhappy men like himself are now living in the area. He wants people to know the only thing different about the house he's living in is everyone inside is clean and sober.

He said the three men currently living there all have a desire to do better.

"I'm not a bad person, you know, I'm a normal human being that just struggles with something." Burke added, "We're just normal people that have some kind of disease that we're just trying to better our lives that's it and this is a place that is an opportunity to better our lives."

Recovery Residence Registry - IDHS

Licensed recovery houses represented by green dots, unlicensed Oxford houses represented by yellow dots

Burke is a former high school wrestler from nearby Downers Grove.

He said he never imagined he would be where he is today, but he's been struggling with addiction since he was 17. He's been through several intense treatment programs for heroin addiction. He's lived in other recovery homes, but said the Hinsdale house is giving him hope he will remain drug free for good.

"We kind of keep to ourselves. Everybody, everybody here has jobs, they go to work; you know, honest jobs." Burke said, "It feels good to be here."

But the sober home may not last. Michael Owens, executive director of Trinity Sober Living, said he is stunned by the reaction to his plans to establish the sober living residence. Owens said the desperately needed facility would provide a safe and comfortable place to help up to 10 men in recovery transition into a life free of alcohol & drugs.

"I bought the house as Trinity Sober Living. I was not hiding anything in buying in my own name or anyone else's name. I bought it as Trinity Sober Living," he said.

But Owens said when several people in the village found out he was he started hearing complaints.

"My neighbors have told me, 'Oh it's a great thing that you're doing,' but nobody wants it in their backyard," said Owens.

The Village of Hinsdale took legal action and filed a complaint in DuPage County Court, saying the home is in violation of zoning regulations if more than three non-family members are residents.

Hinsdale village president Tom Cauley declined an on-camera interview, citing the ongoing litigation. In an email he said, "I am the spokesperson for the village on this issue, but at this time I think we should let the litigation run its course."

The I-Team also contacted neighbors who declined to comment

Owens fired back with a federal lawsuit claiming discrimination. He said the residents of his home are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act.

"You know it's not like an apartment style, it's a real family friendly environment and this is what we are really trying to get across. We are family," Owens said.

Owens said he is a recovering alcoholic, and has been in recovery for almost 13 years. He said his success in business was good but it wasn't his passion. He wanted to help others who are struggling as he once was.

"I finally realized that what I want to do: give sobriety away to other people," he said.

Owens said he is in the process of getting a license, which isn't required but recommended by many in the recovery home business.

He said the house will have a full-time manager and residents will be carefully screened, will be required to have a job and will be required attend support meetings outside the home.

"We really don't what to be heard or seen, we just want to be seen as a good neighbor," he said.

"A lot of people who set up these houses are trying to do a good thing," said Danielle Kirby, director of the Division of Substance Use Prevention and Recover in the Illinois Department of Human Services. "A lot of them are just quietly in neighborhoods and really don't have a lot of issues, they are just not calling a lot of attention to themselves. Right now we are just trying to figure out where they are."

In Illinois, state licensing of recovery housing is required only if it provides treatment. Sober living homes don't require oversight in Illinois, and that has created a host of challenges for regulators who are tasked with making sure these environments are safe and suitable.

A 2018 report to Congress from the Government Accountability Office on sober homes across the nation cited investigations of "unscrupulous behavior" at some homes in some states, "potential insurance fraud" and "criminal investigations" opened.

Kirby said when the state is notified of a problem sober home an investigation is launched and the IDHS legal department gets involved. She also said people who are worried about criminal activity in a home should call 911 and report immediate concerns.

A new law that went into effect the beginning of this year requires the state to set up a recovery residence registry.

Signing up is still voluntary, but community leaders say it's a good start. The list contains residences that are licensed and unlicensed.

Sober living environments are commonly known as recovery homes, sober houses, recovery residences, Oxford houses or halfway houses

Dora Dantzler-Wright, executive director of the Chicago Recovery Community Coalition and a sober home operator in Forest Park, said the state's effort to find homes and get them registered is a good start at improving oversight.

"If you are there, that gives some validity to what you are doing. That's not to say you will be unprofessional but it is visible for everybody to see," she said.

Cindy Ershen wants mandated regulation for the entire recovery home industry.

"I hope that there are regulations made, that things are changed. Nothing will bring my daughter back but, you know... for somebody else," she said.

Ershen wasn't looking to publicly air her family's grief, but agreed to talk about her daughter when the I-Team contacted her regarding the lawsuit she filed in Cook County Court.

She said her daughter Amy was fun loving, talented and devoted to her family, but a cascade of physical injuries and emotional issues led to drug abuse.

In 2017 Amy was in a northwest suburban sober housing program.

"I got a call from the Rolling Meadows police," Ershan recalled, "and it was very serious. She probably wasn't going to make it."

Amy died of a heroin overdose at the age of 26.

Her mother said they hadn't been told that Amy was being kicked out of the sober living facility after about two and a half months. Less than a day later Ershen said her daughter overdosed in motel room.

"I truly believe one phone call would have saved my daughter's life," she said. "She was loved. She still is. She will be missed. "

Ershen is suing GIL Sober Living and its parent companies for wrongful death, alleging the operators should have called her before terminating her daughter's living arrangement.

"What she wants to do is prevent the type of conduct that resulted in Amy's death. It was a clearly preventable death," said Tim McArdle, Cindy Ershen's attorney. "She would also like the state, not just Illinois but in general, the states to regulate this industry to ensure that there is a safe code of conduct, so to speak."

A lawyer representing the company declined to be interviewed. In court filings, the home denies negligence, denies that it had permission to contact Amy's family, and has filed a counter claim alleging contributory negligent conduct by the family, and that Amy "...experienced a relapse that may have led to her death."

Those allegations are denied by Amy's family.

OTHER HELPFUL LINKS

National Alliance for Recovery Residences
NARR - Illinois Association of Extended Care
Illinois Department of Human Services Recovery Residence Registry
Trinity Sober Living
Chicago Recovery Communities Coalition
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