Why sober houses for heroin addicts are hard to establish in suburbs

  • "Just like we have a huge shortage of publicly funded treatment in Illinois, we have an even worse problem with recovery homes," says Chelsea Laliberte, founder of the anti-heroin nonprofit Live4Lali in Arlington Heights.

      "Just like we have a huge shortage of publicly funded treatment in Illinois, we have an even worse problem with recovery homes," says Chelsea Laliberte, founder of the anti-heroin nonprofit Live4Lali in Arlington Heights. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, February 2016

 
 
Updated 5/8/2016 8:16 AM

Staying sober isn't easy for former heroin addicts in the early stages of recovery.

It takes a new routine. A network of support. Maybe a finding of faith. Probably a change of scenery.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And, often, a new place to live.

Sober houses are a vital element of recovery because they help former addicts avoid the pitfalls of their previous lives while transitioning into a new one without drugs or alcohol.

But advocates say they're few and far between in the suburbs. In fact, the state has no record of how many such facilities exist, as they're not licensed.

"Just like we have a huge shortage of publicly funded treatment in Illinois, we have an even worse problem with recovery homes," said Chelsea Laliberte, founder of the anti-heroin nonprofit Live4Lali in Arlington Heights. "These people who are suffering with opioid addiction really, really need support."

Nonprofits are recognizing the shortage of sober houses and trying to establish new locations. But they're meeting opposition from concerned neighbors and strict zoning codes, high operating costs and a persistent stigma against recovering addicts.

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Meanwhile, treatment agencies that run halfway houses and recovery homes face challenges with state funding or with requiring clients to pay for assistance most insurance policies won't cover.

The result is an incomplete circle of support that leaves recovering heroin users at risk of settling for a dicey living situation and again falling victim to their addiction.

"We all agree that people don't need to die from an overdose," Laliberte said. "If they're not going to die, then why can't we give them somewhere to live?"

Sober roadblocks

Chris Reed, president of New Directions Addiction Recovery Services, is working to remodel this house west of downtown Crystal Lake into a sober house for recovering heroin addicts.
  Chris Reed, president of New Directions Addiction Recovery Services, is working to remodel this house west of downtown Crystal Lake into a sober house for recovering heroin addicts. - John Starks | Staff Photographer
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The roadblocks to establishing sober living environments should be surmountable because many of them are technical -- zoning regulations about land use and location, parking and proximity, said Chris Reed, president of New Directions Addiction Recovery Services.

In Crystal Lake, where the nonprofit opened a "sober bar" in 2013, New Directions leaders have found a community supportive of their plans to establish sober houses for recovering heroin users -- just not at the locations the leaders see as the best fit.

A donation of $200,000 from a prominent local family allowed New Directions to buy a house on a large lot west of downtown with plans to allow 14 men to live there supervised in sobriety by a case manager during the day and a resident manager at night. But the pitch met opposition from zoning commission members, who said the house's single-family designation wasn't intended to hold more than five unrelated residents -- or the increased traffic and parking demand they would bring.

"Our idea of what's ideal for somebody in sober living is to be in a nice, safe, residential community" close to jobs and public transportation, said Aaron Cutler, director of continued support for New Directions. "Virtually every location that's going to have that is going to be single-family zoning."

New Directions Addiction Recovery Services wanted to remodel this house in Crystal Lake to use as a sober house for up to 14 men, but the plan has been scaled back due to opposition from neighbors.
  New Directions Addiction Recovery Services wanted to remodel this house in Crystal Lake to use as a sober house for up to 14 men, but the plan has been scaled back due to opposition from neighbors. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

But neighbors of the home west of downtown on Lincoln Parkway said a sober house wouldn't fit with the character of their neighborhood. They worried it would be a "revolving door" for residents who wouldn't be invested in the community, could have criminal backgrounds and could make them and their young children feel unsafe.

"Almost 100 neighbors showed up and pretty much shot it down with a wide variety of reasons -- some completely ridiculous and unrealistic," Reed said. "There was so much public opposition."

Michelle Rentzsch, Crystal Lake's director of community development, said the city is helping New Directions seek appropriate sites.

"There's no question that there is a need for sober living homes to help people transition," Rentzsch said. "It's not an issue. It's just a matter of finding the right zoning."

New Directions Addiction Recovery Services plans to strip this 1910 house to the studs and renovate it into a sober living facility for five residents, but efforts to host up to 14 at the house on Lincoln Parkway were met with concerns from neighbors and shot down by zoning commission members.
  New Directions Addiction Recovery Services plans to strip this 1910 house to the studs and renovate it into a sober living facility for five residents, but efforts to host up to 14 at the house on Lincoln Parkway were met with concerns from neighbors and shot down by zoning commission members. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

Reed said he appreciates the help but doesn't want to shoehorn his vision into a strange site -- like a former warehouse or industrial property -- just to ease neighbor concerns.

Heroin addiction is a disease that is killing people, he says -- including some recovering users who relapse and overdose because using the same amount of the drug as before has a greater effect on those who have been clean for weeks or months.

In light of an ongoing crisis with the drug, Reed said he wishes people would be open to an unconventional land use that could provide the support to launch a sober life.

"It doesn't seem like that much to ask," he said.

Money problems, too

Zoning issues and neighborhood concerns are common when it comes to sober houses, treatment directors say. These hurdles could illustrate part of the reason there aren't already more sober living facilities in the suburbs.

Serenity House in Addison operates four sober houses in West suburban communities in addition to halfway houses and less-structured recovery homes for men and women on its main campus. Dianna Feeney, executive director, said the agency has staff members regularly check on its off-campus houses and quickly correct problems neighbors report so discord won't develop.

Neighbors, she said, are pleased with Serenity House's management but skeptical of the residents. It seems they can't shake the knowledge that these are former drug addicts. "They do watch the houses differently, and there's definitely a stigma," Feeney said. "I do think that could be a barrier."

Cost can be another barrier.

"There's very little funding available for that level of care," Feeney said about sober recovery houses run by treatment centers, which typically provide a couple of hours a week of group or individual therapy in addition to random drug screening, job search support, meals and a place to live. "You have to get funding through the government or the client. With the lack of government funding, that's the biggest issue."

Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, which used to operate a halfway house for men in Elgin, closed the program early this year because of the state budget stalemate. The facility was needed by many who completed residential drug rehab, and its waiting list was often 20 people long, said Frank Harris, director of clinical services.

"That's why it's so difficult to lose those type of programs," Harris said. "To take them away just causes a greater need."

Sober experience

New Directions is still trying to sell the Crystal Lake community on the need for sober living, so for now, Reed and his fellow leaders are starting small. The house on Lincoln Parkway won't be allowed to host 14 residents, but five men can live there without a zoning change.

At left, Reed points out a white barn at the rear of the yard that will be renovated into something of a wood shop for residents to practice trades or host 12-step recovery meetings.
  At left, Reed points out a white barn at the rear of the yard that will be renovated into something of a wood shop for residents to practice trades or host 12-step recovery meetings. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

The house will become transitional living or a "three-quarters house," meant for people who have built a solid stretch of sober time ("maybe a year-plus," Reed says) but aren't ready to live on their own. Behind the house, built in 1910, is a barn, which will be renovated into something of a wood shop for residents to practice trades or host 12-step recovery meetings.

New Directions isn't giving up preparations for the vision leaders have for larger-scale sober living or the idea of using rent from a men's house to eventually open a similar facility for women.

In Reed's plans for a bigger operation, residents must be actively participating in a 12-step program. Rules will regulate what time they must leave in the morning to work or search for employment and what time they must return. Rent between $90 and $110 a week will keep living costs low but require financial management. The case manager will help with job seeking and otherwise becoming a responsible adult.

"People don't have that life experience. They don't know what to do. They don't know what to wear to an interview," Reed said. "We just think those are important things to do for people -- to help them with those daunting life tasks so that people can move through that and still maintain sobriety."

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