Vermont Sober Homes Seek the Right to Boot Those Who Relapse | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Sober Homes Seek the Right to Boot Those Who Relapse

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Tyler Scherer - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Tyler Scherer

Tyler Scherer said his attempts at living in sober houses — group homes for those fighting addiction — have all ended the same way: He was kicked out for breaking the rules.

First he was caught with too few tablets of Adderall, a medication to treat attention deficit disorder that contains amphetamines. He had a prescription but had taken a higher dosage than he was allowed. The second time, Scherer was caught drinking, another relapse in his yearslong battle with alcoholism. After both evictions, he went to the Brattleboro Retreat, where he told staff members he was suicidal so he could stay for at least a few days.

"Third time, I really didn't care," Scherer said. "I ended up staying at [a] shelter and just making things a lot worse for myself, which is probably typical of 90 percent of the people [who get kicked out]. Usually they hit the streets and they're on a tear."

Scherer, 31, spoke to Seven Days last week by phone from a homeless shelter in Burlington. He'd been there for nearly a week after he was kicked out of his fourth sober house in three years — this time, he said, for again taking too many pills. Scherer said he's witnessed other people meet the same fate for all sorts of transgressions: relapsing, paying rent late, missing mandatory recovery meetings.

"People get kicked out [frequently]," Scherer said. "It doesn't matter what time of day it is, how cold it is. They don't really care where you go."

Advocates say this common practice is a clear violation of Vermont's landlord-tenant statutes, which should ensure that residents receive notice and have legal recourse before they are evicted. Even some of those who operate the homes say they don't know how a judge would view expedited evictions, should someone challenge them in court.

For that reason, some operators are lobbying for a bill under consideration in the Vermont House that would codify the practice as legit.

Supporters of H.783 contend that it would actually protect sober home residents. They emphasize that only homes that meet certain national standards would be allowed to perform expedited evictions, which operators view as a necessary evil in the complicated fight against addiction. But critics say the measure would have the opposite effect, placing a vulnerable population at further risk. 

"This bill is ratifying dangerous behavior and making it so people who have already had trouble asserting their rights won't even have rights to assert," said Tom Dalton, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, who works with people in recovery.

Vermont's two dozen recovery residences aim to create a supportive environment in which people hold each other responsible to stay sober. Most homes are privately run by nonprofit groups and exclusively serve people struggling with substance-use disorders. Many of these people arrive straight from prison or inpatient recovery centers. Others apply to the homes as they would for any other apartment.

The homes offer people a chance to regain some independence in a structured setting. Most charge rent, and though most do not offer in-house treatment programs, some have part-time managers or volunteers, often in recovery themselves, who mentor the residents. Many homes also require that people attend house meetings and either work or enroll in school.

But while recovery residences have become an increasingly important part of Vermont's response to the opioid crisis, they are subject to virtually no regulation or state oversight.

H.783 is intended to change that. It would create a voluntary certification system that would be overseen by a Vermont affiliate of the National Alliance for Recovery Residences. Homes would have to meet standards aimed at fostering a comfortable, family-like atmosphere. Residents would do chores and be given some say in how the home operates.

Rep. John Killacky (D-South Burlington), who cosponsored the bill, said he hopes to create consistent expectations for recovery homes while easing barriers that can make it difficult set up and run a home — an important goal, because more recovery beds are desperately needed. The state's 212 beds are roughly 1,000 short of demand, according to a study released last year by Downstreet Housing & Community Development, a nonprofit based in Barre.

"It's an absolute crisis in our state," Killacky said.

The bill would not mandate certification, but it does include two incentives. Certified homes would be considered single-family residences for local zoning purposes, removing a barrier that can make them hard to establish. The homes could also immediately evict people for violating rental agreements.

David Riegel, executive director of the nonprofit Vermont Foundation of Recovery, which runs six Vermont sober homes, said operators must sometimes quickly remove people who begin using drugs in order to protect the other residents.

"We're not holding up our end of the bargain if we're just allowing that to happen," Riegel said, adding that without that ability, "the whole concept — the whole principle — of recovery housing fails." 

Jan-Roberta Tarjan, executive director of Dismas of Vermont, a private nonprofit that houses recently incarcerated people in transitional homes, agreed. Dismas does not operate any recovery residences, but Tarjan said many of the people they work with suffer from substance-use disorder, which is why she plans to seek certification for the organization's homes if the bill passes.

"We just need folks to know that it's legitimate to say somebody who is inebriated is not safe to have among other people who are struggling," Tarjan said. "They are not bad people because they relapsed. We just need them to be removed."

Supporters of the bill say it would add speed bumps to the eviction process, such as requiring that drug test results be verified by a state-approved lab before someone can be evicted. Just as important, they say, the bill contains two key safeguards that would prevent people from being kicked out into unsafe situations.

First, the bill would require certified homes to verify that people being admitted have another place to stay in case they are forced to leave.

Jeff Moreau, who runs the Vermont Alliance for Recovery Residences, which would oversee the program, said he would only certify homes that show they can deal with relapse in a "thoughtful way."

"It simply will not be ... an immediate, 'Sorry, guy, you're out on the street,'" he said. Homes that do operate that way, Moreau said, "will not be certified." 

Dalton doesn't buy it, saying that even Vermont's more professionally run sober homes evict people with no safe place to go "on a regular basis."

"I just don't see that description they're giving as consistent with what I've seen working for 20 years in Vermont," he said.

The second safeguard in the bill is a requirement that certified homes have an appeals process. Instead of a judge reviewing the matter, however, a superior of the "original decision maker" would. If that person owns the home, Moreau's organization would take over the review. That's a far less stringent process than the court system.

Nothing in the bill would explicitly prohibit homes from putting somebody out on the street.

That's why Dalton scoffs at the suggestion that the bill would give individuals more protections than they have now. Recovery home residents are already legal tenants, he argues, making on-the-spot evictions illegal.

"These are existing protections people have that they're talking about taking away," he said.

Dalton said he knows of people who have been sent back to prison after being evicted from a home because they had no other place to stay, a condition of their probation. Others who sheltered in unsafe places have overdosed or experienced rape or sexual assault, he said.

"The stakes are very high," he said.

Brenda Siegel, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor and a recovery advocate who testified against the bill earlier this session, shares Dalton's fears. She accused lawmakers of failing to recognize that relapse is part of recovery. The legislation reflects an antiquated notion that the only way to get better is to hit rock bottom, she added. 

"The people in active use are being punished actively every day. They don't need any of us to punish them," she said.

Emily Megas-Russell, a Brattleboro social worker and psychotherapist who works for the Soma Wellness Center, said the provisions of any new law should encourage homes to support people at their most vulnerable — not make it easier to get rid of them. 

"How are we going to create a system of recovery residences that outsources the most intense stage of recovery?" she asked. "And to where? The streets? The police? To family?" 

Threatening people who relapse with eviction "promotes people to be dishonest," Megas-Russell added. 

Scherer, who is still homeless after being evicted, confirmed the social worker's suspicions. He recalled stashing drugs for housemates and peeing into cups to help them pass a drug test. 

"When people are under that sort of pressure, everyone just clams up," he said. "They're not going to talk about it. They're going to keep secrets and lies." 

H.783 has already cleared one House committee, and lawmakers on the House Human Services Committee said they plan to hold a vote in time to move the bill to the House floor and then to the Senate this session.

Rep. Jean O'Sullivan (D-Burlington), who cosponsored the bill, acknowledged all the concerns about legalizing evictions but said that she, like many other supporters, believes the bill contains sufficient protections.

She conceded that some people could be evicted into unsafe situations. But multiplying the number of available beds would give more Vermonters an opportunity to get well, she asserted.

"It's not going to be perfect. No bill ever is," O'Sullivan said. "I think the balance falls on the support of the bill."

Dalton, meantime, said he was not interested in a compromise, because everyone who lives in a sober home is at risk of relapsing. So until everyone is protected, he said, "Nobody is safe." 

The original print version of this article was headlined "Out of Recovery"