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'Sober Houses' Are Proliferating in Maine. What Are They?

Troy R. Bennett
Bangor Daily News
Dr. Ron Springel sits at the Plymouth House Sober Care home on Glenwood Avenue in Portland where he received treatment in 2014. Springel now serves on the board of the Maine Association of Recovery Residences.

Thursday's Bangor Daily News - and Maine Public's Maine Calling program Thursday afternoon - will be focusing on so-called "sober houses." Haven't heard that term before?  You're not alone. Bangor Daily News reporter Jake Bleiberg has been looking into the proliferation of sober houses in Maine.  Bleiberg talks with Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about what sober houses are, and why so many of them have opened in the state in recent years.

GRATZ: Jake, welcome.

BLEIBERG: Thank you. Good to be here.

GRATZ: So what is a sober house?

Credit Irwin Gratz / Maine Public
Maine Public
Bangor Daily News reporter Jake Bleiberg at Maine Public's studios in Portland. Bleiberg reports on the proliferation of "sober houses" in Maine.

BLEIBERG: So a sober home is a place that people in recovery, people who are battling some sort of addiction, choose to live together with other people in recovery and try to mutually support each other.

GRATZ: Now, I know when I looked at your story I was very surprised at the extent of the development of sober houses in the state. Who owns these places?

BLEIBERG: They're mostly owned and operated by people who are, themselves, in recovery, who have brought themselves back from a difficult point in their lives and want to provide a path that others can do the same thing. You know, it's a support system of people fighting addiction, where they weren't otherwise finding a lot of support. I think these homes ended up being the only thing between relapse or homelessness for a lot of people.

GRATZ: Lacking formal regulation, what are the conditions like in these homes?

BLEIBERG: The homes, you know, can vary from the average old house you might see around Portland where people share space. And then it ranges all the way up to the other end, where you have homes that cost thousands of dollars a month and are really beautiful, sometimes lavish, facilities.

GRATZ: Now you mentioned, of course, the lack of formal regulation, but this has apparently showed up on the radar screens of the [Maine] Legislature.

BLEIBERG: This is something that is not just going on in Maine, but is going on around the country. What our reporting suggests is that the sober home and recovery resident industry has really surged, along with the death toll from the opioid crisis. So in other states we've seen significant abuses in these homes, and we've seen lawmakers there enact responsively.

GRATZ: What kinds of things have gone wrong?

BLEIBERG: In Massachusetts in May a sober home owner there was arrested and charged with allegedly trading drugs and legal services to the residents of this home that was supposed to be helping people stay sober, in return for sex. But here in Maine we haven't seen evidence of those types of abuses cropping up, at least not yet. I guess what a lot of people see is that there's an opportunity here to get out in front of an issue. Sen. Shenna Bellows brought forward a bill during this past legislative session that would have introduced some voluntary regulatory mechanisms, and then would have given the home some incentive to do so - it was a proposal to offer some affordable housing dollars to programs that were certified. And that was brought forward and it received some support in both the [Maine] House and Senate, but was ultimately left unfunded and effectively dead, along with a bevy of other bills in the special legislative session.

GRATZ: What does the medical community and the addiction treatment community think of these?

BLEIBERG: The people we spoke to in that world believe that these homes have become a really essential part of the process of recovery in Maine. You know, the medical treatment community also sees the need for some standardization and some ability for people who are looking at these homes to have clear signposts about what they're going to get, or what their rent check that a lot of them are paying out of pocket buys them.

GRATZ: Jake thanks very much for the time. I appreciate it.

BLEIBERG: It's been a pleasure, Irwin.

Hear more from Jake Bleiberg on his look into the proliferation of "sober houses" in Maine.

Listen to Maine Calling's program on Sober Houses and Read Bleiberg's story about sober houses in Thursday's edition of the Bangor Daily News.

Originally published July 12, 2018 7:26 a.m.