W.Va. Sober-living Homes Answer Call For Better Conditions
For those struggling with addiction, one way to get on the road to recovery is to enter a sober-living home. There, residents should have the structure and support to change their lives. But not all homes can promise that, and there has been no formal process to differentiate good and bad operators.
Democratic Del. Mike Pushkin and other state lawmakers sought to change that.
“We owe it not just to the communities that they’re in, but we really owe it to the clients to ensure that they have a safe place to get better,” Pushkin said.
In 2019, the legislature unanimously passed a law that would for the first time set standards for providers. Any home that receives state funding or client referrals from state agencies must be certified by the West Virginia Alliance of Recovery Residences, or WVARR. The deadline to complete the process was Sept. 30 of this year.
Most homes in the state have applied for their certification, but only 47 out of 233 total homes in the state have made it through the entire process so far, said WVARR Executive Director Emily Birckhead.
“The nature of humanity is to wait till the last minute,” Birckhead said. “But the issue is that we can't certify any program that doesn't apply. And we can't certify any program that doesn't meet the requirements.”
A home versus a “flop house”
For 10 years, Jimi Braswell, 45, abused drugs and got locked up for it. This year, he overdosed in Charleston.
“I was just watching it thinking ‘This is absolutely going to kill me and it's killing everybody I'm around,’” Braswell said.
His parole officer dropped him off at the Mid-Ohio Valley Fellowship Home in Parkersburg. Braswell has been living there for a few months now. He’s following a 12-step program and studying for an associate’s degree to become an electrician.
He lives with a dozen other guys going through the same thing.
“Being with like-minded people in recovery that have the same goals has made a world of difference,” Braswell said.
The Fellowship Home has been offering this structure and support for decades. Residents keep busy schedules full of group meetings, part-time jobs and volunteerism.
“They’re at the chronic level of addiction. It's either us or death,” said the home’s executive director, Patrice Pooler. “It’s great to see that all just turn around.”
Pooler says her clients do face stigma. Not everyone in town wants a recovery home on their street. That was made clear in Parkersburg when the city voted to ban new homes from opening up for a full year.
“‘Flop houses’ they’re called. Well, we don't have a flop house. We have more structure than most people have in their families,” Pooler said.
Pooler says that some houses are better than others. Her organization is currently working through their certification with WVARR.
“I believe everyone that gets into recovery housing has a good heart and wants to help people, but I think some of them lack the structure that's needed to keep people safe and keep people sober,” Pooler said.
Birckhead’s team at WVARR is made up of those who’ve gone through addiction and are still part of the recovery community. She said word of mouth was the only way to know if a home was actually any good.
“There are many good providers that are doing good and saving lives. And there are also many providers that are taking advantage of a vulnerable population. And our process is the only thing to discern the two,” she said.
Good operators let clients know upfront what to expect, Birckhead said. They have a strong track record of keeping people sober, instead of being known as a location where people relapse or overdose. Clients keep a busy schedule of healthy activities and make time for their peers. And the houses feel like homes.
“Is it a decent house? Would I want to live there? Would I want to send someone I love to live there?” Birckhead said.
The process to get certified can take operators months. It’s extensive, involving a lot of paperwork, an interview, an inspection, and a review of any complaints the home has received.
Birckhead says some homes aren’t willing to change, despite her availability to help them become certified.
Eleven homes have already been denied certification, but Birckhead says that means the process is working. Everything she observes should assure potential clients they’ll have a better chance at success.
“If I'm in early recovery and you put me in a slum, that is going to be my perception of myself,” Birckhead said. “I am very unlikely at that point to believe in my potential, and the possibility to even create a life that's worth staying in recovery for.”
Building up personal worth is exactly why Lauren Davis, 37, became a resident at the Mid-Ohio Valley Fellowship Homes women's program. Along with substance misuse, Davis has also struggled with mental illness and domestic violence. She now spends her days in group therapy, sessions with a peer counselor, and reading the Big Book (the foundational text for Alcoholics Anonymous).
“It’s not just a book, it’s a guide to a new life… to set yourself free,” Davis said.
Her situation got to the point that Child Protective Services took her toddler away from her. But she believes she’s on a better path and envisions getting her daughter back.
“My daughter will be raised in an environment where she will see an independent, strong, confident woman,” Davis said. “I want her to thrive and the only way she’s going to thrive is by watching me.”
Quality versus quantity
It’s unknown how many recovery beds are needed to help everyone in West Virginia. But at the Fellowship Home there is always a waitlist.
“You got so many people needing beds and literally we have people showing up at our doorstep wanting beds,” said Steve Ball, who runs the men’s program.
The new law has exasperated that need. State agencies that refer clients to sober living homes can now only recommend recovery residences that are certified. So far, about one-fifth of homes in the state have been certified. This limits where drug courts, probation officers and other state workers can send those needing shelter and recovery services.
“We don't have as many to choose from,” said Stephanie Bond, director of the Division of Probation Services with the Supreme Court of Appeals for West Virginia.
It’s been tricky placing clients since the Sept. 30 deadline went into effect. Bond uses her best judgment and touches base with WVARR frequently. Bond said she will not simply move a client who is doing well in a home that is still working through the certification process. But if a home operator is not putting in the effort, then Bond will not consider them.
“With any new initiative, you're going to see some growing pains,” Bond said. “We're just excited to have some checks and balances and make sure that when we send somebody someplace or allow them to live someplace. We want to make sure it's good for them.”
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.