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Appalachia Health News tells the story of our health challenges and how we overcome them throughout the region. 

City of Parkersburg Says No to More Drug Treatment Centers, Sober Living Homes

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June Leffler / WVPB
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A billboard in Parkersburg, W. Va. advertises addiction recovery services.

This week, Cabell County and the City of Huntington made their final arguments on how three drug distributors accelerated the local opioid crisis, and why these companies should pay up. The local governments are asking for $2.5 billion, saying that money could be used to treat and support those with addiction disorders.

During the same week, Parkersburg made a move in a whole other direction. The city does not want to see any new treatment centers or sober living homes for the time being.

“In the beginning, we needed a rehab center. Do we need eight? No,” said Parkersburg City Council member Sharon Kuhl.

In an 8-1 vote Tuesday evening, the council banned any new addiction treatment centers and recovery homes from opening in the city for about a year.

Kuhl says she's noticing recovery homes opening in residential areas and near schools. There are no rules on where recovery or treatment homes can locate. They can be integrated into neighborhoods just like any new homebuyer. But for Kuhl, she wants the folks already living there to have a heads up.

“They're like a snake in the grass,” Kuhl said. “If they would go around to the neighborhood, and let them know, tell the neighbors what they're going to do... I don't think there would be such an outcry.”

She worries that rehab programs are bringing vulnerable people to Parkersburg who may struggle to get back on their feet.

“If they come and they decide after one or two days they want to leave, they kick them out. They're on the streets,” Kuhl said. “Then they become homeless. Then they become Parkersburg’s problem.”

But health and recovery advocates say preventing homelessness is exactly why these recovery homes are so important.

“Quality recovery housing is essential to keep people off the streets,” said Renee Steffen speaking to the city council and a packed auditorium Tuesday. Steffen is the executive director of the Sisters Health Foundation, which provides philanthropic support to healthcare initiatives in the area, including recovery options.

“Respectfully, our foundation does not support the substance abuse moratorium as written,” Steffen said.

Douglas Dyer, who overcame a substance use issue, approached the podium that evening to tell his own story. “I choose to live here. I own a home in Lewis County. I came up here for the recovery,” he said.

Dyer said he received substance use disorder treatment at St. Joseph Recovery Center, a rehab center using medication assisted treatment. He now lives at the Mid-Ohio Valley Fellowship Home, a sober living recovery residence.

“I look around this room. A lot of good looking people here, right? You can't pick out the people that are in recovery from the people who aren't,” he said.

Dyer didn’t rail against the moratorium. He simply thanked the community, churches and his peers in recovery for supporting him.

“What I've learned is there's a bunch of people here that will forgive you, if you mess up, and try to put you back on your feet,” he said. “I have a lot of love for Parkersburg and the history of the town. And it's a great place. I'm glad to live here right now.”

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June Leffler / WVPB
Parkersburg Council Member Wendy Tuck was the only one to vote against Parkersburg's rehab and recovery home moratorium. The vote was 8-1.

As treatment beds increase, need remains

Parkersburg is the seat of Wood County. Wood County holds about 20 percent of the state’s treatment beds and less than 10 percent of the state’s recovery beds, said Emily Birkhead, executive director of the West Virginia Alliance of Recovery Residences.

“And to be fair, a lot of these have come about in the last year,” said Birkhead. “And I think any kind of abrupt, significant change in a system is going to cause a shake-up.”

One of the newer recovery homes is Hope Recovery Manor, a 16-bed women’s sober living residence. It opened in the summer of 2020.

Case Manager Kayla Cooper said there’s never enough beds to meet demand. There’s always a waitlist.

Recovery advocates say once a person decides to enter treatment or sober-living, any delay can lessen the likelihood of them following through.

There are currently about 280 treatment beds and 180 recovery beds in Wood County, according to numbers from the West Virginia Alliance of Recovery Residences.

Cooper says that a shortfall of 100 recovery beds likely is leaving people who are coming out of detox uncertain about where to go.

“That leaves well over 100 people that have to figure out what they're doing,” Cooper said. “They either go back home to where they came from, essentially going right back to the people, places and things that they tried to get away from, or they go right back out to the streets.”

Since recovery programs last much longer than a single week or month-long rehab program, that means once a recovery bed is filled, it takes longer for it to open up for someone else. Residents usually stay one to two years at Hope Recovery Manor.

Cooper helps her residents form a more stable life, one where they can form healthy habits and find a job. She sees the potential in these people, and she wishes the local council and community would do the same.

“Everybody does deserve that second chance to be a productive member of society, and these people do have the opportunity to give back to the community,” Cooper said.

More towns, and the state, to consider rehab restrictions

City officials say they want to help people with substance use disorder. They applaud programs dedicated to both serving their residents and engaging with the community. Council member Kuhl praised Recovery Point, which has operated an 80-bed men’s facility in Parkersburg since 2017.

But Mayor Tom Joyce says it’s time to set some standards.

“There's good players, and they're bad players,” Joyce said. “I see the next few months as an opportunity to maybe sit down and identify who's doing what and who's doing it better than everybody else.”

This moratorium will put a pause on new homes setting up shop in town for almost a year. Joyce hopes the state legislature will further regulate these homes in that timeframe.

Delegate John Kelly of Wood County plans to re-introduce legislation that would require these homes to acquire certificates of need, something routine for medical providers.

“We can tell these people when they come in, you have to show that there's a need for your facility before you can come in,” Kelly said.

Kelly hopes that with the recent shake up in the West Virginia Legislature’s House Health Committee that his bill might have a better shot in 2022. The committee's chair, Jeffery Pack, left his role in the legislature to take a state job.

Kelly has supported more funding for recovery homes in the past.

“In 2017, we didn't have any recovery centers. And we had people dying in the streets. We had people dying in service station restrooms. We had people dying in the parks,” he said. “ We had six month, eight month, 12 months waiting periods. And we couldn't get these folks in recovery.”

But with a recent uptick in new rehab and recovery homes, he thinks some outside companies view these homes only for financial gain.

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June Leffler / WVPB
Greg Whittington with the West Virginia American Civil Liberties Union speaks out against the moratorium. He says he met with Parkersburg's recovery community leading up to the vote.

The West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has warned Parkersburg that its rehab and recovery moratorium may be in violation of federal disabilities laws. Substance use disorder is considered a disability.

While the conversation around the local moratorium ordinance focuses on those with an addiction, the ordinance language points to West Virginia State code that includes homes for those with behavioral and developmental disabilities.

Joyce acknowledged this grouping, saying it was an unintended consequence.

Other communities are considering similar measures. Vienna will have a final vote on its own rehab and recovery moratorium on Aug. 5.

Charleston city council member John Kennedy Bailey said in a May meeting he’s concerned with the proliferation of recovery homes in downtown Charleston.

Best practices for recovery residents and communities

Recovery advocates don’t like the city’s decision, but they are ready to claim their seat at the table.

“I don't think that we agree on everything necessarily. But I think the willingness to have the conversations speaks volumes,” said Emily Birkhead, the West Virginia Alliance of Recovery Residences. She’s spoken with Joyce, the mayor, who is forming a task force to discuss best practices in recovery care.

Birkhead’s organization certifies recovery homes in West Virginia that prove they meet certain standards of care and community engagement. A recent state law requires any home that receives state funding or state referrals go through this certification by Sept. 30.

Certification requires proof of basic living requirements. Residents need to have a safe, spacious place to live.

“You can't have people sleeping in living rooms, or kitchens, or closet spaces,” she said.

Homes also need to have a good neighbor policy, too, Birkhead said, outlining how neighbors can make loitering and noise complaints. And communities must decide how those would be dealt with.

“Neither side is necessarily wrong. And so the question becomes, how can we address both in a way that works well to serve most people's needs,” she said.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.


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