With No Oversight, How Sober is 'Sober Living' in New Hampshire?

May 18, 2017

When recovering from an opioid addiction, one important step is finding safe, drug-free housing.

There are a lot of places in New Hampshire that call themselves 'sober living.' But with no state oversight there’s no real way to check how sober these houses actually are.

If you ask those in the recovery community about sober living in Manchester, most will describe it like this:

“Anybody and everybody can say they’re a recovery house and nobody knows who is really and who isn’t a recovery house – it’s a crap shoot.”

Cheryle Pacapelli is on the state’s recovery task force. She’s helping draft new housing standards for the state.

But what she and many others see right now is what they call: “the wild, wild west.”

To see first-hand what this looked like, I spent a day last week riding along with the city’s fire chief Dan Goonan.

Manchester EMS Director and firefighter Chris Hickey along with Fire Chief Dan Goonan gave me a tour of some of the city's recovery houses.
Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR

“Is the house manager here? We are just doing a walk-through of some of the recovery housing," Goonan said. "Oh, this isn't a recovery house anymore," one of the tenants answered. 

The reason the fire department suspected this place was running a recovery house is they’ve visited it several times before – for overdose calls.

And Chief Goonan believes it’s still operating.

“You know what, I bet you a million bucks this is sober living,” Goonan said as we walked back to the car.

The house was falling apart, chipped paint everywhere, overgrown grass and trash in the yard. The next house – a similar situation.

“Is there like a house manager here?" Goonan asked, after he knocked on the back door. "Last time I was here, there was a house manager that kind  of gave us a quickie tour."

"He's not here," one of the tenants said, right before he closed the door. 

With the demand for this type of housing so high, places like this have been running under the radar – some maybe not for the right reasons.

If you do the math, with an average rent of $150 a week and 12 people in a house, that comes out to $7,200 a month or more than  $86,000 a year. So the profit is definitely there.

A view from the sidewalk of a house the city suspects is operating as a 'recovery house.'
Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR

These concerns are not just limited to Manchester. Nashua seems to be experiencing similar problems and officials in places like Keene and Concord suspect it’s happening too.

Pacapelli ran sober living houses for 15 years. She says some places have good intentions, but just don’t understand how much work it is.

“You have to provide them with an ear and a way to find a job and it’s 24-7 if you’re running a good house,” Pacapelli said.

That’s why more than 20 states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine, have some form of set standards and policies these houses have to live up to - such as occupancy numbers, around the clock staffing and required drug testing.

Jennifer Macia works at the treatment center Serenity Place in Manchester, which sees about 100 people a month.

This aspect of care, Macia says, is paramount in making sure people remain in recovery.

A side-view of the same house that firefighters suspect is operating as a "recovery house."
Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR

“If we have someone leave treatment and they have nowhere to go – we will see them again – I promise, because you cannot just go into treatment and get out and go back to the places that were unhealthy for you,” she said.

There are several places in the city that are providing quality care. Richie’s Recovery has two sober houses in Manchester. Erik Peterson is the house manager and he’s in recovery himself. He said when he sought out sober living in Manchester, the house didn’t have any rules or support system.

“I had guys tempting me with free drugs, watching guys drinking, watching guys nodding out like in the house on methadone or opioids,” he said.

Now that he’s in charge, that’s different. Peterson and another manager both live in the house. They check in on the guys, randomly drug test them and make sure the place stays clean.

A barbershop style chair in one of the homes for Richie's Recovery.
Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR

The house is homey, too. There are paintings on the wall handmade by one of the tenants, a barbershop-style chair in one of the kitchens, and each room has its own personal flair and decorations.

On one of the floors, I bumped into a pair of tenants listening to rock music as they cooked spaghetti and meatballs together for dinner.  

Fifty-year-old Erik Bradbury is from North Conway but he’s been living here for two months now. He’s been sober for six.

“Things have been going really well – I’m starting to get my life back together. I’m working, starting to save up for a car. This place has really been a savior for me.”

But making sure all these places are operating under the best interests of the tenants is really hard to manage.

Under federal law, cities and towns can’t deny housing to addicts and alcoholics. So they can’t just shut down a shady operation - the best thing they can do is enforce building and fire codes.

Eric Spofford is in long-term recovery himself. He's been running sober living housing in N.H. since 2008.
Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR

Those who do operate legitimate sober living in the state say they would welcome more standards and oversight. Eric Spofford has been running recovery housing for nearly ten years. He’s disheartened by some of the places that have been popping up lately and hopes the state will start to do something.

“You know that guy who showed up at the wrong place and that very brief opportunity that he was willing to get help and he was willing to come to that spot – well guess what, that window is closed. And when he relapses it may be weeks, months, years or he may never make it back.”

Currently, the state is looking into adopting standards - but how to enforce them, who would enforce them and whether any money would be attached to them, is all up in the air right now.