KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Prescott, Ariz., has become the center of an unlikely industry - addiction recovery. It's a mountain town with a population of just 40,000 people. But at last count, there were about 150 so-called sober living homes. Not everyone is comfortable with the town's new status.
Will Stone of member station KJZZ reports.
WILL STONE, BYLINE: When she first came to Prescott, Ariz., Kelly Dwyer had no assets, no insurance.
KELLY DWYER: My main goal was just to wake up every morning and not want to die.
STONE: An alcoholic, Dwyer had called treatment centers all over the country, finally finding one that offered her a scholarship. Once here, she ended up in one of the sober living homes with other recovering addicts.
DWYER: It was just kind of, like, a regular house in a regular neighborhood, and we would walk to the facility every morning.
STONE: That facility is a licensed medical treatment center. In Prescott, they're often affiliated with unregulated group homes. Dwyer's time there didn't go smoothly, though. Her roommate kept asking her to buy alcohol. After an argument with a staff member, she was kicked out of the program.
DWYER: At that point, I told them I don't have any money. I don't know anyone in Prescott. I didn't know where to go five miles within the town square.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's talk about Arizona and why so many addicts from all over the country and world find themselves drawn to the desert Southwest during their recovery.
STONE: Outdoor recreation, mountain vistas and a friendly attitude toward those in recovery are all touted in this promotional video. Prescott's even listed as a top sober destination by a popular recovery website.
CONNIE CANTELME: We're on Pleasant Street. This is supposed to be Pleasant Street.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Meet Connie Cantelme. She lives in one of the historic neighborhoods where group homes popped up.
CANTELME: When you've got a hundred boys and men trying to kick a heroin problem, how do you feel safe living next door to them when they're falling off the wagon all the time?
STONE: Cantelme says once she stepped outside for her morning coffee to find a man had overdosed under her deck. In fact city records show about a 70 percent increase in drug arrest over the last three years. And this county has one of the highest rates of overdose-related deaths.
CANTELME: This is a failure, and it needs to be looked at. You've got to have some oversight. There's got to be a revamping of the whole industry because as far as I'm concerned, it's a money grab.
MARK TEMPLE: I've never heard, gee, let's get together and make this town a recovery center. I don't think that there's a conspiracy around that.
STONE: Mark Temple runs the Solutions House, which has more than a dozen sober living homes here. Temple's heard all the complaints, but he explains it this way.
TEMPLE: There's a tremendous amount of fear associated with the alcoholic and the drug addict, but you can't legislate against somebody just 'cause you don't like them.
STONE: In much of the country, sober living homes have no state oversight.
NOEL CAMPBELL: That industry can say what it wants, but I don't believe it. I don't believe it until I see a big change.
STONE: Noel Campbell is an Arizona lawmaker who recently pushed through a bill to bring these homes under some regulation. It empowers cities to collect more information, impose supervision requirements and exit plans, among other standards.
CAMPBELL: If they're giving good treatment, they should be open to what we're proposing.
STONE: Prescott is now crafting its own rules, but whether cities can do this and avoid lawsuits is uncertain. Steve Collins is with the state's Recovery Housing Association.
STEVE COLLINS: An alcoholic and a drug addict are considered handicapped as long as they are sober. So we have to look at that real closely and make sure we keep that standard.
STONE: Because federal law considers recovering addicts a protected class, and that extends to fair housing, which is why Collins' organization fought the proposed regulations - warning of lawsuits.
Talk to a recovering alcoholic Kelly Dwyer, and she believes oversight is necessary both to cut down community problems and protect recovering addicts. She's been sober for years and is now a real estate agent making her living selling the town that saved her life.
DWYER: I'm so grateful and lucky to have been able to experience this, but at the same time, I think with regulation and stricter guidelines, it can get done in a better way to help more people. It's not quantity. It's quality.
STONE: So far Arizona is one of only a handful of states to pass laws regulating these group homes in hopes of ensuring both quality of care and quality of life. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Prescott, Ariz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.