For almost 30 years, Delray Beach has quietly been a welcoming place for people in recovery. By 2007, Delray Beach had been recognized nationally by the New York Times as being an oasis of sobriety, where people came from all across the nation to join this ever growing recovery community.
Though intended to be a positive article about human coexistence and tolerance, local communities across the country, from Delray Beach, Florida to Newport Beach, California viewed this article as confirmation that a “cancer” was “metastasizing” within our country in the form of substance abuse treatment providers and those in recovery who were “immigrating” into “their” cities under the protective shield of the federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Though sad to admit, our experiences in city halls across the state have demonstrated that we Americans have an odd cultural aversion to people in recovery. Americans – with our slogan of “individual accountability and self-responsibility” – have come to fear and loathe people in recovery or those who suffer from mental illness. Similarly we do not like to see or properly care for our elderly, our infirm, or our disadvantaged either. Our elderly are placed in assisted living facilities; our infirm in hospitals; and our disadvantaged in our ghettos. But we seem to keep a special place in our hearts for addicts.
Underlying this fear is the malignancy of stigma. A diagnosis of mental illness carries with it legal disabilities as well as social rejection. Surveys show that people with Substance Use Disorder are the most negatively perceived of all disabilities and, until recently, were denied the right to care by insurance companies, causing hundreds of thousands of Americans to be denied necessary care from an affliction that was not of their own making.
Initially, we too were naïve as to what a “sober home” was. We thought it was a place where people who were arrested for drugs went to live. Or a place where people checked themselves in to “dry up” until they were sober. Through it all, we have come to recognize that there are real and serious threats to our communities from poorly run and unsupervised sober living residences. However, this is no different than any other “bad neighbor” would be, and the reality on the ground is that there is no evidence that a sober living residence has a negative impact upon a community. And the facts support this:
• Recovery residences have no effect on the value of neighboring properties. More than 50 studies have examined their impact on property values probably more than for any other small land use. Although they use a variety of methodologies, all researchers have discovered that group homes and halfway houses do not affect property values of even the house next door. They have no effect on how long it takes to sell neighboring property, including the house next door. They have learned that community residences are often the best maintained properties on the block. And they have ascertained that community residences function so much like a conventional family that most neighbors within one to two blocks of the home don’t even know there is a group home or halfway house nearby.
• Recovery residences have no effect on neighborhood safety. A handful of studies have also looked at whether community residences compromise neighborhood safety. The most thorough study, conducted for the State of Illinois, concluded that the residents of group homes are much less likely to commit a crime of any sort than the average resident of Illinois. It revealed a crime rate of 18 per 1,000 people living in group homes compared to 112 per 1,000 for the general population.
• Recovery residences do not generate adverse impacts on the surrounding community. Other studies have found that group homes and halfway houses for persons with disabilities do not generate undue amounts of traffic, noise, parking demand, or any other adverse impacts.
But notwithstanding the facts, even the most educated of our society – a population that presents prototypically as “liberal” on a variety of social issues such as race discrimination and homophobia – continue to demonstrate deep seeded fear and antagonism towards people with Substance Use Disorder, their families, and their treatment providers. National studies of this phenomena found two trends to have emerged.
First, virtually every person had a visceral reaction that people in recovery are addicts laying on gurneys with an IV in their arm, drooling at the mouth. Once released from treatment, the belief was that “those people” return to their zombie-like ways of crime and dependency.
Second, not a single person accepted, on any level, the argument that discrimination against persons based on disability is like discrimination based on race, religion, or sexual preference. They refused to take seriously the arguments that disability- based discrimination is as pernicious, as harmful, and as morally reprehensible as other types of discrimination. “They choose to stick that needle in their arm” was the most frequent response. To them, addiction remained a choice, a moral failure of character.
Clearly, there is a pervasive set of assumptions which most people seem to hold about people with Substance Use Disorder and mental health issues that are not imbued upon others in our culture with disabilities. This set of erroneous presumptions continues to make it difficult at best to get policy makers and local elected officials in particular to take any action which supports successful outcomes in the substance abuse treatment continuum.
What adds insult to injury perhaps is that, while the public may speak in private about their other prejudices, they feel completely comfortable and validated when openly expressing their stigmatizing beliefs about people in recovery, as if “those people” have a defect of character that is a universal truth. This belief system in our society is both insidious and corrosive in its power, and has led to too many people electing to forego treatment and remain inside a bottle of booze or behind a prescription of pills. But the more entrenched society became in trying to isolate and segregate the Recovery Community from “our” community, the more we realized that we, who defend the rights of people in recovery, were experiencing the same stigma, the same rejection and the same discrimination that those who we were representing experienced their entire lives. Seeing ourselves at the precipice of what now was clearly a tipping point of a social movement, we all have rededicated our efforts and our commitment to representing the Recovery Community, treatment providers, and those who offer recovery residences. The “Freedom Riders,” redux.
At the same time, we were not naïve to the fact that many others have descended upon our communities simply to make a profit in the treatment industry. What was once a mom-and-pop cottage industry of reputable clinicians and providers has morphed into a haven for anyone who could operate a desktop analyzer. Local residents, and the treatment industry itself, have called upon their local elected officials to rein in this problem of unscrupulous treatment providers and sober homes that were merely fronts for patient brokering.
As the Florida Legislature has just passed legislation which seeks to curb the abuses in the sober living industry, we are cautiously optimistic that we are embarking upon the start of a collective and joint effort to provide the safe space that is required for personal healing. However, we remain guarded, as we must, that these “consumer protection” laws do not become yet another pretext to discriminate under a different name.
Words can be powerful weapons, as can be belief systems. We remain hopeful that we, at “ground zero” of this civil rights movement, are now sharing the path away from stigma and towards healing, and that the mantra of “taking back our communities” includes those in recovery.
Jeffrey C. Lynne, Esq., is a Shareholder in the firm of Weiner, Lynne & Thompson, P.A., representing behavioral health treatment providers and owners of recovery residences across the State of Florida, with particular emphasis in the legal areas of local zoning, housing, real estate, licensing, compliance, regulation, and business litigation. Mr. Lynne has been recognized across the country as a leader in progressive public dialogue about the role that community based substance abuse treatment has within our society and the fundamental civil right of citizens in recovery from addiction to housing of their own choosing. Their website, SoberZoneLaw.com is the convergence of the practice of the law governing all aspects of owning and operating a substance abuse treatment program or sober living environment that meets the constantly-changing regulations for compliance in the 21st century behavioral health care model.