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Oversight Urged for Sober Living Houses

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Sober living homes were created with the best of intentions: to offer recovering drug addicts and alcoholics--many of them just out of jail--a clean environment to help kick their habit.

But with the number of such transitional homes doubling across California in the last decade, communities are rising up in protest against some facilities they consider anything but therapeutic.

Unlike traditional drug treatment programs, sober living homes receive no state oversight and little scrutiny from local governments.

No one is sure exactly how many are in business, and while many operate without trouble, police say some facilities have become magnets for crime and drugs.

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The latest problem occurred two weeks ago when the Orange County Probation Department pulled 20 probationers from a Santa Ana sober living home, saying conditions at the facility violated county standards.

Incidents like this--and worse--have prompted several failed bills in the state Legislature to monitor the facilities and assess their effectiveness. But city and state officials say tough federal housing protections for recovering addicts leave them virtually powerless.

“It’s very frustrating,” said San Clemente City Manager Michael W. Parness, whose city has seen a jump in both the number of sober living homes and police calls to them. “The problem is easy to identify, but there seems to be no easy solution.”

Experts estimate that there are 1,200 sober living homes in California. These homes do not offer medical treatment for addictions like regular drug rehab centers and therefore don’t fall under the medical oversight of state officials.

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Rather, they are designed to provide a drug-free environment to bridge the gap between treatment and independent living. Charging between $250 and $1,000 a month, the homes also provide some impoverished addicts with a cheaper alternative to residential treatment facilities.

Concern over poorly run facilities is rising in communities across the state, from neighbors angry over traffic congestion to more serious allegations of abuses by home operators:

* In San Jose, authorities said they found conditions at some homes so overcrowded that addicts were living in cars.

* Residents of San Pedro are battling against what they consider an over-concentration of group homes within a few blocks of each other in the downtown area, including nearly 20 sober living facilities.

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* In a recent survey by the League of California Cities, communities reported dozens of examples of crimes at such transition homes ranging from drug sales to vandalism.

The disputes have wide implications: The growth of sober living homes comes as courts place greater emphasis on rehabilitation over detention as the most effective way to prevent recidivism by criminals with substance abuse problems.

“Treatment is the big thing right now,” said Karyn Sinunu, assistant district attorney in Santa Clara County. “If we don’t have quality treatment, the whole thing falls apart.”

Even the sober living home industry concedes that some type of oversight is needed, primarily to target unscrupulous home operators who provide addicts with little more than a pricey, overcrowded flop house.

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A bill working its way through the state Legislature would create modest oversight of transitional drug and alcohol facilities. Meanwhile, a coalition of sober living homes is proposing a voluntary certification program run by the industry.

“What’s happened with some . . . homes has really hurt the reputation of legitimate sober living homes,” said Susan Blacksher, executive director of the nonprofit California Assn. of Addiction Recovery Resources. “We feel that the time has come for some sort of action.”

Concerns Voiced in San Clemente

Nowhere in Orange County has the proliferation of sober living homes been tracked more closely than in San Clemente.

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Since the first facility opened in the early 1990s, the number of homes in the upscale coastal town has climbed to more than a dozen. Complaints, too, have increased, according to local officials.

During 1998 and the first half of 1999, sheriff’s deputies received 120 calls for police service to sober living homes in the city, according to documents obtained under the California Public Records Act. Those complaints ranged from disturbing the peace to a homicide.

While homes are supposed to act as havens from drugs and crime, police found illegal substances as well as people with arrest warrants at several San Clemente transitional homes. One facility, Glenhaven Sober Living Home, generated 33 calls during the 18-month period, including arrests for drug sales, drug possession and several outstanding warrants, according to the Sheriff’s Department records.

Glen Caulkins, who operates the home, said his two dozen residents are closely supervised and do not need additional state oversight. Glenhaven recently stopped admitting probationers and parolees because of the trouble some caused the home, he said.

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But complaints about sober living homes, he added, have been blown out of proportion and obscure the benefits the facilities provide in helping impoverished addicts reform.

“If these people weren’t in sober living homes with rules and staff watching over them, where would they be? They’d be back out there, doing crime, stealing, doing drugs,” he said. “Of course, you’re going to have some problems. But it’s better that we have the problems contained.”

For those pushing for greater oversight of sober living homes, one recent tragedy in San Clemente stands out.

Henderson House opened five years ago to much acclaim, offering housing for homeless people who are mentally ill or substance abusers. The shelter is housed in a row of single-story apartments overlooking the well-manicured bluffs of Sand Pointe Estates, a gated community.

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But in November 1998, Rena Darlene Glisson, a recovering drug addict, was stabbed to death at the home in a frenzied attack by her roommate. Diona Alonge Minicucci, who has a long history of mental illness, was convicted of the slaying and sentenced this year to 26 years to life in prison.

Blaming poor staff supervision at the facility, Glisson’s family sued the home and its operator, Friendship Shelter in Laguna Beach, for negligence. Joseph Rosenblit, an attorney for Glisson’s two children, said Henderson House should take responsibility for failing to provide adequate supervision of clients like Minicucci, who was on medication and had a history of violent behavior.

“This is a death that could have been prevented,” Rosenblit said. “I don’t think in a regulated environment they would have mixed mental residents with substance abuse residents.”

Friendship Shelter’s executive director, Janet Larkly, declined to comment on the slaying or the lawsuit, which is scheduled for trial in October. But Larkly insisted that clients at Henderson are closely monitored. In court papers, the nonprofit shelter denied any liability, calling the slaying “the result of an unavoidable accident.”

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Less than a mile from Henderson House, a home run by Linda Norris Gomez for six mentally ill recovering addicts has experienced sporadic trouble.

In December 1998, deputies were called to the home, Vaquero House, when one resident attacked another with a pocketknife. Last June, a client on probation turned on Gomez, beating her with a pipe and throwing her through a window, she said.

Gomez said she could do little to prevent the two violent episodes, and described them as the risk she runs in her efforts to provide a caring environment for residents.

She said she has won friends and admirers in the tranquil neighborhood by Shorecliff Golf Course and keeps a strict ban on weapons and drugs at the home. She said she would welcome regulation as a way to clean up overcrowded facilities nearby.

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“Some of these homes really don’t care . . . I think they should be licensed, especially if they are taking people who are on probation or parole,” she said.

Upset homeowners in San Clemente have long petitioned state legislators to regulate sober living homes. But their efforts have met little success. Attempts to introduce sweeping controls frequently run afoul of the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination against the disabled, including addicts. As long as they provide no treatment services, the homes are protected from government regulation.

But oversight supporters are pushing a bill sponsored by Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach) that they say would sidestep such restrictions. The bill calls for the state to license facilities that involve clients in structured sobriety regimens, such as peer-led groups or staff activities. Officials believe the regulations are allowed under federal law.

Certification Seen as a Possible Solution

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While factions fight over the bill in Sacramento, officials from Orange County and elsewhere are eyeing recent developments in Santa Clara County as another possible solution.

There, authorities acted after uncovering a range of problems at facilities catering to court-referred drug abusers. Complaints included excessive noise and lax supervision of residents. Officials discovered one case in which a home operator falsified court documents for clients in exchange for sexual favors.

As a result, prosecutors launched the state’s first certification program overseen by a county district attorney’s office. Under the program, sober living homes wishing to receive clients referred by the courts must undergo criminal background checks and pass regular inspections or face suspension. More than 60 sober living homes and a handful of treatment centers joined the program.

Prosecutors laud the program as an effective way to ensure clients are protected and nearby residents are kept happy. So far, officials said, the effort seems to have eased tensions between angry neighbors and home operators.

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“I think it’s cooled them off a little bit,” said Dist. Atty.'s Investigator David Byers, who inspects facilities in the program.

In Orange County, officials from various cities and county agencies--including the Sheriff’s Department, probation, health care and district attorney’s office--have held talks on developing a similar program. San Clemente’s Parness said he expects a final proposal to be completed in two to three months.


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