Sober homes proliferate in Roxbury, Dorchester
On a once-quiet block of Ruthven Street in Roxbury, homeowner Audrey Day finds herself now sandwiched between sober homes. Across the street from the Victorian single-family she’s called home for decades stands a 21-bed home for women recovering from addiction that’s run by Boston Sober Homes. Next door is an unregistered sober home for men, whose inhabitants often smoke on the front porch and throw cigarette butts onto her property.
“They come out at night, swear and play loud music,” said Day, sitting on her front porch on a recent weekday. “Why should I have to deal with this?”
Across Roxbury and Dorchester, many residents are wondering the same thing. Sober homes are largely unregulated facilities that house people who are in various stages of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. Because people with addictions are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act, city officials and abutters have limited options to stop sober homes from opening or regulate them.
Residents of sober homes are often referred to the facilities by judges and probation officers as a condition for their release from jail or as part of a probation sentence. While judges are encouraged to release people in recovery to shelters that have been certified by the Massachusetts Alliance for Sober Housing, family members of people struggling with addiction often end up placing them in uncertified shelters where, despite their “sober” designation, drinking and drug use are rampant.
Certified or uncertified, the sober homes have become a bone of contention in the Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods where most of the sober homes in Boston are located.
“We’re oversaturated,” said Crawford Street resident Bob Redd.
On both sides
Two blocks from Redd’s home, at 570 Warren Street, residents of a 56-unit facility have over the years angered abutters, littering the gated private green space in Elm Hill Park with dirty hypodermic needles. A block to the west of Redd’s home, a facility at the corner of Humboldt and Howland streets received fierce pushback from abutters when it sought zoning approval to expand the number of beds.
The proliferation of sober homes in Roxbury and Dorchester came as the use of opiates exploded in Massachusetts’ cities and towns. The number of white addicts far outnumbers those who are black or Latino, underscoring the perception that predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods are shouldering more than their share of the burden of these homes, which serve a mostly white population.
MASH offers a voluntary certification process for the homes. To qualify, operators must satisfy certain criteria, including ensuring that homes are run with fiscal transparency and that residents are supported in their efforts to recover from their addictions.
But most sober homes in the state are not MASH-certified, and, city and state officials have no information on how many sober homes are operating in Boston or Massachusetts. Among the 175 homes certified by MASH, 23 homes, with a total of 300 beds, are located in Boston. Of those, 21 are in Dorchester or Roxbury and two are in East Boston. The association lists no sober homes in any of the city’s other 10 neighborhoods.
“Substance abuse disorder knows no race and no class distinctions, yet of the sober homes that are certified, most are in Roxbury and Dorchester,” said District 7 City Councilor Kim Janey. “They shouldn’t be clustered in one neighborhood.”
Beyond sober homes, Boston appears to bear much of the burden of the statewide opioid crisis. Of the 3,557 narcotics-related ambulance transports to city hospitals last year, 29 percent were for people who list home addresses outside of Boston.
The sober homes in Boston range from well-run, quiet facilities to troublesome neighborhood nuisances, such as the Washington Street sober home run by lawyer David Perry, who in May was arrested for distributing drugs to his residents in exchange for sex.
Sober home operators typically don’t conduct background checks on residents before admitting them. They charge as much as $150 per week per bed. A five-bedroom single-family home — such as 153 Ruthven Street, which houses 21 women — could bring in as much as $12,600 a month. While 153 Ruthven Street is run by Boston Sober Homes, a reputable provider, and provides a live-in manager with assistants, Roxbury residents suspect that some sober homes are run solely to earn rental income for unscrupulous property owners.
Tempers reached a boiling point earlier in July when Winthrop Street residents learned that the new owner of 31 Winthrop Street, an entity called 41 LLC, was considering renting the $600,000 Second Empire style Victorian home to a sober home operator. Abutter Nadine Poindexter said she learned of the plan when she bumped into a sober home representative who was inspecting the property.
“I told him I’m not happy,” she said. “Roxbury is saturated with sober homes.”
Because of their Americans with Disabilities Act protection, sober home operators are not required to disclose their plans to open in a neighborhood to abutters. Nor do abutters have leverage to stop sober homes or any other group care homes serving populations considered “disabled” under federal law.
But Winthrop Street neighbors took their concerns directly to Mayor Martin Walsh during one of the mayor’s neighborhood coffee hours held July 11 in Gertrude Howes Playground, just two blocks away from 31 Winthrop Street.
Poindexter said she and other neighborhood residents complained to the mayor about the planned sober home.
“One neighbor said the owner was real estate investor Christopher Roche,” she recalls. “And the mayor said, ‘May I borrow your pen?’”
Poindexter said a neighborhood services representative told her half-hour later that the plan for a sober home at 31 Winthrop Street had been withdrawn. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about that. It’s been squashed.’”
While one set of vocal residents was able to avert the siting of a sober home, it’s clear operators are seeking more opportunities in the area. Janey said it’s time for the operators to look elsewhere.
“This is not about Not In My Back Yard,” she said. “Boston should not bear the brunt of the burden of the responsibility for people with substance abuse disorders.”