Lawmakers explore increasing oversight over sober living homes 

  • Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan testifies at the Legislative Office Building on Tuesday. By Ethan DeWitt—

Monitor staff
Published: 1/15/2019 5:25:07 PM

For Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan, it’s become an ugly outgrowth of the opioid crisis: a surge in bogus sober living houses that accept money from addicted residents without providing meaningful services or following basic fire codes.

Firefighters have responded to sites claiming to be sober living facilities, only to find them teeming with drugs and alcohol, Goonan said Tuesday.

“We’re seeing a lot of predators, people coming in and running sober living that are really preying on people as they’re come out,” he said.

Goonan’s department has identified 38 total homes, he said Tuesday – some good and some “terrible.” “But I’m absolutely positive we have another 20 to 30 out there,” he said.

On Tuesday, lawmakers considered a bill to allow cities and towns to impose stronger safety requirements over sober living homes in their communities. The bill, House Bill 311, would allow towns to regulate the electrical systems, evacuation plans, alarms and other considerations in those facilities defined as sober living homes.

In the towns that adopt the ordinance, those looking to run a sober living home would need to file a notice with the local fire department expressing their intention to occupy the home. If a fire did break out, owners that didn’t take this step could be subject to criminal prosecution, the ordinance states.

Rep. Erika Connors, the Manchester Democrat sponsoring the bill, stressed that the bill was not meant to penalize homes in good standing, which she called “phenomenal.”

But she argued the optional regulations could allow towns to weed out bad actors, who have been exploiting residents struggling with substance abuse, offering a mirage of hope in exchange for a check and no actual support structure.

“These businesses have no goal of getting people into recovery,” Connors said. “They’re taking advantage of these people who are at risk.”

Goonan echoed the assessment. And he said the conditions in many of the homes are primed for a fire.

“I just want to get these people out the building, if something were to happen,” he said. “This is a tragedy waiting for a place to happen. We know it’s going to happen.”

Connors’ legislation would apply to homes with between four and 16 people, in which members are voluntary subject to rules relating to chemical dependency and receive at least 10 hours of group therapy per month.

But some home operators said they worried the proposed regulations would be too stringent, sweeping up homes operating in good faith.

Jonathan Gerson, a co-owner of Into Action Sober Living in Manchester, said the bill did not do enough to deal with more stringent rules regulating those homes with more than 16 residents.

“There are a lot of good houses in Manchester,” he said. “I know the owners. I believe that the way that this legislation is spelled out now, some of them would have to close because of capacity.”

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