Sober homes face challenge of finding a neighborhood that welcomes them

  • Kyle Fuhs greets Jonathan Gerson who is executive director of Blueprint Recovery Center. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kyle Fuhs (left) stands beside Jonathan Gerson, executive director of Blueprint Recovery Center. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Jonathan Gerson is executive director of Blueprint Recovery Center, the Concord recovery treatment center associated with a sober living home on Russell Street in Manchester. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The Kyle Fuhs that stood before the Manchester Zoning Board was a different person than the one who had entered recovery treatment 15 months ago. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The Kyle Fuhs that stood before the Manchester Zoning Board was a different person than the one who entered recovery treatment 15 months ago. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 2/29/2020 10:11:28 PM

Kyle Fuhs begins each day by trying to center his breathing and quiet his mind.

He gathers in a spacious room with greenery and hardwood floors to meditate at 8:30 a.m. with a group of a dozen men in the Victorian home they live in together at 70 Russell St. in Manchester.

“Gather together and give thanks,” a sign on the wall at Keep it Simple NH House, a sober living facility, reads.

Fuhs, 31, said slowing down can be challenging, especially after 16 years battling drug addiction.

“Sitting still is really hard for people in early recovery,” he said. “You’re used to going and going all the time. The mind never stops.”

The home where 16 men live has become a safe haven for Fuhs and others to focus on recovery – supporting each other in programming, learning how to create and maintain a sober social life and holding each other accountable – but that doesn’t mean they are shielded from realities of the outside world.

As important as sober homes are to the effort to address a statewide crisis at the local level, many neighborhoods prefer not to be a part of that mission.

Keep it Simple NH House, like many sober homes, has received pushback from neighbors, who raise concerns about increased crime in the neighborhood. Since October 2018, when the home opened, the Manchester police or fire departments have never responded there for any kind of crime or for an overdose.

There are also concerns about sober homes meeting zoning and code standards. A relatively new concept, the facilities often fit into gray areas of municipalities’ traditional regulations.

Earlier this month, Manchester’s Zoning Board of Adjustment voted unanimously to deny a variance request for Keep it Simple NH House to operate a sober house in a residential neighborhood. The sober home had been operating on Russell Street for two years without the proper permitting, officials said. Jonathan Gerson, the executive director of Blueprint Recovery, a Concord outpatient treatment center affiliated with the sober homes, said he didn’t know he needed to apply for a variance.

Now, the men living at the sober home are waiting in limbo for the appeals process, unsure of where they will end up in this vulnerable stage of their recovery.

Those who work in the field of recovery services agree that aftercare – recovery friendly housing and peer support social services – are the missing link in addressing the opioid crisis.

However, aftercare is one of the least funded kinds of addiction support. Concord, the state’s capitol city, has fewer resources than Manchester. Hope for New Hampshire Recovery, formerly one of the state’s largest nonprofits dedicated to helping people live sober, closed its location downtown in February 2018. There are only a handful of sober houses in the Capitol Area. The Granite House for Women, a sober home on Main Street, recently moved out of the city, to Derry.

Concord Fire Department Project FIRST Director Jeffrey Smith, who’s worked with those suffering from addiction across the country, said he’s seen a lot of sober homes face resistance in communities, mainly due to misinformation.

“The phrase we use is ‘Not in my backyard’– it’s a lack of understanding and a lack of knowledge of the purpose and value a sober home can bring,” Smith said. “In recovery, they have to survive, they have to thrive, and there’s a transition period, from all the treatment activities to transitioning to being fully participatory in life – and that sober home environment provides some of that transition, some of the structure that’s needed to get there.”


Fuhs’s time living at the sober house has represented the longest time he’s been sober since he started using drugs at age 14, growing up on the seacoast of New Hampshire.

By his early 20s, Fuhs, who worked in restaurants as a cook, was doing oxycontin regularly, to the point where he felt physically sick without it.

“That’s how I lived my 20s,” he said. “Physically dependent on chemicals.”

He knew for a long time that he needed to make a change, but it wasn’t until he got arrested and overdosed on fentanyl in November 2018 that he finally took steps in that direction. He woke up in a hospital in Exeter Hospital and was given the number of the outreach staff at Blueprint.

It was his first time in treatment.

“My first few days here I could barely speak without crying,” he said. “I was just exhausted and very ashamed.”

He said he had to learn to ask for help a lot – something that was difficult at first. He said when he arrived he had no job, no money and no license. He said the people at Blueprint and the sober home welcomed him with open arms.

“I quickly learned, ‘Closed mouths don’t get fed,’ ” he said.

Moving forward

Fuhs said in many ways, sober living is the cornerstone of his success. He said getting sober in a month-long program is one thing – staying sober is another.

“Being back around the people and places I was around before, it’s easy to slip back into bad habits,” Fuhs, who has lived at Keep it Simple for more than a year, said. “I learned quickly after coming into treatment that I could not go back to where I was living.”

The sober home gave him structure and made him accountable. Six days a week, the men have the option to attend morning meditation. They read passages from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, check in on how everyone is feeling and offer daily reflections.

The men cook together, eat together, attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings together and even have weekly house meetings where they talk about how each member of the group is progressing in their recovery, and how they might improve.

The men are also subjected to random drug testing. There’s a manager on staff who monitors them 24/7.

Fuhs is celebrating 15 months sober now, an accomplishment he didn’t think possible.

Seven months after he moved into the sober house, he began working there as a night manager. He got a job at Blueprint working as a behavioral health technician during the day. He said one of the most rewarding parts of his life is to act as a role model for new guys arriving at the sober house.

Neighborhood conflict

Fuhs said he wasn’t surprised when Keep It Simple House NH and another sober home for women nearby on Orange Street, also managed by Gerson, started getting negative attention from neighbors.

He said he heard of it happening in other communities. Fuhs said he had his own assumptions before he went into sober living. He said there’s a pervasive stigma attached to it.

He said people need to understand that no one who lives there ever wanted to become addicted to drugs.

“It’s funny because I used to say, never in a million years did I think I’d end up in a sober house,” he said. “It was not a dream of mine as a young boy. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to play college basketball, get married, have a house and at 30 years old, I’m living somewhere else with 18 other guys who are all drug addicts and alcoholics. But it was a great experience – and exactly what I needed.”

He said he felt an obligation to go to the town hall and zoning board hearing to tell his story. More than a dozen neighbors came to speak against the sober home. He said he spoke in front of the board about his experience, and took the time to introduce himself to neighbors afterward, one on one.

“I don’t know where the fear comes from, but I don’t want to just dismiss it,” he said. “It’s something they’re feeling, and all I can do is just say, ‘I’m really heartbroken you feel that way, and I will try my best to make sure I’m a good neighbor. My name is Kyle, I’m approachable. Please don’t be afraid.’ ”

He said he was just happy to be able to give a face to what a person in recovery looks like, a person who has benefited from sober housing.

“We are not bad guys,” he said. “We have made some poor choices and we are unwell, and we have made a decision to try to get better. I think it helped with creating an image of what a heroin addict looks like, or what an alcoholic looks like,” he said. “People have this image in their head, and it’s not always true. It doesn’t really discriminate – people who suffer from addiction.”

Housing standards

There are efforts at the state and local level to ease the process for sober homes existing in communities.

In the last few years, the New Hampshire Coalition of Recovery Residences has formed in an attempt to create standards and a certification process for sober houses based on National Alliance for Recovery Residences rules.

Kristine Paquette, who is the co-chair of New Hampshire Coalition of Recovery Residences and also the owner of a sober home for men in Boscawen, said the coalition is starting to certify houses now, which will hopefully help give towns and cities a better idea of what to expect when a sober home wants to come into town.

Paquette said she’s talked to Gerson about certifying his houses, but that he has not yet gone through the process.

Paquette said that, in the meantime, recovery house owners should try to communicate with municipalities as much as possible.

“Each sober homeowner does need to do their due diligence and go to the town, and say, ‘This is what I want to do, What do I need to do to get things right?’ ” she said. “There’s a lot of fear because of that stigma, ‘Then they’re not going to let us do it and they’re going to shut us down,’ ” she said. “And that happens.”

“If they are upfront and work with them right from the start it seems to work a lot better. It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Gerson said he doesn’t know if he will be able to keep his sober homes in Manchester. It worries him when he thinks about the people in recovery who might lose their home.

“There are a lot of residents and houses in Manchester that I’m worried about,” said Gerson, who is in recovery and got sober at a sober house. “People need this resource. Never was part of the plan to be a crusader. It wasn’t. But you know, here I am. It’s important. ”

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