The opioid epidemic is far from contained; in 2017, the national death toll from drug overdoses climbed to a record high of 70,237 deaths (Hedegaard, Miniño, & Warner, 2018). Today, people are dying from opioids that are stronger and more dangerous than ever before, and the crisis has spread across rural, suburban, and city regions. Families across California are demanding that more be done to end the despair and devastation of addiction. Supporting sober-living homes is part of the solution.
Sober-living homes are alcohol- and drug-free living environments for individuals attempting to maintain abstinence from alcohol and drugs. For people who are newly sober, sober-living or recovery housing can provide time and support as they learn how to sustain long-term recovery. This housing option is an important resource for individuals completing residential treatment, attending outpatient programs, leaving incarceration, or seeking alternatives to formal treatment. Those who take advantage of recovery housing show long-term improvements on measures of substance use, psychiatric symptoms, arrests, and employment.
But multiple Southern California local governments and residents have demonstrated that they have not grasped what is needed to combat addiction problems and, most importantly, the ways in which their own policies can impede recovery for millions of Californians.
For the past few years, both Southern California state legislators and local lawmakers have begun what some may describe as an all-out assault on California’s behavioral health care industry. With the introduction of bills and local ordinances, they have targeted the substance abuse disorders continuum of care (MacCannell & Hogue, 2016; Siegel & McCabe, 2016).
Until recently, many of the laws aimed at regulating or limiting sober-living houses and other similar facilities had neutral language and did not mention sober-living facilities specifically. However, in the last few years, laws that target sober-living facilities explicitly have emerged, which is a discriminatory action since sober-living homes are protected by the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), a law that protects the right of individuals with disabilities to live together.
To support their “NIMBY”—that is, “not in my backyard”—attitudes, these State and local political leaders often argue that sober-living homes have begun to act more like businesses, imposing on the residential character of their neighborhoods (Rohrabacher, 2018).
Earlier this year in Orange County, arguing exactly this, the Board of Supervisors approved the first draft of a discriminatory ordinance (“OC Supervisors Consider,” 2018). The proposed ordinance would treat sober-living homes as businesses, requiring house operators to register, making sober-living homes available for random and periodic inspections by the Orange County Health Care Agency and disturbing the living spaces of individuals who only wish to advance in their recovery to be active members of their communities.
Politicians representing exclusive communities in Orange, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Bernardino Counties are reacting to the calls of their affluent constituents who want sober-living homes out of their wealthy neighborhoods. What they do not understand is that California is the biggest addiction treatment provider in the country (Siegel & McCabe, 2016), and the number of people these laws and practices negatively affect is immense.
By enacting these laws, they are not just turning their backs on an estimated 2.7 million people in California who have a substance-abuse-related disorder, they are shunning them. By systematically stigmatizing individuals with addictions and pushing for the elimination of thousands of sober-living homes they are leaving these individuals with no housing options and nowhere to go for help. Sober-living homes have helped millions of Californians in recovery and without them we will continue to reach record high numbers of drug overdose deaths for years to come.
Sober-living homes are legal and an essential part of the recovery journey of many. Cities should work with them rather than against them.
Fair Housing Act of 1968, 42 U.S.C. § 3601–3619
Hedegaard, H., Miniño, A. M., & Warner, M. (2018). Drug overdose deaths in the United States, 1999–2017. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db329.htm
MacCannell, J., & Hogue, K. J. (2016). Sober-living homes in California: Options for state and local regulation. Retrieved from http://www.library.ca.gov/Content/pdf/crb/reports/CRB_SoberLivingReport_2016.pdf
“OC supervisors consider ordinance regulating sober-living homes.” (2018). Retrieved from https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/County-Supervisors-Consider-Ordinance-Regulating-Sober-Living-Homes-497659931.html
Rohrabacher, D. (2018). Sober-living homes are businesses that need local oversight. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/socal/daily-pilot/opinion/tn-dpt-me-commentary-sober-living-20180907-story.html
Siegel, Z., & McCabe, A. (2016). California law attacks rehab facilities. Retrieved from https://www.thefix.com/proposed-laws-attack-california-rehabs-treatment-beds-at-risk