A woman who simply identified herself as “Nicole, a grateful recovering addict” demonstrated with a sincerity and a wisdom that brought many attendees to tears, what is at stake with the current debate in our community on sober housing and addiction treatment. Explaining that she is now 22 months sober and has been living in a sober house in Falmouth since becoming abstinent, she shared just what Falmouth has meant to her recovery and her life. “I have found more love and support here in Falmouth than I’ve had in my whole life,” she explained, describing the support of the Falmouth community that has supported her on her path to re-enter the workforce, reunite with her children, and find a renewed sense of self-worth. “Falmouth has become my home,” she explained. Nicole’s journey has been possible because a bed was available in a local sober home.
Nicole’s story was moving and impactful for those in attendance at this week’s community forum on sober housing and addiction treatment at Falmouth High School. She demonstrated in real time and with real emotion why providing safe transitional housing for people in early recovery is so vitally important as a segment of the local continuum of care for addiction treatment. At the same time, the thoughtful exchange of ideas by most attendees at the forum also demonstrated the importance of developing strategies for weeding out bad actors who are not interested in success stories like Nicole’s but in their own financial windfall. The reality of sober homes that do not seek certification through the Mass Alliance for Sober Housing (MASH), and follow a state-sponsored program of best practices, has created a justified backlash in neighborhoods impacted by those who seek money and not meaning in sober housing.
Sponsored by the board of selectmen and attended by sober housing, local government and treatment professionals, the forum featured an in-depth analysis of the laws related to sober housing, and the challenges of how to provide oversight to a budding industry that is largely exempt from regulation. Board of selectmen chairwoman Megan English Braga was masterful in running the meeting on schedule, juggling eight different presenters, pre-submitted questions, and live audience participation and keeping the meeting running on time and on point. From a detailed explanation of the laws related to sober housing from Town Counsel Frank Duffy, to an explanation of the certification process from MASH executive director Larissa Matzek, to an offer of a compassionate helping hand from Falmouth Human Services Director Suzie Hauptmann, the meeting was both informative and helpful.
Police Chief Ed Dunne and Fire Chief Michael Small put the public safety response in perspective, dispelling widely shared notions that sober housing is a disproportionate drain on public safety resources. In fact, Chief Dunne provided actual call volume from 2016 to the present day, explaining that of over 113,000 calls for service for the Falmouth Police Department, less than 400 were for service at a sober house, barely registering at less than one-half of 1 percent of total calls.
Which is not to say that a problem does not exist. The aforementioned bad actors, who don’t care about recovery and only care about profit, should be held accountable for houses that pack sick people trying to get well into houses with no commitment to recovery. Although the panelists affirmed again and again the exemption from zoning enforcement, officials, particularly Deryk Meehan from the Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Substance Addiction Services, encouraged concerned residents to contact them directly to report concerns about sober houses which don’t do the right thing. Meehan’s email is: email@example.com. Licensed treatment providers can only refer patients to certified sober homes. Those with knowledge of practices contrary to that requirement should reach out as well. In addition, any citizen can file a grievance with concerns related to MASH-certified sober homes at: www.mashsoberhousing.org.
Some participants, ignoring the chair’s admonition to stick to the facts and proper decorum, nonetheless resorted to some of the disrespect and hyperbole that have unfortunately characterized this issue for some time. The chairwoman, however, did an excellent job of keeping the meeting moving along, once reminding a participant of the difference between “being direct and being confrontational,” but otherwise presiding over a detailed, respectful, and meaningful exchange of information and ideas. Falmouth Community Television, always present at pivotal moments in our town, was on hand to record this important meeting. Those who were not able to attend can watch a replay at www.fctv.org.
One of the attendees provided an example of what’s possible when neighbors and operators work together. Joe Lemay, who shared that he has been sober for 26 years, had a sober house open in his neighborhood. He walked over, introduced himself and volunteered to help. They needed a lawnmower, so he bought them one. Now, sober home residents in Joe’s neighborhood mow some of the neighbors’ lawns. Sober houses and neighbors can co-exist.
At the end of the meeting, state Sen. Vinny deMacedo, who has been a passionate and persistent advocate for funding, treatment, and creative solutions to this public health crisis, simply noted, “People aren’t throwaways.” In that brief statement, the senator provided a succinct but profound explanation of why we need to continue to discuss, debate and search for solutions on this issue. People like Nicole deserve our support, our passion, and yes, our respectful disagreement. But most of all, they deserve to recover in a place that is supportive. “Just be open-minded,” she pleaded with the assembled crowd. “Love and support goes a long way,” she continued. In a simple and beautiful way, Nicole provided both a lesson and direction for us all.
Mr. Clarkson may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @TroyClarkson59.