James L. Duphily said sober housing helped save his life.
“I would not be here without my enrollment and long-term residency in one of these well-functioning sober homes,” Mr. Duphily of Mashpee said at the Falmouth community forum on treatment facilities and sober houses on Tuesday, June 11.
Eighteen months in recovery, Mr. Duphily has gone from not owning a car when he left detox to opening a law firm in Mashpee last month.
“Most of us are really trying to be high-functioning members of the community,” he said. “I intend on putting my roots down here and I really do my best to try to be respectful of all members of the community. So please, as many of our speakers have said, try to exercise some compassion because I know each and every one of us knows or is related to someone who is affected by substance use disorders.”
Nicole Skeffington, 22 months sober, expressed a similar sentiment.
“I appreciate every single one of you for allowing us, for allowing me, the chance to save my life, and that is what I’ve been allowed thanks to sober houses,” Ms. Skeffington said.
She noted that many sober house residents face challenges beyond addiction recovery, including mental health issues, past trauma or other medical issues.
“We’re literally learning how to live sober, some of us for the first time ever,” Ms. Skeffington said. “It’s hard. Love and support in the community goes a long way.”
Members of the community had the opportunity to ask questions about treatment centers and sober homes at the forum hosted by the Falmouth Board of Selectmen on Tuesday night at Falmouth High School.
Selectman Douglas C. Brown asked if a disproportionate number of calls to emergency services emanated from sober houses.
Police Chief Edward A. Dunne said since 2016, 397 calls to the department have come from sober houses. In addition, 92 calls came from Recovering Champions, 253 calls came from the Gosnold Treatment Center and 15 calls came from the Miller House.
“If we total all the response to the sober houses and treatment facilities, the total is somewhere around 690 to 700 calls in a 3½-year period out of 113,000 calls,” Chief Dunne said. “Is that disproportionate? We responded to Falmouth Hospital during that same period 2,914 times.”
Several residents asked if the number of sober houses in Falmouth was high compared to the rest of the state. Deryk T. Meehan of the Massachusetts Department of Health provided the figures.
“I can’t speak to the uncertified sober homes, but I can say as of yesterday Falmouth, East Falmouth and West Falmouth had 17 houses with 175 within those 17 houses, 94 male and 81 female,” Mr. Meehan said. “This represents 20 percent of the beds in the southeast region, that includes Cape Cod and the Islands, up to the Stoughton/Brockton area, and 6.8 percent of the total amount of beds statewide in sober homes.”
Michael G. Heylin of Cliffwood Lane asked if the town could consider zoning similar to Costa Mesa, California.
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“Costa Mesa, California, they passed a zoning bylaw to limit the number of residents in sober homes for the safety of the residents,” Mr. Heylin said. “I believe it is six with a full-time manager. There are ways to zone sober homes to protect residents of the sober homes and limit the number of people in sober homes.”
Frank K. Duffy described zoning as “very specific to each state,” and what is allowed in California might not be allowed in Massachusetts. He said that Massachusetts towns are not allowed to use the zoning bylaw in such a fashion to limit sober homes.
State Representative David T. Vieira (R-Falmouth) said the town once had such a bylaw.
“Falmouth did exactly that, and two homes on Lakeshore Drive brought suit against the town and over the course of a period of negotiations there was a settlement in 2001, where the settlement was to allow no more than two individuals to live per bedroom, subject to inspection for health and safety,” Rep. Vieira said. “The exact bylaw, the zoning bylaw you’re talking about, was the exact law this town tried to enforce in 2001 which brought a suit against this town, and we negotiated that settlement based on the zoning bylaws in Massachusetts.”
Mr. Duffy noted that sober houses are subject to the Fair Housing Act. Those recovering from drug or alcohol addiction are considered disabled under the act, and communities cannot use local bylaws to discriminate against disabled people in housing matters.
Dianna Mota of Falmouth did not agree. She said sober houses are not subject to the Fair Housing Act, as people with active addictions are not considered disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act, telling the panelists to “Google it.”
Ms. Mota argued that a number of sober house residents are from out-of-town and are adversely impacting the community and her neighborhood.
“You want to know how many people are from out of town?” she asked. “Would you like to see the papers with all the license plates that I’ve written down of people coming in and out of my neighborhood? They’re selling drugs. We have people prostituting at the top of my road. Don’t sit here and try to act like you know what it feels like. That is discrimination against us.”
Rep. Vieira said no elected official voted to place a sober house in Ms. Mota’s neighborhood.
“The sober houses that are opening, whether they are certified or not certified, are being opened by individuals and organizations who own property,” he said, and no state group or elected officials votes on the placement of these sober homes.
“To many forums that I come to, we just want to be angry with everybody here, while bad folks are still out there, running bad operations,” he said.
While towns cannot ban bad operations, they can work to encourage better sober living, Mr. Vieira said.
“Without changing an act of Congress, which also deals with decisions made by the United States Supreme Court, Falmouth and each community that hosts sober houses, we really need to find a way to pressure and to incentivize those landlords, those individuals or organizations that are just looking to make a dollar off two beds in every bedroom, and say that is not what you should be doing in Falmouth, that is not what you should be doing in the United States, that is not what you should be doing with individuals whose lives are in recovery and are on the edge,” Rep. Vieira said.
One such incentive is the new short-term rental tax, said state Representative Dylan Fernandes (D-Woods Hole). MASH certified sober houses are exempt from this tax, which applies to all rentals of 31 days or less.
“The exemption from the short term rental tax is another incentive for sober houses to get certified, because non-certified sober houses are paying that tax,” Rep. Fernandes said.
Larry Marsh of Mashpee argued that there needs to be more local regulation of sober houses.
“There are many types of other group homes protected under federal law,” Mr. Marsh said. “I’m not aware of any other group that does not require any type of oversight in the whole state.”
Mr. Meehan said there is a distinction between group homes and sober houses. Group homes involved treatment and are comparable to treatment facilities.
“Sober houses are viewed as just that, houses,” he said. “They are not viewed as treatment facilities.”
Larissa Matzek, executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance for Sober Housing, said while MASH-certification is voluntary, it allows for some regulations of sober homes.
“Prior to two years ago, there was nothing for sober homes,” Ms. Matzek said. “Sober homes operated the way they wanted to run.”
She said the voluntary certification allows the state to hold those sober homes to a higher standard. In addition, treatment centers are only allowed to refer patients to these MASH-certified sober homes.
Mr. Marsh also asked if sober houses were subject to community association rules. Mr. Duffy said they could be.
“Those are private restrictions and the town does not enforce them,” Mr. Duffy said, meaning it is up to private individuals to enforce those restrictions.
Esther Ann Price of Falmouth described MASH as great, but argued sober houses are failing to treat those going through recovery. She said counseling and therapy services should be available at sober houses to address the underlying mental health issues related to addiction.
“A fever is a symptom of the flu,” Ms. Price said. “Addiction is a symptom of something underlying. That is something that should be considered and should be a part of treatment.”
Steven Kramer of Mashpee asked if regulation could be considered limiting how long a sober home could be a sober home, noting the impact such houses can have on property values.
“If someone owns a home and they try to sell it, they have to disclose a sober home is there,” Mr. Kramer said.
He said a five-year limit would minimize the potential impact a sober house could have on a person’s quality of life and property value.
“Sober houses are considered a residential property,” state Senator Viriato M. (Vinny) deMacedo said.
He said the state cannot differentiate between a sober house and any other residential property, so a five-year restriction on a sober house would have to apply to any other residential house as well.
Several in attendance asked why the town does not have a list of non-certified sober homes or why the MASH certification process was voluntary.
“It is voluntary because it is not treatment,” Ms. Matzek said. “It is a home people are living in.”
Treatment does not occur in sober houses, she said, because people start living in sober houses once they are sober.
Stephanie Sylvester said these non-certified sober houses should be registered with the town, as they are conducting business within the town and generating revenue for the owners.
“Can we make sober houses like treatment facilities and hold them accountable like treatment facilities?” she asked.
Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Megan E. English Braga said they could not.
“They’re really lodging, and they are residential rather than treatment,” Ms. English Braga said. “We cannot change that.”
Lynne Barbee of Mashpee noted that in the forum’s discussion of sober houses, residents were not discussing the crisis of addiction.
“Sober living, having a sober house, is a critical part of recovery,” Ms. Barbee said. “Recovery is years long. Having a good sober house is a critical part of dealing with the opioid crisis and having a good recovery.”
She said that the people who live in sober houses tend to be vulnerable, and they are doing their best to live well.
Dave Carmichael said he lives in a Falmouth sober home, one with a great manager that “doesn’t put up with anything.” He is trying his best to stay sober.
“There are those of us who are really trying hard to do the right thing,” Mr. Carmichael said.
Several residents asked about the rumored sale of the Royal Falmouth Nursing & Rehabilitation Center on Main Street to a treatment center.
“There has been an inquiry regarding that building on Main Street,” building commissioner Rodman L. Palmer said. “Each day, in my office, there are inquiries about many properties.”
Mr. Palmer said outside of this informal inquiry, the town has not heard anything about the sale of the nursing home.
“This is a town where people talk about a lot of things, on social media and with individuals they come in contact with,” Ms. English Braga said, confirming that while Mr. Palmer has received an informal inquiry, there has been no inquiry made to the board of selectmen.