This is one in an ongoing New Bedford Light series examining the far-reaching impacts of addiction.
NEW BEDFORD — Destiny Newell kept looking east down Rivet Street, waiting outside the house to take the next step. Just that day in August, she marked 11 months sober, much of that time spent living here, at Traci’s Home, a sober house for women. The 28-year-old had a place to live, and a job, and was on her day off, sitting on wooden steps waiting for her driving instructor.
Across the street, Lucia Freitas was just getting home in a white SUV with her daughter. She remembered about five years ago when Traci’s Home was new and people were hanging around outside. She can’t recall details, but said their behavior made it appear they’d been using drugs. She’s not seeing that anymore, but still, she said she doesn’t think a residential neighborhood like hers is a place for a sober house.
The views across Rivet Street suggest the tensions of sober houses: people recovering from addiction finding their footing, some neighbors unhappy about their presence, the risk of relapse.
The best estimates say Traci’s Home is one of 20 or 30 sober houses in New Bedford, a number rising as addiction grows. Recovery advocates consider the houses a crucial step between treatment and sobriety. But they’re not regulated by the state or the city, and they’re often unwelcome in neighborhoods. The city has no sober house policy or plan for where they ought to be. Some residents now say it should.
Recovery advocates say some sober houses are managed better than others. Some are more sober than others. At best, they’re a bridge to a better life in the community. At worst, they’re a place where people in recovery relapse, where overdoses happen, sometimes fatally.
For Destiny Newell, living at Traci’s Home has helped her to keep moving toward an independent life without drinking, she said. She has a $650/month shared apartment on the first floor — she qualified for a Catholic Social Services grant to pay rent. The house gives her a routine to follow: a schedule of group meetings, random drug testing, clear instructions to “work the 12 steps” of addiction recovery, and a strict sobriety policy.
“I do really well with structure,” said Newell. Raised by parents who were addicted, she said, she was about 17 when she started drinking. She kept drinking for 10 years while graduating from high school, then Curry College, earning a bachelor’s in psychology.
“I wouldn’t go to school drunk,” she said, “but the second I got out of class, I’d be drinking.”
Newell went through juvenile court cases and some 10 tries at detox before what she sees as the decisive turn. When her grandmother died, she said, her foundation slipped out from under her.
“I was given the gift of desperation,” she said. “I had nothing to fall back on. It was get sober or go back in the streets, where you’re going to die.”
After completing residential treatment at High Point in Plymouth, then a stay in a halfway house in New Bedford, Newell arrived in February at Rivet Street, a house that can accommodate 18 women on three floors. She’s working now as a case manager with Fellowship Health Resources, studying for a drug and alcohol counseling license at Trundy Institute in New Bedford. And she’s learning to drive.
Newell asks those who would keep sober houses out of their neighborhoods to consider the people who live in those houses.
“A lot of us have been here for a long time,” she said. “We’re trying to get back on track. We should be given a place where we can do that.”
Rules at sober houses differ
Across the street, Lucia Freitas recalled that she and other neighbors took up a petition to try to block the sober house more than five years ago, when Find a Solution, Inc., a for-profit corporation that runs sober houses, took over the property. As Freitas recalled, they gathered some 30 signatures, took them to a courthouse in town — she could not recall which one — and that was that.
Three years ago, first on a morning in early April, then about the same time in mid-June, ambulance crews showed up. Each time they carried a body out. Freitas guessed that they had died of overdoses. Public records about the deaths don’t mention overdose or opioids: One was a death by “probable” abnormal heart rhythm in a person with chronic alcohol use, the other by choking on vomit.
Freitas said people should get the help they need, but “sober houses shouldn’t be in a neighborhood like this.”
The manager of Traci’s Home, who manages at least two other sober houses in New Bedford that are run by There is A Solution, declined requests for an interview. The corporation’s website lists rules its house residents have to follow, including a schedule of three recovery phases, with the most restrictions on curfew and time away from the house and the most meeting attendance in the first phase.
Sometimes, when rule violations are serious enough at 545 Rivet St., Dawn and Scott Boucher get a call. They run Dawn’s New Day 1 and 2, sober houses a few blocks away on Sears Street accommodating four women in one house, 10 in another. The Bouchers said they’ve taken people in who were told they had 48 hours to get out of Traci’s Home.
In their houses, the Bouchers said, ordering someone out for breaking the rules usually means finding them a place to land so they do not end up on the street. In their three years running one house and two years with the other, only three residents have been put out without a plan for where they would go next.
The Bouchers estimate that of about 50 women they have accommodated at both houses, they’ve asked about half to leave, usually for breaking the sobriety rule. Of those, two or three have been allowed back after going through detox.
Women in their houses tend to stay for long stretches, they said, some as long as a year or two.
“We have a mentoring system that she and I do,” Scott Boucher said, referring to Dawn. “Sometimes it feels like we’re parents; we consider most of these girls our family.”
Heather Drown, who is 39, is getting close to moving on after living at 12 Sears St. for nine months. She’s working for Rise Recovery in New Bedford and studying at Bristol Community College to work as a drug counselor. She expects the state Department of Children and Families will soon resolve her case so she can be reunited with her youngest child, Justice. He visits her now, and was there Friday, Sept. 15, as his mother brought in balloons and pizzas to celebrate her older son’s 17th birthday.
“Without this place, I wouldn’t be where I am,” Drown said.
Drown came to Sears Street in January after two weeks at a sober house not far away at 95 Willow St., which she found too strict for her taste. She said the kitchen was off limits after 9 p.m.; she had to check in with the managers about where she was going; they would call if she was late returning to the house; and pat-downs were standard procedure when residents stepped out and returned.
“It’s a prison,” she said.
Bishop Wendy A. Toon smiled when she heard that description of the Ethel Rose House of Refuge at 95 Willow, a sober house that can accommodate up to six women.
“We’re not that bad,” she said, laughing.
She acknowledged that they’re “strict,” but said they do not pat anyone down. She said staffers check bags when people are coming and going to make sure the house is kept free of drugs or alcohol. She insists that residents maintain a routine of working on their recovery, abide by curfews and observe strict sobriety.
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Residents are required to attend Sunday services at the Shachah Praise and Worship Center, the nondenominational church in the same building, where Toon is the pastor. Toon said residents do not have to join the church. The website for the house, named for Toon’s mother, makes clear it’s a “Christian based sober house.”
Ethel Rose certainly looked like a tight ship on a recent visit: Everything tidy, the kitchen spotless, a table set with six chairs. A few steps up, the dormitory for six, dressed in shades of white, gray and pink, was curtained into two-bed sections, each bed held in a white metal frame.
Toon said two women were living there as of this week. Toon said she had to put out three women in just the last few weeks for breaking the sobriety rule.
Those three join a line of women who have been asked to leave for that reason since the house opened in February 2022. Toon said she’s opened the door to 25 women, and has had to close the door on perhaps 85% of them, all for breaking the sobriety rule. Some have been welcomed back — once they go through detox.
Toon comes to this work after 19 years with the state Department of Children and Families. She said God called her to the task of running a sober house, following years of seeing the havoc addiction causes in families, seeing women struggling with substance abuse separated from their children.
“I’ve seen the destruction,” said Toon, a mother of three grown children. “We can complain about it or we can do something about it.”
Advocates debate sober house regulation
Recovery advocates agree that people who have completed addiction treatment need a stable place to live to have a chance to succeed in the long term.
“The odds of staying clean on the street are zero,” says Albie Cullen, adult services director for Positive Action Against Chemical Addiction (PAACA), a New Bedford-based nonprofit.
That’s where the sober house comes in. It’s not treatment, and it’s not a halfway house, which is meant to provide a more structured way of life that can include treatment. It is what follows that.
“This is the sober living that picks up where clinics and doctors leave off,” Scott Boucher said.
A brief compiled by the National Council for Behavioral Health in 2017 argues that the sober house approach works. The organization cites studies showing that sober house living contributes to better chances of long-term recovery, lower probability of relapse, lower rates of imprisonment, increased employment and higher income.
Advocates, however, differ on the need for sober house regulation.
Danielle Brown, a program director for the homelessness and addiction services provider Steppingstone Inc., said she doesn’t think regulations would be a bad idea, but she doesn’t think they’re necessary. Even without regulations, she sees some sober houses doing good work.
Cullen doesn’t see it that way.
“I can buy or rent a house tomorrow and say it’s going to be a sober home,” Cullen said. “This is the real problem with sober homes: they’re not regulated in any way, shape or form … It’s the Wild, Wild West.”
Cullen, who once lived in a sober house in New Bedford himself, argues that people recovering from addiction need structure, which sober houses do not reliably provide. He thinks there should be requirements for house manager credentials and financial reporting. Overdose deaths in sober houses, he said, should trigger investigations.
Cullen figures sober houses are not regulated because it’s not a big enough industry to draw the political momentum to do it. He also cites lack of concern about the people sober houses are meant to help.
“I hate to say it: when somebody’s rich white daughter overdoses in a sober house, they’ll probably do something,” said Cullen.
For now, the closest thing to regulation is a voluntary inspection and certification system established by state legislation in 2014 and managed since 2016 by The Massachusetts Alliance for Sober Housing (MASH), a Framingham-based nonprofit. Under state law, state agencies can make grants and refer residents only to MASH-certified houses.
MASH conducts annual inspections, applying a list of 30 standards for sober house administration, physical environment and recovery support. While staff members are acknowledged as authorities in the house and expected to have credentials suiting their work, the standards steer away from top-down management. The standards emphasize residents’ role in setting and enforcing at least some — but not all — of the house rules.
MASH investigates all complaints it receives, said Denise Menzdorf, the organization’s executive director. She said MASH investigations can lead to a discussion with the house operator and also to suspending certification.
She said that in the last year, 33 houses were decertified in the state, but only a third of those were involuntary. Five lost certification for substantiated grievance, six for not following through on the annual recertification requirement. The rest chose not to be certified, or the property was sold or relocated.
Once a house is decertified, the operator can apply for recertification after a year.
Brown, of Steppingstone, said she’d be more likely to trust a MASH-certified house. Cullen was skeptical, saying the certification gives a false impression of credibility.
The MASH-certified list includes 190 houses statewide. Nearly half, 76, are located in southeastern Massachusetts, including Brockton, Taunton, Fall River, New Bedford and Cape Cod. Only three of the certified houses are co-ed; 135 are for men, 52 for women.
Eight certified houses in New Bedford — four for men, four for women — can accommodate up to 114 people, 76 men and 38 women. The smallest, run by Dawn and Scott Boucher at 12 Sears St., houses four women. The largest, on Rockland Street, accommodates up to 33 men in a former convent.
Traci’s Home, the Ethel Rose House of Refuge and the Dawn’s New Day are all MASH certified — showing that certified operations can vary. The range of management and the lack of regulation worry people who say they do not want sober houses in their neighborhoods.
When neighborhoods object
Sober houses have opened around the city quietly for years. Every so often, a neighborhood puts up a fight.
In the Moreland Terrace National Register Historic District, west of downtown New Bedford, a sober-house operator bought a grand historic house on Ash Street in July, raising fears of a sober house to come. Neighbors have banded together, posted protest signs along their streets, pinned on protest buttons, and taken their concerns to the New Bedford City Council.
Hunter Foote, founder and executive director of Vanderburgh House, a Worcester-based company that runs sober houses in seven states, including one in New Bedford, said in an interview with The Light on Sept. 13 that he has no specific plan for the six-bedroom, 19th-century house. One of Foote’s limited-liability corporations bought it for $538,000 in July. It’s now back on the market for an asking price of $780,000. The listing shows a contract deadline of Oct. 6.
The Moreland Terrace residents’ concerns are similar to those raised in conflicts over sober houses around the country, the literature in the field shows: public safety, disruption of neighborhood character and cohesion, traffic, property values.
Lucia Freitas on Rivet Street in the South End appears as convinced that a sober house does not belong in her neighborhood as the people in Moreland Terrace are about theirs. And these are very different neighborhoods.
“It’s really just a NIMBY argument,” said Cullen, using the acronym for Not In My Backyard, a narrow concern about certain developments only in one’s own neighborhood. “You’re either all about recovery or not about recovery, and sometimes it impacts your life,” he said. “Nobody cares when it’s in the South End.”
Moreland Terrace neighborhood residents say they resent the NIMBY label, and argue that the stakes are bigger than just their cluster of historic homes.
Rachael Thomas Higgins, a member of the neighborhood group, argues that the city needs a broad approach on where to allow rooming houses in general and sober houses in particular.
“This isn’t just about our neighborhood versus another neighborhood,” said Higgins, who lives across from the Ash Street house in question. “What is the long-term strategy?”
That was one theme of remarks two neighborhood residents — both former city officials — delivered on Sept. 19 before the council’s Committee on Appointments and Briefings.
Former mayor Scott Lang — one of several big names in local politics who lives in Moreland Terrace, along with Mayor Jon Mitchell — spoke for nearly 30 minutes.
Lang urged the council to consider revising zoning regulations to give the city more control over where to allow rooming houses and sober houses. He called for balancing the need to address widespread addiction with the need to protect single-family neighborhoods. While addicted people are shielded from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act, Lang said those protections should not be allowed to overrule local controls.
“We’ll lose our city if we let people come in here and tell us what to do,” Lang said.
Resident Irene Schall, a former city solicitor in Lang’s administration, stressed that Vanderburgh is a for-profit company that emphasizes on its website that sober house operators can “build wealth.” She said the Vanderburgh house at 625 County Street, which can accommodate 19 people, could produce three times as much money in rents as it would as a conventional multi-family operation.
“It is a profit-making enterprise,” Schall told council members. “Don’t let the city be fooled.”
The committee voted to invite the city solicitor, a representative of the mayor’s office and state legislators to discuss how anti-discrimination laws protecting disabled people affect the proliferation of rooming houses or sober houses and whether state law could be changed to give the city more control.
The Ash Street house raises particular concern for residents because of its size. At 8,500 square feet, residents guess it could accommodate up to 21 people.
Even Cullen, who rejects the sort of arguments the Moreland Terrace neighbors are making, acknowledges the possibility of drug abuse in large sober houses.
“You have 20 or 30 addicts,” he said. “By simple math, one of them is going to be using. So, sober homes aren’t sober.”
Seven overdose deaths at sober houses
Around 3 p.m. on Aug. 8, police and medical crew were called to 59 Rockland St., near County Street, to a building known as Donovan House. A 32-year-old man was found outside: “Sudden death — Possible Drug Overdose,” the police report said.
The brick building next to the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish at St. James Church used to be a convent; then it was a women’s shelter. This year it became the city’s largest sober house, with room for 33 men. Like Traci’s Home, it’s run by There Is a Solution.
The police withheld the man’s name, and the manager of the sober house was not responding to emails, so it’s not clear if the man was a resident of the house or associated with it.
Public records show that it was at least the seventh overdose death at a sober house property in New Bedford since 2015. Police logs for 12 sober house addresses also show seven additional calls for nonfatal “overdose/possible overdose” since spring 2020.
Not including the death on Rockland Street, a New Bedford Light examination of death certificates has shown at least 541 people have died of overdoses in New Bedford since 2015. The Rockland Street overdose is too recent to have appeared in the death certificate records. Figures for the last two years are preliminary and subject to change.
From available police reports alone, it’s hard to know whether or how a death at a sober house reflects on the house operation.
At Dawn’s New Day 2 at 12 Sears St., for instance, police were called for an “overdose/possible overdose” shortly after 11 a.m. on March 22. Scott Boucher said in an interview that a resident who had prescriptions for psychiatric conditions had taken a number of pills at once. Their manager called the police.
“I don’t know if you’d be able to prevent that, no matter where you are,” Scott said. He said many residents have prescriptions for anxiety, depression, and other conditions. Monitoring residents’ handling of these medications is a constant challenge, even with a visiting nurse’s help, Scott said.
Tuesday Desrochers of Dartmouth, a professional painter who has lost two sons to drug overdoses, said she got a glimpse of how sober houses can be anything but sober after her younger son died of an overdose, and she read entries in a journal he had left behind.
Caleb Bethoney, who was 24 when he died of an overdose in March 2017, had been through detox, then residential treatment, then was referred to a sober house in Falmouth.
“He was so excited,” said Desrochers. “He thought this was the next step to getting better.”
She said she and Caleb were led to believe the house would provide regular drug testing and a schedule of meetings to help residents manage their emotional struggles and stay on track. According to Caleb’s journal, none of this happened, Desrochers said. Drug use was common in the house, she said.
“It was just a free-for-all,” she said. “There was no guidance.”
He relapsed there, and soon after died of an overdose at a friend’s house in Falmouth.
Desrochers’ older son, Maxwell Bethoney, died of an overdose at age 33 this past March at his fiancee’s home in Buzzards Bay. He’d struggled with substance abuse for years. During that time, Desrochers said, he’d had a good experience at a well-run sober house in Falmouth. Clearly it was not enough to break his addiction.
Desrochers say she thinks sober house regulation would help ensure more consistent practices and oversight. She can see both sides of the debate on Rivet Street, in Moreland Terrace, or any neighborhood in New Bedford where a sober house may open.
“If it’s run properly, it’s a great thing, but I understand the neighbors’ concern,” she said. “I wouldn’t want one in my neighborhood with the grandchildren running around.”