How Safe is Sober Living?

By Hillel Aron 03/28/11
Sober living homes under scrutiny in LA.
Photo via soberhousing

When you first emerge from treatment—fresh, clean, with a new lease on life—you’re not always ready to jump back into your former surroundings. Many addicts choose to ease the transition through sober living homes, and  L.A. seems to be a favorite destination. Jeff Christensen, the head of the Sober Living Network, a nonprofit group that coordinates sober living housing, estimates that there are more than a thousand such homes in Southern California alone, ranging in price from $21,000 for a beachfront manse in Malibu to $200 for a bed in South Central. But are sober living homes really a boon for newly abstinent addicts, or just glorified real estate scams? In Orange County, a group called CRC Health bought up more than 30 beach houses, divided them up, and called it "Sober Living by the Sea." There was little or no on-site supervision. Recent reports of rampant drug use and illegal behavior in several California sober living homes have spurred some Southern California communities to try expelling sober living facilities from their neighborhoods, on the grounds that they are generally unregulated and completely unlicensed by the government. Some sober living homes, like L.A.'s Haven House and Clearview are widely praised as professional and caring. But some pretty much function as high-priced hotels. Unlike rehabs, which provide medical supervision and round-the-clock observation, most sober livings are unsupervised and notably lax about drug testing. Relapses are fairly common. As a result, the Los Angeles Planning and Land Use Management Committee is considering an ordinance that would, among other things, exclude from areas zoned for single-family housing. While Christensen condemns the idea as “discriminatory in nature,” a similar ordinance restricting sober living homes was passed by the Newport Beach City Council in 2008 in the wake of the fracas over Sober Living by the Sea. Christensen and other owners complain that zoning laws and other regulations will make owning a sober living home prohibitively expensive. City officials counter that sober living houses are often little more than a way to dodge business zoning requirements, while providing scant support for their needy residents. If the ordinance passes, it could lead to similar laws all over the country

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Hillel Aron is a writer living in Los Angeles, where he was born and raised. His work has appeared in the LA Weekly, The Huffington Post, and You can find Hilel on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.