A recent Forecaster article focused on complaints from Falmouth residents about a “sober house” that recently opened near them. One neighbor lamented that he could not understand how such a facility of “12 convicts can move into a densely populated residential neighborhood with no oversight by the town.”

It’s a common misconception that residents of recovery residences are criminals or ex-criminals. But they are individuals working hard to overcome a serious illness and become productive members of their community. Substance use disorder is an illness as real as cancer, diabetes or heart disease. People suffering from it require the same opportunity to get well as anyone else with a serious disease. Stigmatizing them by hanging labels such as “convict,” “addict” or “druggie” only further entrenches prejudicial attitudes, making recovery much more difficult.

Stigma kills. This was demonstrated most recently by the tragedy of a Lewiston police officer who died of an accidental fentanyl overdose. His family, friends and co-workers were shocked, as no one had any idea he was afflicted by opioid use disorder. It is stigma that prevents individuals from seeking help.

There are currently over 100 recovery residences in Maine that have helped thousands of people recover from alcohol use disorder, substance use disorder and opioid use disorder. Until recently, they have largely operated on their own. To address the needs of a growing industry the National Alliance of Recovery Residences was established in 2011.

This organization established stringent standards for recovery residences that wish to earn certified status. By demonstrating compliance with ethical standards, best business practices and the safety and welfare of their clients, these operators sought to achieve a higher bar for recovery residences.

Three years ago, the National Alliance of Recovery Residences awarded affiliate status to the Maine Association of Recovery Residences – a Maine nonprofit that receives no taxpayer funds. To date, the Maine Association of Recovery Residences has certified 27 recovery residences and is inspecting and certifying more each month. Of note: The recovery residence in Falmouth discussed in the article has not yet been MARR certified

The Mills administration has identified the development of affordable recovery housing as a priority. It is working to reduce barriers to expanding capacity while at the same time providing incentives for operators to achieve voluntary certification from the Maine Association of Recovery Residences.

It is understandable that any community dealing with a new residential establishment in their neighborhood would have questions. Nothing helps dispel myths faster than openness and honest communication. Most recovery house operators do not open a residence unannounced. They inform neighbors of the opening and provide an opportunity to tour the house, meet the operators and subsequent tenants. Certified houses have strict requirements to not only avoid intrusive behavior but also to be assets to their community. The motto, “Good neighbors in good neighborhoods” applies. Recently a certified recovery house for women opened in Portland with significant support from the immediate neighbors.

When the Falmouth residents voiced their concerns to the town authorities, they were correctly informed that individuals residing in a recovery residence are members of a protected class under the Americans with Disabilities Act and are protected under the Fair Housing Act. Several federal rulings have made clear that a recovery residence is to be considered a single-family home for zoning and code purposes.

Overcoming deadly stigma is a job for everyone. When we recognize it, we must call it out for what it is. Substance use disorder, alcohol use disorder and opioid use disorder did not start overnight. They came upon us over decades. And it will take years to push back. All the best practices must be brought to bear and this includes embracing what we know works – recovery-ready communities, treating these disorders as medical problems and providing the long-term compassionate care vital to a successful outcome.

 

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