‘Sober living' homes raising some concerns in local neighborhoods

By: Greg Suskin

Updated:

Thousands of people in the Carolinas lose their jobs, their families and even their lives when they become addicted to opioids. It's an epidemic showing no signs of slowing.

[Trump declares US opioid emergency but pledges no new money]

[Local mom whose son overdosed encouraged as Trump declares US opioid emergency]

[NC attorney general addresses need for resources to fight opioid crisis]

Treatment programs often have waiting lists, and some without insurance can't afford them. 

An alternative approach is taking off in the Charlotte area that involves no treatment at all, just the promise of a better life, and it could be happening at the house right next door.

Bessie Jeffers started using drugs and alcohol at the age of 7 after a childhood trauma. She would do anything to get pills.

"I started going to dental practices, complaining of tooth pain. Emergency rooms too," Jeffers said.

When she was banned from local emergency rooms, she bought painkillers on the street.

"When I couldn't feel the high anymore taking them orally, I would start crushing them up and snorting them," Jeffers said.

Stacey Levin’s story is very similar. While addicted to cocaine and pills, she tried to commit suicide.

"I checked into a hotel to kill myself with lots of chemicals," Levin said. "I was going to jump off a bridge, but I thought the impact would hurt too much."

She found herself in a hospital in Texas, and later heard about something called Oxford House.

Both Jeffers and Levin now work for Oxford House, a nationwide nonprofit started in the 1970s. Oxford House allows recovering drug and alcohol addicts to be self-sufficient.

Oxford House is a democratically run, self-supported recovery home. There are now more than 2,200 of them in the United States. Many of them have just come into existence since the dramatic rise of opioid abuse in the last decade.

[LINK: Oxford House]

There were only 10 Oxford Houses in South Carolina in 2014, and now there are 47. North Carolina had 200, and now has 243. In Mecklenburg County alone, there are 33 Oxford Houses, up from 21 about five years ago.

They are not halfway houses, because there's no supervision, no house manager and no medical care on-site.  

Oxford House doesn't own any property or charge for treatment. Usually seven to nine women or men live in the house. They must work and share the bills and expenses, just as any family would. 

Because of the explosion of opioid and heroin addiction, Oxford Houses are growing, and filling up fast, Levin said.

"Every day, I’m looking for a new house, somewhere in the state. I look on Craigslist and Zillow, looking for houses that are for rent. I'll drive around a neighborhood that I like, see if there are any 'For Rent' signs outside," Levin said.

After finding a house, she has to find an understanding landlord who is willing to rent to recovering addicts. Jeffers said many are wary at first.

"Once we explain what Oxford House is about, then nine out of 10 are on board, because they have someone in their family that is either in active addiction, or is recovering,” Jeffers said.

Gloria Bryson, 50, has been clean for 10 months. She lives in an Oxford House in Columbia with six other women.

"I was a garbage can. I'd put anything in my body that you gave me," Bryson said. 

Bryson was addicted to cocaine and painkillers. She went from prison to an Oxford House.  

Bryson said the freedom to live her life, yet be accountable to other house members, works for her.

"My family has paid all these thousands of dollars to get me help, and every time I’ve gone back," Bryson said.

She hasn't relapsed this time.

The home Bryson shares with a half-dozen other women is across the street from an elementary school. Because they aren't medical facilities or businesses, there are no zoning restrictions on sober living homes.

The state does not license or regulate them, because in both Carolinas they come under an exemption that includes 24-hour nonprofit recovery centers using self-help, peer role models and self-governance and charitable, nonprofit or faith-based residential treatment facilities that receive no federal or state funds.

Many of these homes go unnoticed by neighbors, and have few complaints, but that is not always the case.

Lance Palmer lives across from the only sober home in Rock Hill, off Confederate Avenue. He told Channel 9 it's been a problem.

"It's supposed to be a recovery house, but I’ve heard people drunk before. One lady had an overdose the other day," Palmer said.

Rock Hill police were called to the home six times between May and late October. One call was for an overdose. There was also a reported suicide threat and a disorderly conduct call.

A woman lives next door with her husband and three young children and asked Channel 9 to not use her name. She said, at first, she had no problem with the concept of a home next door to help recovering addicts.

"We didn't know who was in and out of the house, which was scary for us," Rhoad said. "It's very uncomfortable. There's no supervision there. The women run the house themselves."

Jeffers, who runs Oxford House in Charlotte, said cases such as this are rare.

"We are the best neighbors you could have. We look for suspicious activity within our neighborhoods, because we don't want that in our house," Jeffers said.

One rule for all Oxford Houses is that if you can't stay clean or sober, you're out. 

That's what happened in the case in Rock Hill. The other members of the house must expel the person who drinks or uses drugs.

Jeffers said sober homes such as Oxford House are inexpensive and promote responsible living that other kinds of treatment may not. There's no insurance involved, and many people respond to the self-governing approach to recovery. She said the opioid crisis is an epidemic.

"It's getting worse every day. It truly is. Rehab facilities and detoxes are filling up so fast," Jeffers said.

That's why Oxford House can find a new home for rent and fill it almost immediately.

Bryson doesn't even think about leaving. She has a job, a nice place to live and other women around her who know what she went through and can hold her accountable.

She believes addiction, prison and suffering are long behind her.

"I’m happy every day that I’m here," Bryson said.

The average stay in an Oxford House is a year, but there’s no limit to how long someone can stay. Many residents have been through drug treatment before they move in, but that’s not required.

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