LYNN — Seven years ago, Matthew “Matty” Powers was living in his car and nursing a heroin addiction.
He got clean, eventually, but needed a place to live where he could focus on recovery. He tried halfway houses but kept running into unscrupulous landlords who cared more about collecting rent than helping addicts stay clean.
That’s when his older brother, Stephen Powers, came up with an idea to open their own “sober home.” Denied financing by banks, the brothers maxed out credit cards and borrowed from relatives to cobble together a down-payment on an abandoned, two-story house on Strawberry Avenue in Lynn.
The house had been a shooting galley where addicts injected heroin, smoked crack cocaine and crashed on the floor.
“It was a mess,” Matty said. “We couldn’t open the front door because somebody was passed out against it.”
The brothers enlisted friends to help fix up the house. They spent off-work hours replacing a roof, putting new shingles on the exterior and renovating the kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms.
Matty became one of the original six tenants of Chelsea’s House. Many more would follow.
“People thought we were crazy, that it would never work,” he said. “But it’s changed my life, and so many others.”
Sober homes like Chelsea House have been around for years, most operating with little, if any, financial help from the state and nonprofit groups. There are few regulations for opening one, and the state doesn’t have authority over them.
But as Massachusetts wrestles with a deadly outbreak of heroin and prescription drug abuse, increasing demand for long-term recovery beds has health officials turning to group homes for much-needed housing.
Gov. Charlie Baker has called for expanding access to long-term care to battle opioid abuse, which is claiming an average of four lives a day in the Bay State.
State lawmakers passed a bill in 2014 that encourages sober homes to become “voluntarily certified” to ensure they meet basic health regulations, aren’t overcrowded and don’t take advantage of tenants by charging excessive rent.
To become certified, sober home operators must be trained and undergo a yearly inspection of their properties. To date 25 homes, including Chelsea’s House, have done so. Another 60 homes have applied for certification. Those not certified by this September won’t be allowed to accept referrals from state prisons, drug courts or detox facilities.
“Sober homes have a role in the continuum of care, but we want to make sure they are providing a safe, clean environment,” said Cheryl Kennedy-Perez, director of housing and homeless services at the state Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, a division of the Department of Public Health.
Estimates of the number of sober homes in the state run upward of 200, including on the North Shore. Kennedy-Perez said the state has reached out to parole and probation officers, as well as treatment centers, to get a handle on their number and to explain the new rules on sending referrals only to certified homes.
Longtime operators say certification will improve quality of care and help remove the stigma that sometimes attaches to the homes.
“This is a long time coming,” said Marilyn Diorio, executive director of Sally’s Place in Amesbury, a sober home for 19 women that is now certified. “We have a lot of sober homes in the state, and some of them have good ethical practices, but others don’t. And there’s been no way for families to know if the places they’re sending their loved ones to are treating them fairly.”
Something to live for
The wooden two-story that the Powers brothers made into Chelsea’s House is tucked along a one-way street on the outskirts of downtown Lynn. It’s a working-class neighborhood of triple-decker apartments and single-family homes that has seen its share of drug dealing and gang violence.
From humble beginnings, Chelsea’s House has expanded to four locations — three other houses in Lynn, one in Chelsea — and currently rents rooms to about 60 men whose ages range from 18 to 75. Most are parolees who’ve done stints in jail for drug possession, robbery and other minor charges. They come from all over the state.
House rules are simple: Tenants must remain sober and submit to twice-weekly drug tests. They aren’t allowed to have guests who use drugs. They’re expected to attend support group meetings, such as Narcotics Anonymous.
Rent is $175 a week for single room. That includes a bed, flat-screen TV, side table and other furniture.
Chelsea’s House was named after Robert “Chelsea Bob” Hinckley, a former iron worker and recovered alcoholic who became an inspiration to many in the hardscrabble neighborhood where the Powers boys grew up. Hinckley died in 2010.
Stephen Powers, who isn’t an addict, said the philosophy behind Chelsea’s House is treating addicts with dignity and respect.
“We wanted to change how it was done,” he said. “The idea was sober living, run by addicts, for addicts.”
Many of the men are recovering heroin addicts, others are alcoholics. Not everyone stays on the straight and narrow.
“We get burned a lot,” Matty said. “Some guys relapse and move out, others don’t pay rent. But we do whatever we can to help all of them.”
Some tenants stay a few months; others have stuck around for years. Deep bonds are built between them.
Dennis Gomez, 32, a recovering addict from Roxbury, moved into the Strawberry Avenue home six months ago, having spent 31/2 years in prison for dealing cocaine. He said it’s helped him reconnect with family and get his life back.
“It’s really given me something to live for,” Gomez said. “We have a brotherhood here that gives each other support.”
While places like Chelsea’s House have helped countless addicts, without oversight, abuses have occurred.
In 2009, a Lynn District Court judge closed St. Jean’s House in Salem’s Point neighborhood when the owner was arrested on charges of identity fraud, larceny and possession of a large quantity of marijuana.
Stephen Powers said he’s seen homes where greedy landlords pack dozens of men into cramped, squalid quarters.
“There are laws on the books — planning and zoning ordinances. They just have to be enforced,” he said. “But the question is how do you police it?”
Kennedy-Perez said the state lacks the authority to crack down on unscrupulous operators. Federal laws, which regard addicts as disabled, prevent sober houses from being closed, and efforts to do so often end up in court.
“Some people see these houses as money-makers,” she said. “There’s overcrowding, drug use, and they gouge people for money. But these are private properties, and there are laws preventing the state coming in and telling them what to do.”
Despite the state’s interest in certifying sober houses, skepticism lingers about the good it will do.
Richard Winant, president of the Massachusetts Association of Sober Housing, who runs a certified home in Wakefield, calls the state’s stake in sober homes a “work in progress.”
He said there should be a formal grievance procedure, for example, or else operators may appear legitimate but take advantage of tenants. Another concern is that if the state doesn’t certify enough homes, a backlog of referrals could build, leaving some addicts with no place to go.
Overall, Winant said the attention being paid to sober houses will help improve their public image. They routinely face resistance from local officials and neighbors, many whom don’t understand what they do, he said.
“Drug addicts, needles and the police — that’s the perception,” he said. “But the reality is just the opposite.”
The Powers brothers, who want to double the number of beds at Chelsea’s House in coming years, welcome the increased attention. But they also worry that the state’s involvement could lead to over-regulation and bureaucracy.
“We operate good, clean houses,” Matty said. “I don’t want some guy in a suit coming in here and telling me how to run them.”
Christian Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.
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