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Home Sober Home: Making Sure Recovering Addicts Have a Safe Haven

Modifying land-use laws will make it easier for state-run facilities to get zoning permission, another aspect of larger effort to combat addiction, improve recovery options

Drug use vs.sober living

New Jersey lawmakers are considering a measure that would make it easier for new sober-living facilities to receive local land-use approval, something Gov. Chris Christie has flagged as important to improving the state’s network of treatment and recovery services.

The Senate health committee approved a proposal Monday that would add residential recovery homes to the list of “inherently beneficial uses” in New Jersey’s municipal land-use laws, which makes it easier for these state-licensed facilities to get zoning permission. Such uses, considered beneficial to the public good and “general welfare” of the community, include hospitals, schools, childcare centers, group homes, and wind and solar-power structures, among other facilities.

The committee also advanced a measure that would require state officials to designate an existing nursing home as a center for treatment of seniors with dual diagnoses of substance-use disorder and mental illness. The bill also calls on the state to set a new reimbursement rate for these treatments.

Living clean and sober

In the Garden State there has been a growing public focus on diverting opiate addicts into treatment — through the use of Narcan and recovery coach programs — and expanding options for recovery care, particularly inpatient programs. Less attention has been paid to helping those individuals who have gone through detox and several weeks of residential treatment, but have few good options after they are released. Without a safe, drug-free place to call home while they get back on their feet, the majority of addicts will slip back into their previous lifestyle, experts agree.

Christie noted the importance of sober-living facilities in his state of the state address in January, stressing the need to reduce the government red tape he suggested is preventing their development and reminding residents of the critical benefits these programs offer. Opiate addiction drove tens of thousands of New Jersey residents to treatment in recent years and killed some 1,500 annually.

“Remember, today the nonviolent recovering person in that home in your neighborhood may be a stranger; tomorrow, it may be your own child,” Christie said. He pledged to work on this effort with Democratic Sen. Joe Vitale, the longtime health committee chairman, who is a lead sponsor on the new bill.

Safe haven

“These residences provide yet another safe haven to help those in recovery get back on their feet and back into society sober and productive,” he added. “We cannot preach the benefits of treatment and then fail those in recovery by denying them access to a safe, supportive home.”

Through the New Jersey Department of Human Services, the state funds more than 60 nonprofit-run supportive housing facilities for individuals with substance-abuse issues, and their families, who are at risk of homelessness, according to its website. The DHS also contributes toward administrative and programmatic expenses at a network of some 73 sober-living facilities that are independently run, peer-led, and self-supporting.

At least two out of three patients who return to their old lives after detox will relapse, according to statistics compiled by , a volunteer group from South Jersey that operates a sober-living facility near Atlantic City. Those who can get into a structured sober residence, or drug-free housing, are 10 times more likely to avoid falling back into addiction, the group said.

As an addict in recovery, “you can’t go back to the same people, places and things,” explained Bill Schmincke, who founded Stop the Heroin with his wife Tammy last year, following the Easter weekend overdose death of their son Steven. In many cases, living with family presents other problems, Schmincke added.

Breaking the cycle

“There has to be something there to break that cycle,” Schmincke continued, and a home filled with peers who understand the struggles and don’t judge can be a huge help. “There need to be places like this, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.”

The sober-living facility bill, (S-3161), introduced late last week by Vitale (D-Middlesex) and Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego (D-Burlington), would revise the existing municipal land-use law to include drug-free housing programs licensed by the Department of Community Affairs on the list of inherently beneficial uses. If adopted, the law would make it easier for local zoning officials to issue a variance to a builder who wants to construct a sober-living site.

Dual diagnoses

Vitale and Sen. Dick Codey (D-Essex) joined forces to sponsor a bill (S-3142) that would create a nursing home facility dedicated to dual-diagnoses care. The designation is limited to facilities in cities with at least 150,000 people. While some nursing homes now provide psychiatric care, dual-diagnoses treatment is not readily available.

Also introduced last week, the measure would enable existing nursing home facilities to apply for the designation and empower the Department of Health, which licenses long-term care providers, to select one to provide this care.

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