Guest Column: For-profit sober home offers little public benefit

TIM GANNON PHOTO | This building, across the street from town hall, will be subject to a public hearing shortly.
TIM GANNON PHOTO | This building, across the street from town hall, will be subject to a public hearing shortly.

I have worked in the mental health and substance abuse field for nonprofit agencies for over a decade. I read with great concern that the Riverhead Town Board is considering granting a special permit to allow a sober home run by Mainstream Houses, a for-profit organization, in an existing house on East Main Street.

As a Riverhead resident and case manager working in the field with mentally ill and substance abusers, I am against allowing a for-profit entity to crowd as many as 10 or 12 residents into this home. I’m not sure how this would meet the threshold of a special permit, which according to town code can be granted only if it’s determined a proposal offers a net benefit to the surrounding area and the town as a whole.

For-profit sober homes are run by private entrepreneurs. In many cases the residents of these type of privately run sober homes are on public entitlement programs, including SSI and SSDI, as well as programs run by the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. Ultimately taxpayers foot much of the bill and subsidize the rent for many of the residents who reside in private, for-profit sober homes. By renting rooms to 10 or more people at anywhere from $450 to over $600 a month, the potential revenue is much greater than if it’s rented to a single entity. So who really benefits?

It’s hard to say it’s the public.

Unlike with nonprofit agencies, for-profit sober homes do not operate under state licenses and thus are not regulated as a nonprofit, licensed residential program site would be. In my opinion, there is little difference between a proposed sober home for 10 or 12 residents and the recent home in Polish Town that the Town of Riverhead raided for overcrowding. It would be hypocrisy for the town to grant this special permit and allow the property across from Town Hall to be used in this way, while cracking down on overcrowding at similar housing sites elsewhere. Just because a landlord labels a building as being a “sober home” and speaks to some type of ongoing rehabilitation for its residents, that does not give the landlord a right to overcrowd a historically single-family residence with 10 or more tenants. If I own a horse, but tell people it’s a zebra, my labeling it as a zebra does not make it a zebra. It’s still a horse.

Mainstream Homes is not a program in the usual sense or model, where residents are mandated to go to a daily treatment program and are clinically monitored by a third-party treatment provider. Those types of New York State-licensed day treatment programs provide feedback and progress reports to licensed residential programs where client may reside. Another issue is a lack of independent and third-party review regarding how successful Mainstream Homes — and any other entity running sober homes — has been in terms of success rates or incidence of relapse by its residents.

Another problem with for-profit sober homes is this: Who determines when residents move on — if they move on at all? Residents of these homes may be living there for years, many paying their rent through public entitlement programs, without any motivation to move on to more independent living as part of their recovery. There appears to be no accountability in this area in terms of trying to produce an outcome that benefits both the client and taxpayers.

I would strongly urge the Town Board to consider rejecting such a proposal and not allow it to come up for a public hearing. And in the future, if ever issuing public permits for addiction treatment facilities, consider only state licensed and regulated residential alternatives that have on-site clinically trained staff to provide supervision and oversight to a much smaller number of disabled residents. This type of plan would be, in my opinion, a much better and safer alternative for the community as a whole. This particular building across from Town Hall, for example, could be used to house three developmentally disabled or mentally ill residents in a setting that would provide both clinical treatment and residential supports. Another potential use for the property could be to house homeless veterans. There are currently nonprofit agencies here in Suffolk County that serve our veterans and are actively looking for residential sites for transitional housing.

Jerry Bilinski is a case manager with a nonprofit group that advocates for incarcerated and mentally ill people. He lives in Riverhead.