At first glance, the yellow house Dr. Ron Springel had come to inspect looked like any other old home where people share space to make the rent.
A spring rain had begun to fall in Portland as he carried his tape measure and flashlight up the wooden steps. On the porch, a weathered couch slumped next to a half-full ashtray.
Inside, Springel prodded smoke detectors and opened windows. In one man’s room, a woman and young girl smiled up at him from unframed photos taped above a single bed.
But the inspection also turned up less familiar objects: There was a breathalyzer in the living room closet, and the cardboard boxes lining the front hallway were filled with urine test cups.
Springel isn’t from the city or any government agency. Nor is he concerned with permitting. When the retired physician inspects a house, one of his first questions is: “Where’s the Narcan?”
The Valley Street home he was inspecting is one of scores of sober-living houses that have quietly opened throughout Maine in recent years. In them, hundreds of people battling addiction pay monthly rent, mostly out of pocket, to live and recover alongside their peers.
To gauge the growth of Maine’s sober-living industry, the Bangor Daily News reached out to more than 90 homes believed to be recovery residences in the state. The survey confirmed 76 operating in Maine, with more than 77 percent of those in the Portland area. Of the 39 homes that provided a year of opening, 82 percent were founded in the past five years.
The industry has grown along with the death toll of the opioid crisis, offering the promise of help and a new home to people fighting a deadly disease. With the limited support for drug rehabilitation in Maine, men and women in recovery have opened these homes as a way to help each other. People who’ve passed through their doors often say the support they received saved their lives.
But these private homes get no oversight from the state. Because they operate without government regulation, there’s no official list of sober-living homes in Maine, no state assurance that they are safe and no recourse for most residents if they’re not.
“Unfortunately, because of the lack of regulation I don’t believe the state knows very much at all [about sober homes operating here],” said Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, who sponsored a bill to create a recovery residences state certification, which was left unfunded and effectively dead this legislative session. “What I think we’ve seen in other states is the lack of regulation has led to tragedy.”
In May, a Massachusetts lawyer and sober home operator was charged for allegedly offering drugs and legal representation to residents in exchange for sex; a self-styled “rehab mogul” who once ran homes in Colorado and California now faces decades in prison for sexually assaulting and offering drugs to tenants; and networks of Florida homes have been implicated in widespread fraud, keeping clients in an often deadly cycle of addiction to keep the money flowing in.
So far, Maine seems to have been spared from the kind of abuses seen elsewhere. And all indications are that those opening sober-living homes here are doing so with the best of intentions, if not always the best of results.
It is only in recent years that federal and state governments have begun to look at regulating sober homes. There’s no settled model of how to approach the issue. And the states that have led in passing legislation have tended to be reactive — enacting oversight following the revelation of major abuses in their sober-living industries.
In Maine, advocates say, problems could be preempted with a system of oversight and inspection to ensure that sober homes meet basic safety standards and provide environments genuinely conducive to recovery.
Some Maine sober home owners worry that heavy-handed regulation might shut down houses providing a badly needed service that’s hard to find outside the Portland area. But state recognition could also offer guidance to cities and towns, which can be leery of sober homes and have rules that make it hard for them to open despite federal law protecting their residents.
So far, state government appears to have little interest in taking a more active role in the swiftly growing industry that serves some of Maine’s most vulnerable residents. The state Department of Health and Human Services has acknowledged not knowing how many sober homes operate statewide even as it’s lobbied against Bellows’ bill to regulate them.