A sober-living house Down East where women in recovery can live with their children will open in Machias this spring after renovations are complete.
The former domestic violence shelter on Elm Street, expected to open in late May or early June, will be the only recovery residence for women in Washington and Hancock counties, according to Penny Geisinger of the nonprofit Healthy Acadia, which works on public health initiatives in Hancock and Washington counties. After renovations, the home will have eight bedrooms, 3½ bathrooms and an additional bedroom and full bath for the house manager. It will be able to house up to 18 residents along with the house manager.
The recovery residence’s opening comes as Gov. Janet Mills’ administration tries to make more addiction recovery resources available in rural Maine. That push is helped by $2 million in state funding the Maine Legislature made available last year to grow the number of sober-living homes — where people recovering from a substance use disorder can find a safe, drug-free place to live — and improve their quality.
“There are 108 recovery residences in Maine, and 70 of them are in southern Maine,” said Gordon Smith, Mills’ director of opioid response. “We’d like to have 200 spread out all over the state.”
A recovery home for women and their children under the age of 12 opened in Camden in July. Located at 63 Washington Street, it is operated by the Mid-Coast Recovery Coalition, according to Dr. Ira Mandel, the founder and chairman of the organization.
Open Door Recovery Center and its Hills House program in Ellsworth shut down last year in the wake of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ decision against renewing its license,
The recovery home in Machias has been years in the making in a county that has been hard hit by opioid overdose deaths. Washington County has had the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in the state in recent years, and the number of overdose deaths appears to be on the rise. Nine were reported in the first nine months of 2019, the same number of people who died in all of 2018, according to the Maine attorney general’s office.
The sober-living home grew out of meetings in 2015 and 2016 held by the Washington County Substance Response Collaborative, Geisinger said.
“A lack of affordable housing was identified as a barrier to recovery,” she said. “After a long process, opening a recovery residence arose as the very best way to go.”
The project is a collaborative effort that includes the nonprofit agencies Downeast Community Partners, the Aroostook Mental Health Center and the Community Caring Collaborative in addition to Healthy Acadia.
The home’s residents will be allowed to be on addiction treatment medication such as buprenorphine (known by its brand name Suboxone) and methadone. Many of the state’s current recovery residences don’t allow residents to be receiving medication-assisted treatment.
The residents will also be expected to pay rent and find employment.
“We have not set the rent amount, but it will be made affordable for the residents,” said Mark Green, executive director of Ellsworth-based Downeast Community Partners, which owns the Machias property.
Most recently, the property housed a private business, but that lease ended about a year ago, Green said.
A $150,000 grant from the Maine State Housing Authority is paying for the renovations, which have not yet begun, Green said. That money will be used to renovate the kitchen and bathrooms, install new flooring and carpets, and update the building so it complies with residential code requirements.
“Our agency will operate the house and Healthy Acadia will provide the treatment and programming,” he said.
The organizations will also seek certification for the residence from the Maine Association of Recovery Residences. That certification, which requires an inspection, can take up to six months and is meant to show that the residences meet a set of national standards developed for recovery homes. It can also make the home eligible for some of the state funding lawmakers have made available to pay for rental subsidies.
So far, the association has certified 38 recovery residences in Maine. In order to be eligible, the homes must allow their residents to receive medication-assisted treatment.
The community meetings that ultimately led to the recovery home identified three main barriers to recovery for women — affordable housing, child care and transportation, said Charley Martin-Berry, director of the Community Caring Collaborative.
The collaborative, which was founded in 2007 to address poverty, trauma, substance use and other major health and economic challenges Down East, offers early childhood education to Machias-area children and is working to obtain funding to offer transportation to women living in the home.
The home will not require the women and their children who live there to be residents of Washington County. It will be open to families from other parts of the state because sometimes a successful recovery requires people to leave behind the communities where they were using substances.
“It’s well located in a nice neighborhood and within walking distance of stores, restaurants and just up the hill from the university,” Green said.
The home for women is not the first recovery residence in Machias. There is also a faith-based house for men operated by Arise Addiction Recovery Inc. in town.
It also is not the only recovery residence on the horizon in northern Maine.
Lynn Bernard of Millinocket is working with others in that northern Penobscot County town to find a house that can be a recovery residence for women.
Bernard, who moved to Millinocket with her husband 15 years ago and is in long-term recovery, said that “there is rampant addiction everywhere.”
“We bought our house for less than most people pay for a new pickup truck,” she said.
The low cost of housing, the recent opening of the Pir2Peer Recovery Center in town and Smith’s outreach to rural communities give Bernard hope that she will be successful.
Related: The opioid crisis in Maine