Don’t call Delray Beach the drug relapse capital anymore.
The city, once declared Ground Zero for the opioid epidemic, accounted for just four of Palm Beach County’s 168 drug deaths in the first quarter of 2018. And that success is prompting Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach to follow its example of imposing tougher sober home regulations.
Sober homes, also known as recovery residences, are often the first stop for drug addicts fresh out of treatment. Cities have found that having a high concentration of them in one area leads to havoc. Angry residents complained about too many cars in one place, trashed belongings of relapsed clients thrown into the street and an unsavory element appearing in neighborhoods of single-family homes.
The tougher regulations keep sober homes at least one city block from one another.
“We’re not trying to discriminate or denigrate individuals who maintain a residence in a sober home; but we want everyone to be able to enjoy the streets and the sidewalks and the conviviality of a typical neighborhood that a concentration of sober homes might not be conducive to,” said Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Tantralis.
His city approved the tighter rules last month; Pompano Beach is ready to give final approval on Tuesday.
Former Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein oversaw the passage of the tougher rules and said having former drug addicts concentrated in one place was making the problem worse.
Two years ago, 65 people died of drugs in the city. Last year, there were 57 overdose deaths. But the crisis began easing in July 2017, the same month the city’s new regulations were passed.
Glickstein said it makes sense that clustered housing for those in recovery was aggravating the problem.
“If there are a lot of drug addicts in town and you’re selling [drugs], where else are you going to go?” Glickstein said.
Delray Beach Police Chief Jeffrey Goldman agrees that having fewer sober homes near each other appears to be working. But he also credits the drop in drug deaths to state attorney’s sober home task force, the prosecution of those running the homes, and his department’s hiring of an addiction specialist to ensure each overdose survivor gets services.
“When I used to go to [homeowner association] meetings, the topic every day was sober homes,” he said. “Now the topic doesn’t come up.”
Still, keeping tabs on sober homes can be tricky. Federal law treats addiction as a disability protected from housing discrimination.
The state has tried to get a handle on the problem by requiring sober homes to register if they want referrals from state-certified drug treatment programs. After nearly two years, 385 homes have registered. Yet advocates estimate there are about 2,500 sober homes throughout the state.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office documented 204 suspected or confirmed sober homes in Pompano Beach, with a high concentration east of Dixie Highway and north of Sample Road. Yet the state registry lists just 35 with a Pompano address.
A total of 96 people in recovery live in four buildings on one block, according to a city-commissioned report. Another sober home operator has 168 people housed on the same block, according to the report.
“These are unusually large numbers for a community the size of Pompano Beach with an estimated 109,000 residents in 2016,” the report says.
Jeffrey Lynne, an attorney with clients in the recovery industry, said he supports registries as a tool to weed out bad sober home operators, but he draws the line at telling sober homes where they can locate.
“Its end result may defeat the purpose of [Fair Housing Act] housing guidelines,” he said of the anti-clustering ordinances.
In Fort Lauderdale, Trantalis said he thinks that ultimately recovering addicts will be helped by having fewer people in the same situation in their immediate vicinity, in an environment that more closely resembles the wider world.
These rules, he said, “allows for sober homes to exist in our city, but helps maintain a diversity we feel is important for a healthy neighborhood environment.”