Massachusetts has focused for several years on the plight of opioid addicts who leave treatment programs and enter a world with little, if any, support. Until recently, it wasn’t clear that facilities willing to take on those cases were prepared to handle them.
Efforts to encourage and certify sober houses, by many accounts, have been successful. But they aren’t without challenges, one of which has surfaced along a residential street in Methuen.
City officials say they were surprised to learn of the operation of a sober house on Quincy Street and recently issued a cease-and-desist order to its owners until the city can ascertain whether the home meets building and sanitary codes, and if it complies with local zoning.
Even if it does check all of the right boxes, and Lincoln House is found to operate within the technical limits of local ordinances and the law, there’s the matter of neighbors now riled about the sudden presence of a home for recovering addicts in their midst. In recent interviews with Eagle-Tribune reporter Lisa Kashinsky, those living near the home expressed wariness and suspicion, seeded by the fact that no one mentioned to them the fact the house was opening in the first place.
As much as one can appreciate the dedication of the home’s operators — and the plight of those who’ve gone there in search of stability and sobriety — the neighbors have valid concerns about the impact of the facility on their neighborhood, including on home values. It’s hard to imagine that Lincoln House and owners Jason Loomer and Danielle Donohue can succeed in their mission of helping people begin again when so much suspicion awaits outside their threshold.
As the state encourages these homes, which provide crucial support to people trying to right their lives after a battle with opioid addiction, lawmakers should consider creating zoning categories that support and even encourage these facilities in appropriate places.
Now, by law, local zoning may not discriminate against congregate living so long as the number of people in a home approximates the size of families who might otherwise live there. That leaves the door open to sober houses — particularly in neighborhoods of multifamily dwellings — and invites situations such as the one on Quincy Street, where a facility can open and operate off the radar.
Certainly, those running sober houses aren’t looking for attention and want to create as much normalcy for their guests as possible. But, doing so without introducing themselves to the neighbors and city officials can only invite suspicion that’s counterproductive to their cause.
It’s still unclear where Lincoln House fits into all of this. Donohue bought the house last fall; her fiancé, Loomer, is its manager. She says six people have stayed there, though the Massachusetts Alliance for Sober Housing has certified the home for up to 20 men. Its clients pay rent of $175 to $225 per week, depending upon the size of their room.
It is also unclear what has happened to the home’s residents, particularly since the city filed an order forcing it to suspend operations.
The knotty question of where to locate places like Lincoln House is far more urgent than other zoning conflicts involving rooming houses or light commercial uses in residential neighborhoods.
Sober houses answer a critical public health need, and their number has grown as the state has encouraged a certification process, mainly by refusing to refer anyone to a home that doesn’t yet have it.
And, to be sure, sober houses aren’t necessarily bad neighbors. Donohue says she encourages her neighbors in Methuen to drop by and visit.
Still, these facilities should be forthright about what they are, and who their clients are, when they open. And their operators should seek, with support from the state and local leaders, places to call home that are fitting with the important work that they do.