Recovery Houses Bring Sobriety and Issues

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Sara Johnson has been through at least 15 drug rehabilitation programs in Pennsylvania and Ohio, spent time in jail, transitioned in and out of sober houses in Pittsburgh, lived off the streets, and done everything she had to do to survive. Once, in a state of helplessness, she tried to kill herself.

“I wanted to run from everywhere I went,” Johnson reflects as she stands inside a newly renovated, 5,000-square-foot stately house, nestled in a secluded wooded area just off Sampson Road. “I was constantly trying to fill this void. I kept trying and trying, and kept failing.”

Members of the faith-based community, township officials and supporters were on hand Aug. 24 to celebrate the opening of the Project 180 Esther Home for Women, a faith-based recovery house in Liberty Township that can accommodate up to 12 women at a time.

Just a week earlier, the reception was much different for the owner of a recovery house that operates nearby on the North Side of Youngstown.

On Aug. 15, dozens of North Side residents packed the Youngstown Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, most of them to speak against the operation of a sober living house at 2259 Selma Ave., in a neighborhood zoned strictly for single-family residences.

While Liberty Township embraced the opening of its first recovery house, residents of the North Side are concerned that their neighborhoods are becoming saturated with such units – growth that results from the opioid epidemic that has gripped much of Ohio.

“The North Side is inundated with group homes and sober houses, and it affects the integrity of the neighborhood,” says Marian Wilson, a North Side resident.

Wilson is quick to point out that she and her neighbors are not opposed to sober houses. In her view, they play a vital role in the recovery of those suffering from addiction. However, she emphasizes, zoning laws were adopted for a reason, and the city isn’t enforcing them.

“I’m very passionate about the North Side,” she says, “and other neighbors feel the same way.”

Pictured: Marian Wilson worries her neighborhood is becoming saturated with recovery houses.

No serious problems have been associated with the Selma house – some traffic issues here and there, Wilson says – and her neighborhood’s response is in no way a reaction to the stereotypes associated with those who are addicts.

Her biggest question is why sober houses can set up shop in residential neighborhoods where zoning codes forbid their presence.

The answer lies with the U.S. Fair Housing Act, which has interpreted alcohol and drug addiction as a disability, says Bill D’Avignon, the city’s former community development director who retired effective Aug. 24.

Owners of sober houses have cited the FHA in their quest to offer reasonable accommodations to those with disabilities, and federal law supersedes local zoning codes, he says.

Under that law, it is a civil rights violation to deny anyone with a disability the right to equal and adequate housing.

“It started in April of last year,” D’Avignon says. “There have been a lot more recently.”

D’Avignon says the city is aware of at least four sober living homes that operate on the North Side where zoning does not allow rooming or boarding homes.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t more, he says, because it’s impossible to inspect every house within the city to determine its status and such homes can operate generally unregulated.

Another seven licensed group homes are on the North Side, while a fifth sober house lies in a neighborhood appropriately zoned.

The North Side is especially appealing because many of the houses are big and can be bought at very reasonable prices, residents say. According to the Mahoning County auditor’s office, the house at 2259 Selma sold in 2016 for $30,000, is three stories and occupies 2,800 square feet.

Pictured: This single-family home at 2259 Selma Ave. was converted it into a sober house.

Residents are also concerned that these owners are more interested in making a profit rather than seeing to the welfare of those who live in the sober house.

Amber Beall, a resident of Youngstown’s Wick Park neighborhood, relates that an acquaintance of hers had a son who was an addict and ended up in a sober house with 15 other people.

“The city didn’t have it on their books, and they were paying $500 a person,” Beall says. “There’s very little oversight.”

Beall’s neighborhood has long been a focus of group homes because of the large houses that ring the park – many of them abandoned mansions built during the first quarter of the 20th century.

Some were converted into fraternity houses, others into group homes and apartments. Thus, the zoning laws in this part of the city allow sober houses, too. The alternative is leaving them vacant.

“At what point do we stop becoming a residential neighborhood?” Beall asks.

That is far from the case with the Selma house, says Salvatore Vecchione, the owner who lives there. “You wouldn’t believe how much money I lose,” he says.

Vecchione, a recovering alcoholic, knows what it’s like to lose everything. He credits his time spent in a sober house as a vital step in helping him recover and lead a productive life.

“This is a calling,” he says. “If you are doing this to make money, then you should be out.”

The house can accommodate 12 men, but just four reside there now, Vecchione says. Each resident pays $350 per month and all must be enrolled in a recovery program and have a sponsor.

The average stay since the house opened in November is four months, he notes. Plus, he says, city safety inspectors have gone through the house and found no issues.

Vecchione randomly screens the residents for drugs. “I have them sign a contract with rules. I’m serious about it,” he says, “and if there are any situations, I ask them to leave.”

The majority who have come through the house abused opioids, he’s found. “It’s everywhere,” he says.

Much opposition stems from the lack of understanding of the important role sober houses play in the community, Vecchione says, and his home offers all of the amenities that could help an addict recover fully. “My clients are well behaved and they just want to have a nice, quiet place to recover,” he says. “We fit perfectly into this neighborhood.”

During the day, the residents participate in their recovery programs. At night they need a place to return that is a drug-free environment, Vecchione says.

Regardless, neighbors remain concerned about the transient client traffic, that zoning ordinances aren’t enforced, and the growing concentration of sober houses on the North Side.

“We don’t know who’s in those homes,” says 3rd Ward Councilman Nate Pinkard, who attended the Aug. 15 meeting. “They don’t operate with licenses and our zoning laws mean nothing.”

Former Youngstown Mayor George McKelvey, a lifelong resident of the North Side, emphasized at the Aug. 15 meeting there is legal precedent to support a limit on the number of such homes in areas deemed saturated.

“I’m asking the city to review the number of group homes or sober homes on the North Side,” he told the zoning board. Should the city find that there is too heavy a concentration of these homes in the area, then “it would not be unreasonable” to request that applicants locate in other parts of the city, McKelvey said.

McKelvey could have a point, allows city Law Director Martin Hume. “Blanket bans will not be upheld,” he cautions, nor would any case denying a sober house based on stigmas or stereotypes related to those suffering from addiction.

However, should the city determine that there is too heavy a concentration of sober houses in a specified area – City Council has placed a restriction ongroup homes so they can’t lie within 2,000 feet of one another – then it could affect where a sober house can operate.

Hume says the city is handling each zoning request on a case-by-case analysis. “The real concern is that there are a number that we don’t know about,” he says, noting that staffing levels makes it difficult to inspect every house in the city. Those the city has given an OK appear to be operating without incident, he says.

One way to ensure that a client is moving to a safe recovery house is to find out whether the operation meets the standards set by the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services, says Joe Caruso, president and CEO of Compass Family Community Services.

“Sober houses are invaluable to recovery when properly administered and used,” Caruso says. “We want to make sure their best interests are at heart.”

Those homes and owners associated with Ohio Recovery Housing, an affiliate for the National Alliance for Recovery Residences, are often given high ratings, Caruso notes. Most of the homes his company works with are in Trumbull County, and all meet Ohio Mental Health & Addiction Services standards.

“There are a lot of people in housing recovery operating quality programs,” he says, “and there are others who are out to grab money from people and are not fostering recovery.”

And for Sara Johnson, once addicted to heroin but today the resident program director at the new Esther Home in Liberty, the experience in a faith-based recovery program saved her life. After she was released from jail, the judge ordered her to receive treatment at Potters House in Georgia, the model that Esther Home is based on.

Johnson says she has battled addiction since age 18. Heroin, meth, crack cocaine and abuse of other substances took her to the lowest point in her life. Now 30 years old, Johnson is helping others reclaim their lives.

“It is a place of structure but a very loving environment,” says April Mack, executive director of Esther Home. “It’s a discipleship program. When they leave here, they learn excellence and to raise the bar and achieve the very best. They have to want it.”

Once a resident completes a seven-month program, Mack says her organization follows up with a mentorship initiative to help support these women. “They can come back in the evening for dinner. They can come back in the afternoon for our group. We want them to stay connected.”

Pictured at top: Cutting the ribbon to open the Project 180 house in Liberty Township are Kevin Helmick, CEO of Farmers Bank, Michaela Lepor, Sara Johnson, Project 180 Executive Director April Mack, the Rev. Roy Mach and police officer Vincent Peterson.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.