LYNN — During his 15 years shooting heroin, Matthew Powers sometimes found himself in a sober home — a residence for people who have completed addiction treatment and need a safe place to live.
Powers quickly learned that “sober” and “home” rarely were accurate depictions of those shadowy places: triple-deckers crammed with people, or rundown rooming houses. Pay the rent, and the landlord typically didn’t care what Powers did. Often, he’d start using drugs the day he arrived.
Today, Powers no longer lives in sober homes; he owns them. With his brother Stephen, he’s applied the lessons of his experiences — and their four houses have won a state seal of approval that first became available this year. The point of the voluntary certification program from the state Department of Public Health is simple: to make sure sober homes are just that, at a time when the state remains mired in a deadly opioid crisis and the need for a haven from drugs is urgent.
“We’ve provided an environment that’s healthful,” said Powers, who said he has been free of drugs for almost seven years. His house on Franklin Street in Lynn was the first to win state certification.
The certification program, which started in January, is intended to elevate the quality of sober homes statewide. But if many homes fail to meet the new standards, long waiting lists could result.
State officials estimate that 300 to 350 sober homes exist in Massachusetts, although little is known about where they are and who runs them. They charge about $160 a week in rent and provide a home to people for months to years.
The houses are not licensed treatment facilities; they are residences for disabled people with a common concern, protected by the federal Fair Housing Act. The state health department can’t require sober homes to meet any standards. It can only offer the voluntary program.
But Massachusetts is using the voluntary program to prod the homes to improve. Starting Sept. 1, addiction treatment programs that receive state money will be required to refer patients to only certified sober homes. The same requirement applies to drug courts and to parole and probation officials. Additionally, prospective tenants and their relatives can consult a list of state-approved residences.
Although sober homes aren’t required to be certified, those without certification may find it difficult to attract enough residents. “I don’t know how you could stay in business,” said Richard Winant, president of the Massachusetts Association for Sober Housing , which is coordinating the certification process.
To be certified, a sober home must meet physical and administrative requirements. The house must be clean and well-maintained, with adequate living space and bathrooms. It must have safety essentials, such as labeled exits and smoke detectors. And it must have rules, a role for residents in running the house, a code of ethics, and programs to support recovery.
Two days of training in March were attended by 147 people, representing an unknown number of houses. Dave Sheridan, president of the National Alliance for Recovery Residences, which developed the standards and training, said he sensed skepticism.
“There was some resentment at being forced to go through something they thought they did perfectly well,” he said.
As of last week, the state had received 64 applications, conducted 37 inspections, and certified 32 houses with a total of 340 beds, according to Cheryl Kennedy-Perez, manager of housing and homeless services at the state health department. Kennedy-Perez said she hopes to certify 200 homes by Sept. 1. She said she’s not worried about a bed shortage.
Vic DiGravio, president of the Association for Behavioral Healthcare, said association members welcome the program, even if it means that sometimes there will be no beds available in certified homes. “Sending someone to a bad program,” he said, “can be more harmful than sending someone to no program at all.”
Susan Timmons, co-owner of Janet’s Place , a sober home for 10 women in Tewksbury, supports the certification program as good for the industry, although her house hasn’t gone through the process. Timmons said she expects to pass muster, but predicts many others will not.
“I’ve seen a lot of sober houses that are not real sober houses,” Timmons said.
Phil Malonson, who owns three large sober houses operating in former nursing homes, also predicted he would pass but said: “It’s overkill. A lot of people are not happy.”
On a recent visit, one of Malonson’s houses appeared clean, if worn. A wire strung with light bulbs dangled over the peeling entranceway to his house in Woburn, the Twelve Step Education Program of New England.
Joe Deveau, the manager, said the 39 residents are required to clean the house daily, attend meetings, and remain sober.
Most residents are middle-aged or older men recovering from alcoholism, he said, but “the kids’ room” upstairs houses three men in their 20s who had used heroin. “We have a really good camaraderie here,” Deveau said. “The guys really care for each other.”
At Chelsea’s House, Matty Powers’ sunny, freshly painted Victorian on Baker Street in Lynn, 13 men are trying to find their way through a life without drugs. The house is one of four the Powers brothers own in Lynn and Chelsea.
In 2008, Stephen Powers — who had never given up on his little brother, even when Matty declared himself an irredeemable “piece of garbage” — wanted to spare others the experiences Matty had in sober living.
With credit cards and multiple loans, the brothers cobbled together enough money to buy a beat-up little house in Lynn, which they refurbished with their own hands. It opened to six residents in 2010. They offered what had been missing from places Matty had lived in: rules, curfew, house meetings, regular urine tests to prove sobriety, a live-in manager, and a spacious homey atmosphere, with no more than two people per room.
The brothers expect to open a fifth house in Chelsea soon, but their finances are stretched thin with mortgages. With 35 people on their waiting list, they’re hoping to find investors for a sixth house.
“We’ll find a way,” Matty Powers said.Felice J. Freyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.