Deaths from opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that over 64,000 Americans died from a drug overdose in 2016 alone, and almost half (46%) of the American population has a family member or close friend with a current or past drug addiction according to Pew Research Center. Drug addiction is a difficult and multifaceted issue that requires a similar solution. While it seems that there will be no substantive federal action in the foreseeable future, Connecticut College students, New London residents and non-profit organizations are working to bring some relief to those recovering from addiction locally.
The effort comes following a disturbingly frequent pattern of overdose deaths in sober homes—private residences advertised to be safe, structured, and drug-free environments which individuals recovering from drug addiction can utilize to transition back to normal life. Because neither the Federal nor the State Government of Connecticut regulate these sober houses, landlords often take advantage of the fact that they can rent out properties to more people and make a larger profit without being held accountable to provide promised services. Due to provisions included in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Fair Housing Act (FHA)—which prevent housing discrimination—governments are prohibited from mandating, restricting or otherwise controlling where disabled individuals can live. Activists in the New London community that include the non-profit Community Speaks Out (CSO), Professor of English Blanche Boyd, and the Roosevelt Institute chapter at Connecticut College are working to create a voluntary registration program that would legally bar health care providers from recommending any non-certified sober homes.
Not too long ago, the National Alliance for Recovery Residences (NARR) used to provide trainings and certification programs for sober houses, but since the organization lost state funding, CSO has taken over the task. Boyd is currently in the process of certifying two sober houses she owns, one in New London and one in New Haven. She decided to remodel the homes after a friend, who owns a sober house for men, suggested Boyd convert her properties into safe spaces for the desperately underserved population of recovering women.
“Did you know that jail is often the first safe place women live?” Boyd asked incredulously, in the midst of explaining the transition vulnerable women face as they attempt to recreate a drug-free life. All people need a safe and structured environment to live after getting clean in order to prevent relapse, and that is why the sober houses that Boyd runs have strict rules meant to “mirror real life.” Unregulated sober houses leave susceptible men and women at the mercy of landlords, who can have a big impact on tenants’ recovery.
This semester, two students in the Roosevelt Institute club on campus got involved by writing a policy proposal that suggested the creation of a state-funded certification program and prevent health professionals from recommending residences not on that list. Roosevelt Institute is a nonprofit which encourages students across the country to design and submit policy proposals in order to “reimagine the rules that guide our social and economic realities.” The club on campus submits policy proposals every November for the national “10 Ideas” publication, which features 10 member proposals from each of the seven issue areas.
The issue of the opioid epidemic came to the attention of Allie Kyff ’18, assistant chair for Roosevelt and the lead on the proposal, after watching the documentary Heroin(e). The Netflix original covers the struggles of three women in West Virginia to battle the devastating opioid epidemic there. “It [really] struck a chord in me” said the senior, who cited the documentary as what sparked her interest in researching the issue further. Both Kyff and Sarah Rakin ’18, Roosevelt’s chair, collaborated on the proposal entitled “Responsible Recovery: Creating a Certification Incentive for Connecticut Sober Homes” which explores the logistics and plan of implementing a program in New London to regulate which sober homes are referred.
Despite how far stigma surrounding the discussion of opioid addiction has come, society still has a long way to go. There are still those who advocate a tough love and a “just say no” approach that has long proven to fail to solve the problem. Having the strength to ask for help is difficult, so we, the community need to make it just that much easier by not vilifying those who need the most support. Boyd put it plainly: “What did I think was so bad about needing help?”