Case manager Steve McCluskey met with a resident at Beacon House, one of the few sober living homes in Louisville with a full-time paid staff. | Courtesy of Beacon House

A group of addiction specialists and city officials is working on an ordinance to regulate unlicensed sober living houses in the city, but some West End residents say that the process is taking too long as their neighborhoods become saturated with these facilities.

Sober living houses are alcohol and drug-free living environments for individuals with addiction issues. However, there are no laws governing how and where a sober living facility operates and no oversight unless it works with veterans or those convicted of a crime.

In response to the opioid crisis, Louisville Metro Government created the Sober Housing Taskforce, which is working on drafting an ordinance as part of a two-year plan, but it could still be a while before anything is implemented.

In the meantime, Bonnie Cole, president of the Shawnee Neighborhood Association, said she believes sober living houses are taking advantage of west Louisville.

Bonnie Cole, president of the Shawnee Neighborhood Association | Courtesy of Bonnie Cole

“If drugs are everywhere, why are all these places moving to our neighborhoods?” she said. “They bring in people from different places and don’t provide proper supervision. This is hurting our property values and safety. Anybody could be living next door to you.”

Russell resident Haven Harrington III told Insider that he feels that letting recovery centers operate with no oversight runs counter to the city’s stated goal of revitalizing the Russell neighborhood.

“You have whole blocks that are full of sober living homes and Section 8 housing. Who wants to buy a house next to that? If the city want wants more businesses and market-rate homes in Russell, we need some kind of oversight over what is going on,” said Harrington, who added that he’s seen people drinking beer on the porches of residences that advertise themselves as sober living facilities.

Currently, the only requirement for opening a sober living house is proper zoning. Property owners pay $150 to apply for a conditional use permit and can operate while the permit request makes its way through the approval process.

Cole said she’d would like to the city to impose a moratorium on new sober living homes until the task force can enact some guidelines.

Sam Rose, a community health coordinator for the Metro Public Health Department, said there is no timeline for the task force to submit its proposal to the Metro Council. The group is still gathering information and investigating best practices.

“I know people in the West End feel they are being dumped on, and I can’t say they are not. Part of our ordinance will help to protect the community and help people suffering from substance abuse find an environment that is conducive to their recovery,” Rose said.

Because there are no ordinances governing sober living homes, the city does not maintain an official list of them. However, task force member Erin Henle, the executive administrative assistant at sober living facility Beacon House, keeps her own list. Of the more than 40 sober living houses she identified, more than 20 of them were in west Louisville.

Erin Henle, chief administrator is Beacon House, is a member of the Sober Housing Taskforce. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

The west side of the city is an attractive location for new facilities, Henle said, because of cheaper real estate prices.

“The West End gives you more bang for your buck. You can get a Victorian mansion for $30,000. If you are looking to get the most people off the street, it makes sense to look for a home in that area,” Henle explained.

Sober living houses play a vital but misunderstood role in the addiction treatment continuum, Henle said. Addicts can spend up to a week in a medical setting during detox and then they spend another 28-45 days doing an inpatient treatment program. Both of those phases are covered by insurance companies, but post-rehab recovery is not.

It can be hard for a recovering addict to find shelter after spending more than a month away, especially if they have a criminal record as many do, Henle said.

Sober living facilities depend on a small amount of weekly rent that resident pay, which often isn’t enough to pay for a staff. In many cases, Henle said, these homes will use one of the residents as a part-time or full-time residential manager to enforce the house rules, but that is not always true.

Beacon House is one of the few residential facilities in the city with a full-time staff. Its 50 residents have access to case managers and life skill training. About 70 percent of Beacon House’s funding comes from the $119 a week rent paid by the residents.

Henle said 40 percent of them come from out-of-state because of the quality of the nonprofit’s program.

However, the city’s lack of guidelines for sober living houses means that property owners can run what are essentially boardinghouses for addicts that offer no supervision or life skills training.

Those places cause the public to mistrust the facilities that are trying to help people who suffer from substance abuse, Henle said.

“Anybody can call themselves a sober living home. There are people out there that are taking advantage of the situation,” she said. “Many of the legitimate sober living facilities are abstinence-based and 12-steps-based program. One of the traditions of AA is anonymity, so there is not a sign out front announcing, ‘People are in recovery here.’ ”

The Shawnee Neighborhood Association is currently leading a campaign against two sober living homes opening within a block of each other on West Market Street. 2nd Hope Ministries plans to open a men’s home at 4509 W. Market St. in the former Fuller Center building, and Driven Purpose already has a women’s sober living home at 4610 W. Market St.

Gary Polsgrove, executive director of 2nd Hope, did not returns calls requesting an interview. His shelter has proved controversial because of its connection to Southeast Christian Church, which had been involved with the Fuller Center, and the fact that 2nd Hope did not inform the public before taking over the property.

Jason Smith, the owner of Driven Purpose, told Insider that he feels his facility is being maligned because of its proximity to 2nd Hope, but he emphasized that he has no connection to 2nd Hope or Southeast. Smith said it was a longtime dream of his to open a women’s shelter, and he purchased the Market Street location out of foreclosure.

He bought the property for $16,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in January 2017, according to Jefferson County property records.

Smith, who lives near Clifton Heights, said he was able to purchase the space and renovate it for under $50,000, adding that if he could have afforded to open in his neighborhood he would have done it.

Owner Jason Smith purchased a home out of foreclosure to open Driven Purpose, a women’s sober living home at 4610 W. Market St. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

Driven Purpose has applied for a conditional use permit from the city but already houses nine women. Smith said one of the women works as a full-time manager, and he and his partner are on site nearly every day. The residents received regular drug tests and are required to work and attend support group meetings, he added.

“We are dedicated to helping women who want to live their lives drug-free. This is just a passion I’ve had,” he explained.

Driven Purpose will host a public meeting at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 22, at Dish on Market, 434 W. Market St., to discuss its permit application. After a meeting with Cole, he has also agreed to hold a second public meeting in the Shawnee neighborhood on Aug. 28, but no other details have been released.

Cole said she is encouraged by Smith’s willingness to engage with Shawnee residents, but she said it would not change her stance on sober living houses in her neighborhood. Since finding out about Driven Purpose and 2nd Hope, Cole received a call about another proposed facility near the Paul Bather Sports Complex in Shawnee Park.

“At some point, we have to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” she said.

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Michael L. Jones
Michael L. Jones, a freelance journalist and author, covers communities for Insider Louisville. His latest book "Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee" (History Press) received the 2014 Samuel Thomas Book Award from the Louisville Historical League. In addition to his contributions to Insider, his writing appears regularly in LEO Weekly, Louisville Magazine, Food & Dining – Louisville Edition, and Who’s Who Louisville: African American Profiles. He also sits on the board of directors of the National Jug Band Jubilee. Jones and his wife, Melissa Amos-Jones, a physical therapist, live in the Kenwood Hills neighborhood near Iroquois Park.