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Lack of regulation for Suffolk's sober homes highlighted

Kelly O'Neill's 25-year-old son died of a heroin overdose in the sober home where he was living in Patchogue three years ago.

And Cheryl Snyder lived in four sober homes across Suffolk County before she finally found a transitional home that was well-managed, sanitary and drug- and alcohol-free -- a place where she could recover from an addiction to prescription pain pills without fearing for her safety.

"Many parents have lost their kids. . . . I would give anything in the world to even argue with him right now," O'Neill said during testimony she and Snyder gave Tuesday before the county's Sober Home Oversight Board and state and local lawmakers.

"This is an issue I've been trying to resolve for quite a few years," said Suffolk Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) at the beginning of the Hauppauge forum on the state of the county's sober homes, which she hosted with state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R, C, I-Shirley). "It's about providing safe, clean environments for people in recovery."

The three-hour discussion highlighted new state legislation sponsored in part by Zeldin that would require that sober living homes be regulated and state certified, have a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol, and that operators have at least two years' experience working with people with substance abuse disorders.

The oversight board also heard from well-known regional treatment providers who offer transitional housing about why a recent request for qualifications to provide "recovery home services" issued by the county in March received only three responses.

Rosemary Dehlow, chief program officer for Community Housing Innovations on Long Island, said the issue is cost -- the county in its pilot proposal offered $500 per live-in client to qualified treatment service providers, but had strict requirements, such as 24-hour supervision, that Dehlow said were cost prohibitive.

"Five hundred dollars is not going to cut it, it's just not," Dehlow said. "Everything in this RFQ I believe in -- you want solid housing, you want restrictions on certain things, you want to make sure they're clean. We're with you. . . . But we end in a deficit every single year."

John Haley, chief financial officer of Seafield Center, which Haley called the Island's largest inpatient abuse treatment provider, said the need for these services has skyrocketed but the funding hasn't caught up. That leaves recovering addicts in desperate, unsafe situations where landlords of so-called sober homes can take advantage of them, he said.

"The problem is rampant," Haley said. "There's absolutely no way the need can be matched in the current environment. The finances are just not allowing people to want to do the right thing to take care of these people who desperately need this." Because sober homes are currently not regulated or tracked, there is no way to know exactly how many there are or how many people live in them, explained Joshua Slaughter, a legislative aide to Browning. He said the county plans to tweak and reissue the RFQ, which is meant to give more control over sober homes.

"If the RFQ is successful and the state legislation is approved, we would be able to determine how many there actually are," Slaughter said by email. "We know there are hundreds out there right now that are not regulated, and many are simply boarding homes without any ties to treatment."

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