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Suffolk doubles pay to lure sober-home operators

Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning speaks during a

Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning speaks during a meeting of the Suffolk County Legislature in Hauppauge, Dec. 12, 2013. Photo Credit: Newsday Ed Betz

Suffolk County is looking for qualified treatment providers to run sober homes that can be regulated by local officials, and the monthly payment rate has been doubled as a major enticement.

The move last week marks the second time the county's Department of Social Services has tried to get established substance-abuse treatment centers to also run "transitional recovery" homes for people leaving inpatient programs.

The first request for qualifications, or RFQ, last year offered $500 a month per client, but had costly requirements, such as 24-hour house supervision.

No eligible providers responded, said Legis. Kate Browning, head of the Suffolk Sober Home Oversight Board, a panel of substance abuse experts, lawmakers and recovery advocates.

Now the county is offering up to $990 per client and has changed the supervision requirement to just nighttime hours.

"We have an understanding of what their needs are . . . to be able to stay in the black," Browning (WF-Shirley) said. "Hopefully, now with this new RFQ, we'll have better responses."

For years, county officials and addiction experts have been trying to find a way to locally regulate sober homes, which are often overcrowded and filled with illicit drugs.

Browning said some of the homes prey on vulnerable people who are "at the lowest point of their life."

Beyond the pilot program, the county gives DSS clients $309 per month for rent, or $475 per month for rent and board.

Those payments haven't increased since the early 1970s, when the rate was set by the state Office for Temporary and Disability Assistance. Because of Long Island's high rents, a half-dozen people or more have been forced to share a room in some sober homes, officials said.

Because sober homes aren't regulated by the county, almost anyone can open one and pack them with DSS clients, offer no treatment services, and collect the rent checks, Browning and other critics say.

The plan is to weed out "unscrupulous" operators by offering more money to those who keep clean, well-managed homes, while allowing the county to closely monitor them.

"So many people have fallen through the cracks because they don't have a safe, supportive, sober place to live when they come out of treatment," said Richard Buckman, president of the Long Island Recovery Association.

As a pilot program, the RFQ only provides for 45 initial beds. House operators will be given more money per client based on services offered, such as transportation.

But there are rules: Residents can't stay in a home for more than a year, and each home has to be within a mile of public transportation. House operators must submit to random inspections, and the house must have a zero-tolerance policy toward drugs and alcohol. There must be a curfew for residents, and applicants have to submit a detailed floor plan, including the maximum number of people who will live there.

Rosemary Dehlow, chief program officer for Community Housing Innovations on Long Island, a nonprofit that provides permanent housing for recovering addicts and mental health patients, said it would be hard to operate a sober home even at nearly $1,000 per client.

"We have single-family homes and somehow we're trying to meet the needs of individuals," Dehlow said. "We're not New York City with apartments."

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