Doing the ‘sober-living dance’ on the Orange County coast
His name is Cameron High. Says so on his driver’s license, and on his cannabis card. And he has the counterculture aura down pat—dreadlocks, the soft yeah-dude voice and bright conspiratorial smile.
That’s what he was flashing a few months ago, kicking back on a thin strip of lawn outside a Starbucks on the outskirts of Anaheim. His drug of choice had been Xanax, he said, and since coming here from Georgia just two years ago to kick the habit, the 22-year-old has stayed in 10 different sober-living homes in half a dozen cities.
“They call it the sober-living dance,” he said.
At many of these group homes, he said, there’s no sober in sober-living. They’re more like party houses, rife with the drug and alcohol use they’re supposed to prevent—temptations that may have contributed to High’s problem: He was arraigned in a Santa Ana courtroom this week on felony drug charges.
Many of the homes in question, privately owned and in nice residential areas, are unlicensed, unsupervised and nearly impossible to regulate. When residents’ or their parents’ cash or insurance money dries up, they’re dropped off in town and join the ranks of the homeless.
It’s a problem all over the state, with the largest concentration of sober-living homes in Orange County. California lawmakers are considering ways to monitor them, with five proposals that would establish new guidelines for how they are run and impose fines on some practices.
The homes don’t provide drug-rehabilitation programs. They’re meant to offer a supportive environment for like-minded peers already recovering from addiction, sometimes in conjunction with a 12-step program. Local officials and patient advocates note that many of these places, like many licensed homes, do good work. But not all of them.
A homeowner can make $10,000 a month or more by charging rent for typically six or so people, often through health-insurance payments. They may find a supply of residents through “patient brokers,” middlemen around the country who advertise to recruit drug-using, troubled youngsters looking for a change of scene in sunny California.
Those brokers can “sell” a block of patients to a recovery facility. Licensed venues often have financial relationships with unlicensed ones, and patients are sometimes shifted between them.
High was one of those recruits. Back in Georgia, he was dealing pills and in constant trouble with his parents and the law. Over the past two years, he has leap-frogged from Huntington Beach to Laguna Beach to Costa Mesa.
The local chambers of commerce have named this area the Orange Coast. But with the proliferation of sober-living homes here in the past decade came another name: Rehab Riviera.
California is home to 1,028 licensed drug-rehabilitation facilities, according to state officials, and some estimates peg the number of unlicensed sober-living homes at about 2,000 more. Roughly 15 percent of those facilities call Orange County home.
The small beachside community of Costa Mesa (population about 113,000) has an estimated 160 sober-living homes and rehab facilities, half of them unlicensed, according to city officials.
That’s a huge problem for Costa Mesa, as it is for other cities, some of which have had limited success in curtailing the spread of such homes with zoning ordinances, mostly restricting the concentration of them in certain areas. There are still complaints from neighbors about noise, secondhand smoke and too many cars. But the bigger issue is residents turned out to the streets, a practice called curbing.
“It creates a big challenge for a small city,” said Rick Francis, a former city administrator in Costa Mesa who recently switched to a quieter job as assistant airport director at the John Wayne Airport. He calls curbing the number-one cause of homelessness in Costa Mesa.
“You suddenly have a lot of young, drug-addicted people living on the street. That’s a problem for police, for hospitals, for social services,” adding as many as 200 newly homeless a year just in Costa Mesa, he said. “They end up using up a lot of city resources,” he said. “We don’t have the social-service infrastructure to handle that.”
Francis cautioned that “this is not happening in all of the unlicensed sober-living homes. Many of them do great work and are invested in good patient care.”
The bills now making their way through the Legislature would:
- Allow the state Department of Health Care Services to revoke the license of a recovery facility for abuses by an unlicensed recovery facility associated with it, and would establish voluntary registration for unlicensed sober-living homes;
- Direct the state’s Department of Health Care Services to develop guidelines for handling unlicensed homes, particularly how to substantiate and investigate complaints;
- Establish fines for patient brokering, the recruiting and “selling” of patients to recovery facilities;
- Prohibit licensed facilities from making money through patient referrals; and
- Establish a pilot program to place the headquarters of a state health inspector in the city of Costa Mesa to investigate complaints about facilities in the surrounding area.
In addition, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas recently launched a task force on sober-living homes and has vowed to crack down on them. And U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, a Pasadena Democrat, has introduced a bill in Congress that would direct the federal Department of Health and Human Services to develop best-practices guidelines for recovery facilities.
Sober-living homes are protected by the federal Fair Housing Act. That law protects the right of individuals with disabilities to live together.
“There’s a lot of concern with the group homes that are unlicensed, but they’re protected by the Fair Housing Act,” said state Sen. Ed Hernandez, an Azusa Democrat and author of the revocation proposal. “A drug dependency is considered a disability…. So there are limitations on what we can do in the Legislature.”
That’s as it should be, said Sherry Daley, governmental affairs director for the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals, a trade group representing recovery facilities.
“These homes are not licensed, and they shouldn’t be licensed,” Daley said. “They’re where people live and come together in a communal living arrangement.”
The not-in-my-back-yard sentiment from municipalities is understandable but unwarranted, she said. The homes are legal and here to stay, she said, so cities should work with them rather than against them.
“It just comes down to how do you achieve sober-living homes living with the community in harmony,” Daley said.
Cameron High said he had to travel pretty far inland to find a sober-living home that really was sober, one in Anaheim where the residents are older and a little more serious about giving up drugs. Meanwhile, his drug use and attraction to the easy, big-money payoff for dealing them have grown during his time in California.
“Out here it’s crazy,” High said. “Orange County looks like it’s all nice, but behind the scenes, it’s bad. I never even saw heroin and meth until I came out here.
“I’m thinking, I may have to go somewhere else,” he continued, “… because around here, there’s just too much stuff around, and too many people I know who pull at you, you know? So yeah, maybe it’s time. … And that means getting out of Orange County.”
That could take awhile. At this writing, High remains in jail on charges of possessing drugs with intent to sell. He has pleaded not guilty.