Sober living homes raise concerns in Palm Springs

sober-houseJust a year ago, Benjamin Schneider was a homeless meth addict, living in a dirt lot behind a shelter in Indio, unwilling to stop getting high so he could go inside.

Schneider began selling drugs to feed his addiction. Then, he stopped smoking meth and started injecting it, crossing a line he promised himself he would never cross.

Last fall, Schneider hit rock bottom. He stuck a needle in his arm, but his tolerance was so high that he felt nothing. If he did not stop, he believed, he was going to die.

“I knew I needed structure in my life,” Schneider said. “I had none. I had no responsibility, no accountability. That was what I needed If I was going to get back to a normal life again. … I found that at the Palm Tee.”

Today, Schneider is a model tenant at The Palm Tee, the largest sober house in the Coachella Valley. Every morning for the past six months, he has rolled out of his hotel bed in this place — another day in sober living, another day of sober life.

More than two dozen men, all recovering addicts, rent rooms at the Palm Tee, a boutique hotel that was converted into a sober home three years ago. The men meet every morning in what was once the hotel conference room, where they swap stories of encouragement and support. They take a breathalyzer test every day. Every few days, there is a drug test. Sometimes a tenant fails a test, and they must leave the Palm Tee. Most of the time they all pass, creeping another step towards sobriety, together.

Over the past three years, The Palm Tee and its sister facility, the Alexander Inn, have housed hundreds of addicts, helping many towards recovery. These converted hotels are the latest evolution in local sober living industry, which has existed in the desert for decades, but was nearly invisible until recently.

Sober houses, sometimes called sober living facilities, are residences that rent space to recovering addicts, but don’t offer any addiction treatment or counseling. Generally, addicts move into a sober house after a stay in a rehab clinic, but before they are ready to live alone. The only service offered at the sober house is a place to live with strict rules, where addicts can battle their demons as a group, with support, instead of alone, with none.

The Coachella Valley has dozens of these sober houses — at least 25, and possibly as many as 50 — but most are easy to overlook. They are just a normal house on a normal street, or a pair of condos tucked neatly into a neighborhood. Most are indistinguishable from regular homes.

But the Palm Tee and the Alexander Inn are different. Because these sober homes were converted from small hotels, they are larger, more profitable and more visible than any sober home in the desert. They have taken desert sober living to the next level, and as a result, these sober homes have drawn more backlash than their predecessors, prompting heavy scrutiny from the city of Palm Springs and a flood of complaints from neighbors.

The Palm Tee, which has beds for about 30 men, and sits on Highway 111, on the southern edge of the Deep Wells Estates neighborhood. The Alexander, which only accepts women, sits at the corner of Sonora Road and Via Soledad in the Tahquitz River Estates neighborhood.

Both of these sober homes have operated for three years in quiet defiance of the city orders to shrink or shut down. Palm Springs officials have repeatedly told the sober homes they do not have the proper permits or the proper safety equipment to stay in business, but the homes have kept their doors open regardless, insisting they are being unfairly targeted.

The company that owns the two sober homes, Intervention 911, has sued the city, claiming officials are discriminating against addicts. Intervention 911 claims that the city is trying to suffocate the sober homes through over-regulation to appease neighbors that have complained about sharing the neighborhood with recovering addicts. City officials insist they are simply enforcing zoning rules and building codes, which they say the sober homes have blatantly ignored.

“They are saying we are doing this because we don’t like recovering alcoholics,” said Palm Springs Attorney Doug Holland. “The city is not anti-sober living facilities. But what we do have is an issue in how we review them depending on where they are located. It is very clear that these (properties) have a certain kind of use under our codes … “They may say they are still an apartment, or still a hotel, but we know they are not a hotel. A hotel is open to anyone who wants to rent a room. They are exclusive.”

Intervention 911 is owned by Ken Seeley, a nationally recognized interventionist, and his partner Eric McLaughlin. They purchased The Palm Tee and The Alexander in 2011, and have been fighting with the city ever since.

During an interview last week, Seeley called the city’s arguments “a joke.”

Seeley said that, although sober houses have operated in Palm Springs for years, no other homes have been forced to chase the same permits or withstand the same stifling scrutiny as the Palm Tee or the Alexander. The neighborhood opposition is the only difference between these homes and their predecessors, Seeley said.

“All of the others could operate without a (permit) without breaking the law. But we are breaking the law?” Seeley said. “It just doesn’t make sense.

Currently, Intervention 911 and the city are in settlement discussions, but negotiations appear to have soured. A trial may be inevitable.

Not in my backyard

Although the city of Palm Springs says that neighborhood complaints have not influenced their scrutiny of the Palm Tee and the Alexander, there is no denying that neighbors want the sober homes gone.

For years, neighbors have run a “not in my backyard” letter-writing campaign against the two sober homes, urging the city to get rid of the facilities. The most common concern is that the sober homes will attract drug dealers and criminals, however, the city has said these fears are unfounded, and police have said there has been no significant rise in crime since the sober homes opened.

Neighbors have also complained about noise, crowded streets, litter and “edgy” people loitering in the area, according to numerous letters and federal court documents.

Steven Richett, a recovering addict who manages the Palm Tee and the Alexander, said the neighbors complain because they are ignorant about sober living. Neighbors assume the sober homes will cause trouble because they know nothing about the facilities or the people who live there, he said.

Drug dealers would go bankrupt trying to find customers at the sober homes, Richett said. Neighbors complain about noise, but the sober homes have strict curfews and quiet hours. There have also been complaints that tenants use too many parking spaces or leave dog poop throughout the neighborhood, but many of the tenants don’t have cars and none of them have dogs, Richett said.

“There is a stigma. As soon as they hear sober living, they think the worst,” Richett said. “Ever since ‘those people’ moved in down the street, they are looking to blame us for everything — for anything.”

Schneider, the Palm Tee’s model tenant, had a similar response to the complaints. If the roles were reversed, Schneider said he would welcome a sober house as his neighbor. Places like the Palm Tee and the Alexander bring peace and order, not crime, he said.

“The amount of crime and drug dealing that goes on without (a sober house) is far greater than the noise complaints or the lack of parking that exists because there is one,” Schneider said. “Without these sober livings homes, each and every person who inhabits these rooms would be out doing who knows what.”

Although Richett and Schneider dismiss the complaints, the neighbors are not alone in their fear of these sober houses. Rapid growth of the sober living industry has sparked nationwide concerns about the lack of regulation, and homes like these are not welcome in many neighborhoods.

Unlike rehabilitation clinics, sober homes are not licensed or regulated by government health authorities because they offer lodging but no treatment. And sober homes aren’t required to have business licenses either because, according to federal law, they aren’t businesses. The homes collect untaxed “contributions” from their tenants, but the law treats them like a family sharing living expenses, not a landlord renting rooms.

To fill the void of regulation, many sober homes join self-regulating coalitions that set quality standards, but this affiliation is not mandatory to open a sober home. Ultimately, the lack of regulation can be attractive to someone who is trying to make a quick buck, so some sober homes open their doors with the intention not to help vulnerable addicts, but to profit off of them.

At their best, sober homes can be a saving grace for addicts, offering a bridge between treatment and complete independence. At their worst, sober homes can backfire, becoming little more than crowded drug dens run by slum lords that cash in on addicts desperate for help.

The challenge, experts say, is telling the difference.


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