Rouda: The Sober Living Crisis in Orange County

It’s no secret that the proliferation of sober living homes in Orange County has become a hot button topic in our community in recent years. Recently, residents of Huntington Beach cited renewed safety concerns regarding sober living homes in their neighborhoods. While sober living homes are dedicated—first and foremost—to helping the sick, their problems with implementation and, at times, malpractice have transformed them into a critical public policy issue that touches on public safety, addiction and recovery, and corrupt industry practices.

When discussing sober living homes, it is critical to remember their primary function as a center of support and stability for those in the grips of a national addiction epidemic.

According to the NIH, each day, more than 115 people in the U.S. die after overdosing on opioids. The current crisis is reflected in the Senate’s recent passage of sweeping bipartisan legislation intended to combat the addiction epidemic. California is especially prone to feel effects of this national crisis, given that it is the primary center for drug-rehabilitation facilities in the U.S. The California Department of Healthcare Services has 1,919 records of licensed residential facilities and/or certified alcohol and drug programs (CSV) – and that doesn’t take into account the countless number of unlicensed facilities. Prospective patients come from all over the country, and many wind up concentrated in the beach towns of Orange County.

In June, the Newport Beach City Council gave partial approval to a bill authored by my opponent, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, which would supposedly grant more local control and federal restrictions over sober livings. This legislation would amend the Fair Housing Act to specify that nothing in federal law “prohibits any state or local government from implementing laws, regulations or ordinances that apply specifically to recovery facilities located in residentially zoned areas.”

However, Congressman Rohrabacher’s legislation is discriminatory, unrealistic and completely misses the point. First, it continues to criminalize addicts for their disease. Secondly, it’s practically dead on Congressional arrival by violating federal U.S. Supreme Court case law.  And, finally, Rohrabacher’s legislation attacks the rights of patients (predominantly, addicts and alcoholics) to live together, rather than addressing the corrupt practices of treatment centers in a way that maintains the care of patients, and guarantees the safety of the communities in which the centers are found.

We must support alternative forms of legislation and policy that better address the issue. As a nationwide hotspot for sober living homes, Orange County needs to be a leader and look to the ways in which this industry is affecting our communities with an eye that is firm, yet compassionate. Our leaders to need to fight for policies that protect our communities and promote recovery for patients – not one or the other.

First, we must support the encouragement and enforcement of best practices for sober living homes. A good start would be to get existing federal legislation across the finish line. The bipartisan “Ensuring Access to Quality Sober Living Act” – House Resolution 4684, by Rep. Judy Chu, D-Monterey Park and Senate Bill 2678, by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-VA – would require the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to develop “best practices” for sober living homes, and provide states with technical assistance on how to provide necessary oversight. The legislation was passed in the House and is currently sitting with the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. It is critical that we shepherd these bills over the finish line and begin enforcing the best practices the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration comes up with. This will make our sober living homes more effective for patients, and safer for neighbors.

Secondly, we must crack down on existing corrupt sober living practices that put profit over people, and endanger both patients and the communities in which the sober living homes are found. A good start would be for the state legislature to pass S.B. 1290, authored by Sen. Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, which would forbid licensed centers from paying for patients, and create a “Commission on Substance Abuse and Recovery” to assist the legislature in an overhaul of industry regulations.

In any case, we can’t keep treating the issue of sober living homes as an “us vs. them” issue, as Rohrabacher’s misguided and invalid legislation does. We must bravely engage with the complexities of this issue, and support common sense policy that finds common ground between the health of patients and the safety of communities.

Harley Rouda is a successful businessman, philanthropist, attorney and tech entrepreneur who is running for Congress in California’s 48th congressional district.  @HarleyRouda

On OC: Harley Rouda on the 48th Congressional District

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