While the state tracks licensed rehab centers, there is little oversight or regulation related to sober living homes. Experts say there are thousands of sober living homes in California, but nobody knows the exact number.
What these homes ostensibly provide sounds great – fellowship and support for people struggling to stay clean; housing for people who might otherwise be homeless; structure.
The living arrangement, in fact, is considered a family by law. And cities and counties can’t ban sober living houses because the residents – like patients in licensed rehab centers – are legally protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
But critics suggest sober living homes also are where some of the most egregious abuses of the rehab system take place.
Timmy Solomon repeatedly lapsed in sober living homes.
In 2013, Solomon, now 28, came from his hometown, Boston, to Dana Point, to get sober. Since then, the long-time addict has lived in rehab centers, sober living homes and on the streets.
Earlier this year, to get a glimpse of what happens inside rehab, the Southern California News Group followed Solomon for about 90 days. During that time he spent separate stints in a string of detox hospitals, residential rehabilitation centers and sober living homes in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
The pattern for Solomon was consistent and depressingly familiar – shooting up narcotics, entering rehab, relapsing and eviction.
Solomon’s journey revealed a key point – sober living homes can be places where recovery falls apart.
One of Solomon’s relapses came after Solomon claimed he’d been drug-free, in a sober living home, for more than a month. A friend at a San Juan Capistrano recovery center gave him a bag of methamphetamine, he said, and he used it.
During another meeting with reporters, at a Whittier-area sober living home, Solomon showed up saying he’d just knocked back three beers to ease the side-effects of detoxing cold turkey.
On St. Patrick’s Day, Solomon entered Mission Hospital in Laguna Beach for detox. He spent 10 days there before leaving for a sober living home in San Clemente.
In late April, on what was supposed to be his 40th day clean, Solomon escorted reporters into a bathroom in the San Clemente home, where he shut the door, locked it and turned on the shower. As the room steamed up, he dumped a baggie of new needles on the counter, along with a bottle of 75 oxycodone pills he said a doctor had just prescribed him. “He’s trying to help me get off heroin,” Solomon said of the physician. “I haven’t slept in two nights.”
Solomon then crushed up six pills, mixed them with methamphetamine and water, and injected it all into his vein.
Sober living managers don’t need to be credentialed in any way. In some homes, they’re recovering addicts or former drug dealers. Critics say some rehab centers use sober living homes as way stations of sorts, places to store patients who can be given or encouraged to use drugs again so they can become candidates to return to lucrative in-patient rehab.
“The thing that’s causing the most problems is the sober living home environment,” said Robert Harris, a policy adviser at the California Society of Addictive Medicine.
Congressman Darrell Issa, a Republican who represents south Orange County, said he’s pushing to undo what he views as overly bureaucratic protections for sober living homes.
“If you’re interested in getting (addicts) back into productive lives, (the current protections) don’t make sense.”
Another politician, California Assemblywoman Melissa A. Melendez, a Republican from Lake Elsinore, is sponsoring a bill (AB 285) that would require the state to regulate and monitor sober living homes for the first time.
She became interested in the rehab industry after a string of four deaths between 2008 and 2010 at a rehab center in Murrieta and other rehab deaths in Lake Arrowhead. She’s targeting sober living homes because they can provide a fallback for unscrupulous rehab center operators.
“What happens to these facilities when they shut down?” Melendez asked.
“Do (the operators) up and move into another California community with another name and another cast of characters doing the same thing?”
Melendez didn’t differentiate between licensed centers and sober living homes when she first learned about the industry. Prosecutors sometimes don’t either.
Experts say the case against Los Angeles-based rehab operator Chris Bathum offers a glimpse into how the industry can break down.
Bathum, whose empire included the Seasons rehab center in Malibu and who described himself as “The Rehab Mogul,” is accused of sexually assaulting nine female patients, sometimes providing them with drugs as they struggled to overcome their addictions. He denies those allegations.
Bathum also is accused of fraudulent billing to the tune of $176 million, prosecutors said. The alleged billing includes charges for services that prosecutors say were never provided.
Bathum has denied all of the fraud allegations as well, and his attorney declined to comment.
Still, regulators say the criminal case is also a case study.
The allegations against Bathum “illustrate the medical provider fraud that can and does occur,” California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said. “It’s egregious.”