In big bold letters on a New Jersey Superior Court decision document, the words “penalties” and “violation” stand out next to an amount for more than half a million dollars.
After a five-year battle with the state, Jennifer Hansen, of the Hansen Foundation, was ordered by the court in February to pay the penalty for operating recovery houses, also known as sober-living houses, in Atlantic County, but she’s not giving up.
Sober-living and recovery houses exist in a gray area of housing law, where the only options are to run a boarding house or create what’s known as an Oxford House. For organizations that oversee and operate recovery residences that don’t fit those parameters, there aren’t many choices left.
“Things need to change quickly,” Hansen said. “We’re trying to help people in their recovery. Are you really going to let this happen during the worst drug epidemic we’ve seen? I have 100 people who are in jeopardy of being on the streets, and if something doesn’t change, that’s exactly what might happen.”
Organizations such as the Hansen Foundation and Stop the Heroin say if the state wants to support people in addiction recovery, it must create a system in which recovery and sober-living residences can exist and operate with their chosen models.
Recovery and sober-living residences try to provide structured, safe living environments for individuals in addiction recovery before they are ready to move on to more permanent housing.
Many of the homes, which often charge reduced rent, seek to create a community-like atmosphere in a drug- and alcohol-free environment. Organization supervisors and recovery coaches offer help with transportation, legal issues, obtaining a job, food shopping and outpatient treatment.
The problem? According to state law and the Department of Consumer Affairs, there are no such things as recovery residences and houses.
And that makes people like Bill and Tammy Schmincke, founders of Stop the Heroin, worried about their own sober-living home, Steven’s Place.
“There has to be more concern over what happens to people when their feet hit the ground after treatment. For the continuum of care, people need to be able to live in a safe environment,” Bill Schmincke said.
“Something to the housing laws has to be done quickly, because we’re one knock from Consumer Affairs away from getting levied a fine, and to a nonprotfit like mine, it would be devastating.”
Most organizations looking to establish recovery houses must do so by running them as boarding houses or adopting the Oxford House model, which are democratically run and supported just by the residents.
In efforts to accommodate special circumstances for non-Oxford recovery houses, Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill before leaving office that created the Class F Rooming House License for Cooperative Sober Living Residences.
Hansen, who met with Christie on several occasions on the housing laws, said that license limits houses to 10 residents, whether that be a three-bedroom apartment or a 10-bedroom house, and does not address policies, procedures or the ethics of operating a sober-living home.
It’s not an adequate solution to the issues facing organizations that wish to run nonprofit, specialized recovery houses in New Jersey, she said. Nearly 1,500 people have signed Hansen’s Change.org petition to change the current laws.
“We actually want more structure and oversight,” she said. “If that means sending the state my inspection reports and data on our programs, I’ll be happy to do it, because what we do works.”
Hansen, who has been in recovery from addiction for 20 years, established the New Jersey chapter of the National Alliance of Recovery Residences, which sets national recovery housing standards that several states use to approve and monitor the quality of sober-living homes.
New legislation introduced March 12 by Assemblymen Vincent Mazzeo and John Armato, both D-Atlantic, would make it possible for recovery houses to exist in their own certification category as long as they operate by National Alliance of Recovery Residences standards.
Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said he, too, is interested in partnering with organizations and creating similar legislation in the Senate to accommodate the rising number of people who need treatment and housing.
It would certainly be a relief for people like the Schminckes, who have dedicated their lives to honoring their son, Steven, who died at 26 in 2016 from a heroin overdose.
“I really do understand that there are unscrupulous people out there creating homes in the name of recovery and just doing it for the money, I get that,” Bill Schmincke said. “But there has to be a way for us to help people, because those of us who really are, we don’t make money doing this.”